“I am what I am; I am my own special creation,” the opening line of a song in La Cage aux Folles not only hung on her living room wall but also perfectly described the life of Betty Zelma Nathanson, who died peacefully in her sleep on July 3, 2021.
Born in Brooklyn on October 12, 1930, she lived an adventurous life. The youngest and last surviving of three children born to Ruth and Louis Silverman, Betty was originally named Zelma after the Broadway actress and comedienne Zelma O’Neal. At the age of eight, however, in one of her earlier acts of rebellion, Zelma Nathanson changed her name to Betty. As Zelma became Betty, she was also developing her remarkable artistic physicality as a dancer with the preëminent ballet school in the United States, The School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center.
Betty moved with her family in the mid 1940s from Brooklyn to Washington, DC, where she would live for the rest of her life. She studied speech pathology at George Washington University and then worked as a fashion model. When she was working in Human Resources at the Hecht Company, she hired Melvin Nathanson, the youngest full buyer in the company’s history. It was a good hire, as they married in 1953 and enjoyed 21 years of marriage until his death in 1974.
Betty Zelma Nathanson was beautiful, smart, creative, and intense. She was also skilled at persuading others to join her actions in support of political change and civil rights, ultimately overseeing the advance team for Sargent Shriver’s 1972 Vice Presidential campaign. Never one to be locked into a single career or role, she went on to take over her husband’s retail business after his death and went on to work in real estate, brokerage sales, and eventually the career that she most enjoyed, breeding standard poodles.
After having enjoyed a lifetime of education, theater, ballet, fashion, social justice, and political action, Betty, when she was in her 60s, became an award-winning Standard Poodle breeder, a career that she enjoyed for the rest of her independent years.
Betty is survived by her children, Julie Jakopic (Richard) and Richard Nathanson (Kathleen); five grandchildren, Heather Simak, Rebecca Nathanson, Rachael Nathanson, Kyle Nathanson, and Richard Nathanson, Jr.; and four great grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in honor of Ms. Nathanson’s memory may be made to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Virginia's List, or Mid-Atlantic Poodle Rescue.
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