Radical Retiree Still Stirring It Up In Payson



Payson resident Charlotte Levine is anything but a typical retiree.

Now 80, Levine was born, reared and spent most of her life in New York City during some very exciting times, including World War II. Her careers in the fashion industry and as a professional dancer allowed her to forge relationships with many celebrities -- most of a friendly nature, but some not so friendly.


Charlotte Levine

In fact, the self-proclaimed liberal and activist once told gossip columnist and "What's My Line?" panelist Dorothy Kilgallen that she wasn't welcome.

Levine was in charge of membership screening for the Fashion Group, a nonprofit international fashion consortium, and she got yelled at when she "screened out" Kilgallen. Spend a couple hours with Levine and you get the distinct impression that she didn't give an inch to the TV personality.

Actually Levine grew up around celebrities. Her father launched his first hardware store near Broadway when he was just 15, and it was there that he invented the Moore Hook.

"It was an invisible hook you hang pictures with," Levine explained. "The Museum of Modern Art came in to the hardware store and asked him to design a hook that could hold heavy pictures and not be seen. He hand-tooled them in the back of his store."

Her father was also a drinking buddy of famous artist James Montgomery Flagg, who did the "I want you" recruiting poster featuring Uncle Sam. Flagg, an illustrator for "Cosmopolitan" magazine at the time, painted Levine's portrait when she turned 16.

Levine's uncle, Lou Diamond, was in charge of the music division of Paramount Pictures, a connection that also brought her into close proximity with some well-known entertainers.


Even in her fashion industry days, Payson resident Charlotte Levine would poke fun at conventions and mores, in this case the notion that a woman's place was in the home.

"I have a memory of sitting on the grand piano at the Stork Club singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" with the Ritz Brothers (a famous Vaudeville act)," she said.

Levine also became a friend of singer Bobby Darin, and actress Sandra Dee worked for her as a model.

"She was a pain in the a__," Levine noted. "I was sick when I heard they were going to get married.

"When the baby was born, I went to hold him, and she yelled, ‘No! No!' That's the way she was all the time. She was always yelling, ‘Ma! Ma!'"

During the war, Levine worked at the Madison Avenue headquarters of the Second Army Division as a "guinea pig."

"They gave soldiers a test to classify them when they were drafted," Levine said. "There were 10 of us guinea pigs who took the test (in advance).

"They'd call us in and tell us, ‘The four of you answered number seven identically (and wrong). Why?' Our answer was, ‘It was misleading.'

"He'd repeat it (another way) and we'd tell him we didn't understand it that way, and it was tossed out."

The Army was also just getting into psychological testing.

"When the war started, this group was sent to the Aleutian Islands near Siberia," Levine recalled. "Some of them started going bananas.

"They couldn't send a bunch of psychiatrists up there, so they sent up a multiple choice psychological exam."

Of course Levine and her fellow guinea pigs took the test first.

"Afterwards, we were called in one at a time to a shrink," she said. "He told me things I wasn't even aware of about myself.

"I went into the bathroom crying because I was worried: how did he figure that out? Well, there were two more girls inside crying for the same reason."

But one of the girls had the last laugh.

"She had a husband in the Aleutians, and sent him a telegram telling him how to answer the questions," Levine chuckled. "They brought him home."

Levine also taught ballroom and folk dancing for many years. Once she had the opportunity to work with the renowned Moiseyev Russian dance troupe.

"It was their first time in the U.S.," she remembered. "They wanted to close their first American show with a typical American dance, so they wanted to learn the Virginia Reel.

"So here I was with those fantastic Russian dancers, teaching them the Virginia Reel. Those men! Ooooh."

Levine became "quite famous as a folk dancer for certain causes" and she worked with such notables as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She even appeared at Carnegie Hall.

Levine was also a pilot and a certified scuba diver, and engaged in such diverse activities as diamond mining in Venezuela. So how did she end up in Payson?

Her son, Neil, is a Scottsdale veterinarian. When he first visited the Valley to check it out before moving, he came in November.

"He was playing tennis and having a wonderful time," Levine said. "He called at the beginning of December and said he was moving to Arizona and wanted me to help him navigate.

"It was January when I got out here and it was lovely, but I knew there was no way I could live in that heat."

As it has been for so many, Payson was the perfect compromise for Levine and husband Phillip, an artist and poet.

"The first person I met was Jim Chase," she recalled. "I was over at Yellow Front and I still had my New York plates.

"He was sitting on my car, and he said, ‘From where?' I said, ‘The Bronx.' We became very good friends."

A lifetime apartment dweller, Levine loves living in the wide-open spaces.

But she hasn't lost her edge. She's as feisty and outspoken as always, referring to herself as Payson's "token Jew."

She's weighed in on AIMS testing, air pollution, airport expansion and a host of other issues, and she's not planning to stop anytime soon.

"Here I am, the activist, still trying to get involved," she said.


Name: Charlotte G. Levine

Occupation: Retired, but worked in many fields.

Age: 80

Birthplace: New York City

Family: Husband, Phillip Levine, an artist and poet; one son, a veterinarian in Scottsdale; three grandsons, who spent many summers and vacations in Payson.

Inspiration: Edith Seagal, a 68-year-old lady I worked with at a summer multicultural camp for children when I was 25. She was the camp folk dance instructor, poet and activist.

Three words that describe me best: I'm stubborn, opinionated, and I have the courage of my convictions. I am an activist.

Why Payson? My son, the doctor, moved to Phoenix, and I knew I couldn't stand the heat.

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