You may know the story of Lady Ostapeck’s narrow escape while still in the cradle.
It was 1919. The baby’s mother had died in childbirth in Brooklyn, N.Y., and she had been sent to live with an aunt in a Finnish community in rural Brooklyn, Conn.
One day, a farmer name Koski emerged from his house with a hatchet in his hand, turned left and butchered everyone in the next five houses, hanging himself in the barn at the end.
If he had turned right, Baby Ostapeck would been one of his first victims.
The baby was returned to Brooklyn, where she was taken in by Mama Jansson, who lived in Edgewater, N.J.
Mama’s three young children and her husband had died, Lady related in an interview the other day, wearing a black sombrero and sipping coffee from a paper cup.
“I got all the love she would have given her babies – all of it,” she said matter-of-factly.
Mama Jansson’s love and sincerity was such that girls contemplating suicide would cross the Hudson River for her counseling. Not a one went through with it, Lady said.
As it happens, she had just returned from Finland, where more
than 400 people crowded into the Vapriikki Museum in Tampere, the country’s third-largest city, for the opening of “A Lady of Style: Lady Ostapeck’s American Costumes & Portraits.”
In her speech opening night, on the podium with the Finnish minister of culture and tourism, Lady Ostapeck gave credit to Mama Jansson for everything that has happened to her in the 90+ years since.
Did you know Lady Ostapeck was originally a seamstress, trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology?
By the time she arrived at her Greek revival cottage in Fly Creek a half century ago – she lived there until moving to Oneonta’s Nader Towers two years ago – and began her career as a portraitist with an unusual muse, she had already collected dozens of vintage costumes.
She continued to do so, at thrift shops and auctions, and as she produced hundreds of photo portraits of subjects in vintage clothing, her costume collection – it includes two pith helmets – grew into the hundreds of examples as well.
Periodically, Lady has been invited to display her photos in Finland, and 10 years ago she met Marketa Frank, now a curator at the Vapriikki, who was interested in antique clothing.
One thing led to another, and last summer a team from the museum visited the Fly Creek Valley cottage, where it identified more than 100 gowns and other articles from Lady’s collection.
When packed, Lady said, the clothes filled 19 of those movers’ wardrobes. “Next year,” said Lady, “they’ll be getting another set.”
Lady’s promoter and friend Nick Argyros, director of the Photo Center of the Capital District in Troy, had collaborated with Marketa Frank in organizing the exhibit and intended to accompany the photographer.
But, just before they were to depart in mid-March, he suffered a heart attack and underwent a triple bypass. Lady’s Fly Creek neighbor, Barbara Lyon, was recruited for the task and the two departed from JFK Sunday, March 13, aboard a Finnair flight, courtesy of the Vapriikki.
“Non-stop to Helsinki,” said Barbara. “We flew
over the Arctic Circle, looking down on glaciers and ice-blue rivers. It was incredible. It reminded me of ‘Dr. Zhivago’.”
Met at the airport, the two were driven the two hours to Tampere – a metropolitan area of 300,000 known as “The Manchester of Finland” – and immediately went to the museum.
It was “a wonderful factory building on the river,” the Tammerkoski channel that connects the city’s two lakes, Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi.
The exhibit included most of the clothing, examples of Lady’s photos, blown up to 16- by 20-inch sizes, and detailed texts of her life and work.
“We spent every day at the museum,” said Lyon. “She had interviews every day. There were ones that weren’t planned, and those that were planned.”
One morning at breakfast, the waitress approached with a copy of Aamulehti, the daily paper. “This is you, isn’t it?” she asked, holding up the front page of the feature section, dedicated completely to Lady’s exhibit.
Then came the big night. The museum’s reception area was filled. Champagne all around. Finland’s minister of culture and tourism was there. Also a cousin of Lady’s who was a member of the Finnish parliament, and a nephew who was Finnair’s director of marketing.
Lady had had a rough winter. She had been hospitalized twice over Christmas, then had spent time in rehabilitation at Otsego Manor.
“All I want is to go to Finland, and then I can die,” she told Barbara.
“After the reception,” her friend recalled, “she said, ‘This is the highpoint of my whole life. I can die now’.”
If you die in Finland, would you want to be buried here? asked Barbara. In addition to wanting to know Lady’s wishes, she was pondering the logistics of transporting her back to the States.
“No, no,” she said in that abruptly frank way those who know her would recognize. “I have a plot in Fly Creek. You have to bring me back.”
|The entrance to the complex that contains the Vapriikki, which means “factory” in Finnish.|