On Love: ‘I’m his greatest admirer’

(Marvin Joseph/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Shirley Belasco and Max Desfor surprised family and friends by getting married at her 90th birthday party. Max is a pulitzer prize winning photographer, now 98. They are photographed in their home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

(Marvin Joseph/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Shirley Belasco and Max Desfor surprised family and friends by getting married at her 90th birthday party. Max is a pulitzer prize winning photographer, now 98. They are photographed in their home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The groom was 98, the bride was 90. They’d been together for more than 15 years, but the engagement came just three weeks before the nuptials, and they told almost no one what was planned.

Shirley Belasco lived in the same Silver Spring apartment building as Max Desfor and his wife, Clara. Starting in the late 1980s, a group of residents regularly gathered at the pool to socialize.

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Belasco had given up on marriage. Her first husband, father of their two children, died of a heart attack at 42. The next man she fell for also died young of a heart attack. A third died shortly after they split. “I decided I was a jinx,” she says. “Stay away from men! They’re gonna die soon.”

Besides, she was invested in her career as an accountant and loved life in Manhattan, moving only after retirement to be closer to her first grandchild.

Desfor was also a New Yorker. He’d been studying at Brooklyn College when an older brother invited him to visit the Associated Press offices to see what he did as a photo retoucher; in 1933, Desfor got a job there, too, working in the darkroom for $15 a week. He studied the photographers and got a camera of his own. Soon, he was sent on assignments and moved to bureaus in Baltimore and Washington before taking overseas postings. In his 47 years with AP, he would cover five wars and win a 1951 Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the Korean War, including one of of refugees crawling over a tattered bridge.

He and Clara were driving home from New York in 1994 when they were in a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. Four days later, he was wheeled from his hospital room to be with her as she died.

For the next year, Belasco and the others didn’t see much of Desfor. On top of grief, he was grappling with physical injuries that required rehabilitation. Eventually, he started coming back to the pool. And because he doesn’t cook, he was in the market for dinner companions.

“He was taking out all the women who were available in the group,” Belasco recalls. “I think I was the last one. . . . He was complaining that nobody was bringing him casseroles — that’s the usual thing when there’s a widower, everyone brings a casserole . And there was one man in our group who was getting casserole after casserole, butMax wasn’t getting any, so he was very upset.”

They started going out regularly and found that while they were very different in some ways — he likes football, she prefers opera — they enjoyed each other’s company. “We got along extremely well. Besides which, she can cook — so that was important,” he says with a wink.

“I don’t know why he put that ‘besides which,’ part,” she retorts from the living room of their apartment. “That should’ve been the top of the list!”

The two developed a teasing rapport and comfortable routine. They met each other’s children, traveled to Japan and South Korea and decided to share an apartment.

“We got along well with each other’s associates,” she says. “And we had fun.”

By 2000, they would often refer to each other as husband and wife. (“ ‘Girlfriend,’ seemed ridiculous to us,” she says.) Their friends and relatives wondered why they didn’t marry, but to Belasco and Desfor, it didn’t seem necessary.

“It just didn’t come up as a question,” he says. “We were quite happy, contented as we were — just going along.”

In 2000, they moved to Leisure World, a retirement community in Silver Spring, and hung his treasures from around the world on the walls. He listened to her thoughts on art; she learned the names of football players.

What makes it work? “Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “Patience.”

“And sense of humor,” he adds, making her laugh.

“It’s really a matter of blending his tastes and my tastes and coming up with something that we could both live with,” she says. “Or cope with.”

And it helps, Desfor says, that Belasco has always taken an interest in his work. Yes, she says. “I’m his greatest admirer, what could he not like?”

Last fall, Belasco’s daughter and daughter-in-law began planning her 90th birthday celebration, to be held in the Leisure World party room. Because most of their family lives out of town and, as Belasco says, “we don’t have many friends left because we seem to have outlived most of them,” they expected a small crowd.

But the RSVPs came rolling in; soon they had a guest list of nearly 60 people. They talked about how rare it was to have all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in one place. “I said, ‘That would be a good time for our wedding,’ ” Desfor says.

Belasco agreed, and they went off to the courthouse to get a marriage license. They told only two friends, who helped them find a judge to preside over the ceremony, which was to be a surprise.

On Jan. 28, Desfor put on a suit and Belasco wore black pants and a patterned top. The room was filled with birthday balloons, and the couple said not a word as the event got going. “I wanted my birthday party first, you know,” she laughs.

Shortly after 6 p.m. Desfor got up to make a toast and introduced the man standing next to him as a judge who would be “performing at the wedding ceremony.” There was a collective gasp.

“It was kind of like the beginning of a football game where everybody gets up and cheers,” Belasco says. The two exchanged vows, and he placed her mother’s wedding ring on her finger.

“It was like everybody got a birthday present,” says Belasco’s son, Warren.

For months, the pair had been planning a trip to Florida to visit Desfor’s niece. Now they’ll call it a honeymoon.

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