Beauty queen still glows as she turns 100

BY BOB BAIRD

Mary DeSapio with a photo of herself in 1985, when she won the title, Ms. Senior Florida at the age of 71
Mary DeSapio with a photo of herself in 1985, when she won the title, Ms. Senior Florida at the age of 71

Ask Mary DeSapio what she thought she wanted to be when she grew up and she says the choice was either an entertainer or a nun.

One glance at the wall of her apartment at Dowling Gardens in Sparkill makes it clear which won out.

In a place of honor, there’s a photo of an attractive woman in a bathing suit, wearing the sash of a beauty queen.

Never mind that it was taken almost three decades ago or that she was 71 the time.

Even as she celebrated her 100th birthday on Sept. 11, the beauty – both internal and external – of the former 1985 Ms. Senior Florida and runner-up to the 1986 Ms. Senior America still glows.

Mary DeSapio, who learned to play piano at age 6, now plays a $70,000 organ in her room at Dowling Gardens
Mary DeSapio, who learned to play piano at age 6, now plays a $70,000 organ in her room at Dowling Gardens

In fact, when asked about her vitality and longevity, Mary DeSapio credits a lifetime of dance for keeping her healthy, happy and engaged with others. She never drank or smoked, she says and jokes, “I might be missing something, but it’s too late to start now.”

Music has been her life since she was a growing up in Manhattan’s Chelsea section. While attending St. Columba School on West 25th Street, she learned tap and Irish step dancing, performed in school shows and took piano lessons.

Chelsea was a mix of Irish and Italian families. “It was a nice place to grow up,” she says. “I really enjoyed my childhood.”

There was some sadness, though. Her only sibling, a brother, died at just 5. And her father, a special officer for the New York City transit system, passed away at just 39.

By 16, Mary was attending George Washington High School and had her future in focus. She loved to dance and to sing along with the family’s player piano. “I thought that would be my life.”

By age 11, when her family was spending summers in Rockaway Beach, she met a boy named Martin DeSapio. They rediscovered each other in the mid-1930s, around the time the former high school baseball star had a tryout with the New York Giants.

They married in 1936 in Astoria, where they lived before a permanent move to Rockaway. Martin, grew up in Greenwich Village, where his brother, Carmine, would eventually become the powerful and often controversial leader of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine.

Martin worked for the City of New York while he and Mary raised three sons, all born in Queens. Joe, the retired chief financial officer for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, has lived in Pear River for 24 years. John, a retired butcher for A&P, and Gerard, who retired as a battalion chief with the FDNY, both live in Florida.

Mary’s longevity has allowed her to enjoy nine grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren. Last Saturday evening, members of four generations marked her 100th birthday at Joe & Joe’s in Pearl River.

Mary and Martin moved to Florida in 1972. She still has six medals they won dancing together at a senior center in Sanford, Fla. “He wanted to please me because I loved to dance, but people would tell him, ‘Marty, Mary makes you look good’.”

After Martin’s death in 1982, Mary fulfilled her lifelong dream, making her living as an entertainer.

She moved about 20 times, singing and dancing in nightclubs and at private parties.

“I was all over Florida getting gigs, following the work and making money,” she says, adding proudly, “I was quite a wiggler.” She tap danced well into her 80s, around when her voice started to fade.

But by then she had become a beauty queen and was known as “Legs DeSapio.”

In 1985, the head of entertainment at a senior residence entered her in the first Ms. Senior Florida pageant. “At first I thought she was crazy,” Mary says, “but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.”

She won the title and landed on the front page of the Miami Herald.

The following April, Mary represented Florida in the Ms. Senior America pageant at the Resorts International Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.

A report from the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida on April 9, 1986 says of Mary, “They call her ‘the woman with the great legs,’” and refers to her as “the saucy great-grandmother from Tamarac.”

Mary finished as runner-up for Ms. Senior America to Jeanette Dickinson, 65, of New Jersey.

Just two months ago, Mary moved to Dowling Gardens, operated by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, so she could be close to son Joe, in Pearl River.

In her apartment, she plays a $70,000 organ that was a gift from Marshall Beatty, a suitor in Florida who proposed marriage.

She turned him down, but says, “I wear the ring and say a prayer for him,” she says. “He was so good to me and I thank him.”

Sitting at the organ, she says “I miss the nightlife I knew. I play sad songs like ‘You’ll Never Know,’ and they give me relief.” She sings along and jokes, “I sound like a frog now, but I still love to do it.”

She’s a big fan of “Dancing with the Stars,” but says “I still like the way I used to dance.” Until a few years ago, she danced with an instructor at a senior facility in Florida and says she still has the urge.

“If they put a jazz band here, I’d probably want to dance.”

Bob Baird’s 100th 100-year-old

Mary DeSapio is the 100th centenarian whose life has been chronicled by Bob Baird.

Beginning in December of 1999, Bob Baird wrote about the lives of 97 centenarians while writing for The Journal News. When he began interviewing those who had reached their 100th birthday, many were born in the mid- to late-1890s. Some remembered the dawn of the automobile or airplane or a sibling or parent returning from what would come to be known as World War I. Some fled the Nazis, starting new lives in America. Others remembered Rockland or even the Bronx, when it was dotted with farms.

Louise Zottoli said she never washed her face with hot water because it melted the fat under the skin and caused wrinkles. Margaret Caserta spoke of working for political powerhouse and Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet member James A. Farley. Anthony Toscano recounted working in the Haverstraw brickyards in good weather and walking to Garnerville in winter to a job at the dye works. Some, like Claire Darmstaedter (106), Martha Hubert (105), and Lillian Stein (106), were the often mentioned in columns about new centenarians.

Bob has written three profiles of centenarians for the Rockland County Times – Ruth Butler, Florence Cohen and now Mary DeSapio, his 100th since December 1999.