There was nothing remarkable about them when they first began living together. Margaret Sugg moved into a Georgetown group house in 1967 that already included Nancy Fassett. A few years later, Barbara Fletcher joined them.
The part that amazes people: Almost five decades later, the three women are still roommates.
They’ve aged as a threesome, best friends in their 70s and 80s who continue to share their lives in a tidy brick duplex in Asbury Methodist Village, a retirement community in Gaithersburg, Md.
It’s a relationship that has cemented into something as solid as any marriage, or any family.
“It really does feel like we’re sisters,” says Sugg, who stops to think, then adds, “Except that I always fought with my sister.”
Friends and strangers alike are quick to dub them “The Golden Girls,” the 1985 to 1992 sitcom starring Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty about four older women sharing a home in Miami.
Yet despite the show’s entertaining vision of female togetherness, older friends/roomies like these are not exactly peppering the senior-living landscape. Among Asbury’s approximately 1,400 residents, there are no other groups or pairs of friends sharing homes, says Cathy Canning, the community’s marketing and communications manager.
“I think that people have a need for privacy,” says Richard Schwartz, co-author of “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 20th Century” and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “There’s also a set-in-your-ways aspect to getting older, where it would take a lot to make such a big change — and to ask someone else to make it as well. It’s a very big leap to say to a friend, ‘What do you think about living together?’ ”
Mary Riedlin, a former roommate from the women’s long-ago Georgetown days, calls her friends “wonderful and unusual.” When she mentions their living arrangement to others, “Immediately they think, ‘Well, they’re gay.’ But they really aren’t.”
Betsy Barnett, Fletcher’s younger sister, says she’s thought often about how three unrelated people in a platonic relationship can be compatible enough to weather the years so gracefully together.
“I don’t really know,” Barnett says. “But they are all kind, clever, thoughtful, fun people, with mutual interests — politics, music, books, travel. They’re just good people who decided they’d make it work.”
“A lot of people are awed by it,” Sugg acknowledges, “and have told me they’re envious — a lot of married friends included.”
Their life together began when Lyndon Johnson still occupied the White House. Sugg, then a congressional staffer from rural North Carolina, moved into the group house on P Street and met Fassett, a school librarian from Minnesota.
Fletcher, another North Carolinian, joined them after she was hired by Sugg to work for then-Rep. Nick Galifianakis (D-N.C.). (Sugg, who still retains her Southern accent, says Fletcher came for an interview, dressed “like Jackie-O,” and “as soon as we started talking to her, I thought, ‘Mercy! We can’t let this girl go!’ ”)
Eventually, the other P Street roommates moved out, leaving the three friends in sole possession of the Georgetown rowhouse. In 1975, the practical Fassett convinced Sugg and Fletcher, with no small amount of effort, that it would be financially prudent to buy a home together rather than continue renting.
“We decided we wanted off-street parking for our three cars,” Fassett says, “a darkroom”— Sugg and Fletcher were into photography—“and a pool. In Georgetown. For $100,000. We didn’t know how ridiculous that was.”
They compromised, settling on an affordable five-bedroom house with a pool on a tree-lined street in Bethesda, Md. Fassett’s father, a lawyer, wrote up a one-page agreement for them on how to handle the property if — or, more realistically, when — any of the three wanted to move out.
“We thought we’d be there two or three years and somebody would get married or maybe buy a house by themselves,” says Sugg, who’s in her 80s. “But that just didn’t happen.”
They all grew close to each other’s families — acting as doting aunts to various nieces and nephews—and became famous among their friends and neighbors for their frequent house parties, as well as their “Magical Mystery Weekends.”
They’d plan trips for themselves and other friends, keeping the destination a secret. Once they brought everyone to National Airport, and boarded a flight where they’d somehow convinced the pilot not to mention the destination. They ended up in Winston-Salem in North Carolina, where they had arranged for friends there to host a cocktail party, and stayed at a resort nearby.
The years just went by. Fassett, now 84, worked for Montgomery County public schools, Fletcher and Sugg eventually got into real estate sales. They each portray their lifetime cohabitation as not so much a decision made at a particular moment but rather as an arrangement that simply grew too comfortable to leave.
At one point Sugg was offered a plum marketing job in New York, which she accepted. Then, she says, “One morning I got up and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
That was the closest any of them got to leaving. And as for marriage, says Fassett, “We all dated, but not that seriously. We were having too much fun together.”
Each retired at different points in the 1990s, and they now have a routine that includes long summers in Duck on the Outer Banks, where they have a spacious house that they all chipped in to build. Every March they go to their timeshare in Aruba. In October they splurged on a cruise from New York City to Southampton, England, on the Queen Mary II to celebrate Fletcher’s 75th birthday, along with her brother and sister.
“I wanted to do something fabulous,” Fletcher explains.
When they’ve had to make decisions about minor things — where to go out for dinner, say — their strategy is “two-person majority rule.” But big decisions, such as their move from Bethesda to their retirement community, require complete consensus.
It took some time to persuade Fassett to leave their Bethesda home, but, says Sugg, “Barb and I finally persuaded her.” They’ve been in Gaithersburg since October 2014, joined by their two cats, Mandy and Max.
At their duplex, they each have their own bedrooms and share an office set up with three desks, as well as small living room upstairs and a large, open common space on the lower floor.
Life is definitely slower these days. As the youngest in the trio, Fletcher tends to be the cruise director, financial organizer and chauffeur. She bought a boxy new Ford Flex to drive them to restaurants, their retirement community’s on-site classes (Fassett took one on “Movies That Should Have Won an Oscar but Didn’t”), and to feed frequent Starbucks cravings. Evenings they read, or watch the news, PBS dramas or favorite shows like “Project Runway” and “The Good Wife.”
They grow quiet when asked over lunch about next steps — what happens if, for instance, one of them has health issues requiring more care than the others can provide? Sugg already struggles with back pain, while Fassett has knee problems. They’ve installed a motorized chair on their stairway, in case negotiating steps becomes impossible.
Whatever comes, Fletcher says, they’ll face it together: “We are a family.”