Here are some things that did not yet exist when Susannah Mushatt Jones was born in Alabama on July 6, 1899: the Model T, and for that matter the Ford Motor Company. The teddy bear. Thumbtacks and tea bags. Puccini’s Tosca and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” The Flatiron Building and the subway system beneath it. Emma Morano, an Italian woman born four months later, who is today the only other living soul who was around before 1900.
One hundred and sixteen years ago, Susie’s tenant-farmer father, Callie, could theoretically have voted, though Alabama’s poll taxes and rigged literacy tests pretty much took care of that. As for her mother, she was barred from the polls twice over, because voting rights for women were two decades off. Mary Mushatt had 11 children — Susie being the third and the oldest girl — and cooked on an open fire with water drawn from a well. Corn bread was baked by burying it in the fireplace’s ashes. The family raised their own produce and meat. Susie walked seven miles to what was then called the Calhoun Colored School, a private academy specializing in practical education. Her family paid the boarding-school tuition by barter: wood cut for the fire, bushels of corn they’d grown.
Her relatives say she did not dwell on the bad aspects of the prewar South. Tee — family members call her that, short for “Auntie” — was the type to put her head down and keep moving. Which is what she did after graduation: In December 1922, she made the three-day train trip to Newark, New Jersey, where a well-off family had hired her to be a nanny and housekeeper. A year later, she jumped to an easier and more glamorous job with a couple in Westchester: Walter Cokell was the treasurer of Paramount Pictures, and he and his wife, Virginia, had no children. Winters took the Cokells and her to Bel-Air and to Florida. She met Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan (all younger than she). Her already-good cooking got better and more refined.
In 1928, she married a man named Henry Jones, but they soon split up. (She doesn’t talk about him but kept his surname.) She had a room in Harlem for a while, in an apartment shared with other women from Alabama, but most of her time was spent as a live-in. After Mr. Cokell died in 1945 — killed himself, actually — she moved on to other domestic jobs. The Andrews family, with five children, was probably her favorite. Gail Andrews Whelan, now in her 70s, says Jones was a great caregiver — neither draconian nor a pushover, someone who laid down the law but also “always had your back,” and could serve breakfast to 30 girls after a slumber party.