Lou Gothelf and Reva Shwayder Are Here to Tell You There Is Love in the '80s—at Least in Their 80s
02/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
Even though they still seemed the most exciting romantic pairing in movies when he reached 67 and she 58, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were mere pups compared to the new couple giving off sparks on U.S. screens. He is Louis Gothelf, an 86-year-old realist painter; she is Reva Shwayder, abstract painter, millionaire and, at 85, Lou's bride of one year. Together they steam up a 29-minute documentary titled Young at Heart, which is about their whirlwind romance as rebellious octogenarians, and which will air on PBS in the late spring to the accompaniment of a title song crooned by that boy singer George Burns. Their love story, surely the definitive romance of the '80s, is hardly your standard Hollywood goo. Consider their meeting, four years ago, on a plane. "This girl, she had a magnet!" Lou cries rapturously. "She drew me to her. The more I was away from her, the more I wanted her!" Then there's the fact that they shacked up for eight months before they married. "I blamed our kids," Reva says, chortling. "That's where we got the idea. They all lived together before they got married."
For Gothelf and Shwayder, grandparents of 11, life these days is full, and they pack it with loving glances and hugs, but their romance was born out of sorrow. Reva had lost her husband of 60 years, Benjamin Shwayder, a founder of the Samsonite Luggage Co., who died of a stroke in 1980. Her two sons were also gone. Richard died at 40 of cancer, and Warren drowned in a scuba-diving accident at 60. For his part, Lou had nursed his wife of 55 years, Leona, through an agonizing decade of Alzheimer's disease before she died in 1983. When the widow and widower set out on a group painting tour of England in 1984, they were still reeling from their separate tragedies. Then fate plunked them down next to each other on the plane to London, and while they jetted across the sea, love bloomed again.
"What I liked about Reva," Lou says, "is that she was a down-to-earth woman, nothing artificial."
"I thought he was such a nice man, so conscientious and so very kind," says Reva.
By the time they landed, they were hooked. During the trip's second week, Reva, who had a tiny room in the East-bourne Hotel in Cornwall, knocked on the door of Lou's suite, baggage in hand, and asked to share it.
"As far as we were concerned," says Reva, "there was no one else on that painting trip."
"Let's just say we became 'close friends,' " Lou says, and winks.
When the two lovebirds returned to Detroit, however, all heck broke loose. "Everybody was gossiping about them," says Lou's daughter, Sue Marx, a five-time Emmy winner and co-producer of their documentary. "One friend told me, 'I saw your dad on Reva's front porch yesterday in his pajamas!' They were a hot item. My father had a twinkle in his eye, and Reva was acting like a schoolgirl."
At first Lou would stay a few nights at Reva's sprawling suburban ranch beside the exclusive Franklin Hills Country Club, then go back to his five-room apartment. When he finally moved in, Reva was delighted. "When I went to the Club, I could hear the buzz," she says. " 'See how handsome he is! Look at how nice he treats her!' "
It was Reva who finally pushed this scandalous affair into the safety zone of wedlock. "We were in the living room, having a drink and smooching," she says, "and I asked him." The couple has separate beds but, says Lou, "in the morning I climb in beside her and curl up. At our age sex is not so important. Snuggling is. Looking into each other's eyes, smooching."
Although both are respected artists, Reva found her calling late. Born in Chicago, she was the oldest of four children of Michael Clamage, a wealthy businessman, and his wife, Esther. She married at 18, and 29 years later, while living in Detroit, began studying painting. Lou was born in Vitebsk, Russia, and came to New York in 1914 to settle with his father, Max, an ironworker, his mother, Julia, and three siblings. After studying art in New York and Chicago, he became a scenic artist for theater productions in 1923. He married Leona Terry in 1928, and they moved to Detroit in 1975.
Sitting now in their spacious living room, Lou opens a scrapbook to Leona's picture. "After she died," he says, "I just sat in my apartment. When you're in your 80s and sit alone day after day, it's so lonely. Oh, God, I felt alone." He breaks into sobs.
Reva takes his hand. "He's so sensitive," she says.
And, girls, he cooks too. Lou gets up at 7 a.m. to squeeze orange juice, and his specialités are fish and chicken. "I also do the dishes and make the beds," he announces. Reva laughs. "What can I do?" she says. "I was brought up in luxury."
Their works are their children now. "Art is what keeps them young and involved with new ideas," observes fellow artist Richard Kozlow. "They do not miss a gallery or museum opening." Lou is the more prolific of the two, painting some four hours a day, and his landscapes and portraits, which sell for up to $5,000, have been exhibited at the Toledo Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Reva's abstractions, priced as high as $1,500, have been shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and New York City's Lincoln Center.
Their movie debut has pleased crowds at film festivals in Manhattan and Telluride, Colo., and Reva is now fantasizing about going to the Oscars if the film is nominated. "I'll get a dress that's cut real low, down to the belly button, so I can look like a real actress," she says. Lou is taking the hoopla more calmly. "My philosophy," he advises, "is live for today—you never know what's going to happen tomorrow. So I never, never buy green bananas."
—Written by Mary Vespa, reported by Julie Greenwalt