MATRIARCH DID IT HER WAY – Rose “Brew” Grunther, 1921-2020
Rose “Brew” Grunther, a fashionable, opinionated matriarch of her beloved family who lived life on her terms, bound by a keen sense of right and wrong, died on Aug. 7. She was 98.
She died following a stroke at her North Hills home, surrounded by family who fortified her with strength just as she fortified them for generations.
Grunther, a graduate of Brooklyn College, was both a trailblazer and a traditionalist. A female college student at a time when that was novel, Grunther happily bypassed a career to raise a family. A skeptic of the cultural revolution who championed civil rights, Grunther proudly and publicly lunched as a young woman with a male Black co-worker friend despite society’s objections, even as she cast a doubtful eye at a younger generation looking to upend social norms.
Brew started in humble beginnings, born in Brooklyn on Dec. 11, 1921 to Russian (Ukraine) and Austrian immigrant parents, Simon and Esther Brustien. When she arrived, adoring big brother Harold was still a month away from his third birthday. As a Jewish girl whose family was hit by the Great Depression when she was just eight-years-old, Grunther’s values around politics, manners, religion, frugality, and family were all shaped by the era in which she came of age. A graduate of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, she disliked her given first name, Rose, and embraced the nickname Brew, a play on her maiden name of Brustien.
But no decision changed the trajectory of her life more than accepting the marriage proposal of her charismatic, mischievous, profane, irreverent, uproariously funny opposite, fellow Brooklynite Nelson Grunther who met Brew when she was on a date with another young man, who was no match for Nelson’s charm. The differences in Brew and Nelson’s personalities served as the underpinnings of the intense love they had for one another, with their more than three-decade marriage story commencing in 1944.
As part of his service to the country, Nelson coached a female softball team, a characteristic assignment. The Army private was stationed in San Antonio during World War II, and Brew, remembering her time as a young military wife, recently recounted learning to drive while in Texas, despite Nelson’s friendly grumblings.
Although the newlyweds enjoyed some good times in the Lone Star State, Brew was homesick and eager to return east, to be close to her family, especially her mother, of whom she was fiercely committed to honoring. (Esther would later live near Brew and Nelson in Great Neck, and eventually moved into their home in her final years).
The couple eventually made their way back to New York, where Nelson joined the family business, Brooklyn’s Banner Candy Manufacturing Corporation, which was born the same year as Brew, in 1921. (A lifetime later, after Nelson died at just 60 of a heart attack in October of 1979, Brew would receive an ownership stake in the company her husband had helped run with his father, Harry Grunther, who founded the business. Although Brew never involved herself with day-to-day operations, she played a pivotal role in helping to navigate a series of thorny disputes among family principals, allowing Banner to thrive and maintain its existence until 2007. Future son-in-law Peter Stone, as the eventual president of the company, assigned enormous credit to Brew for her finesse in helping to break logjams due to the respect she commanded with family partners).
Brew and Nelson — members of what was dubbed the Greatest Generation — had three children: their eldest child was Anne, born in 1946; two years later came Lucy, born in 1948; youngest Sanford, better known as Sandy, was born five summers later, in 1953.
They raised their family in the leafy suburb of Great Neck, NY, as Banner continued to grow and prosper and as the world around them was eventually transformed by Baby Boomers.
The family home was a vivacious place; Anne and Lucy would develop a passion for reading and theater while Sandy shared a love of sports with his father.
Fit and Fabulous
Together, Brew and Nelson cut a dashing, glamorous figure, both possessing movie star good looks and style. For her entire adult life, friends, family and acquaintances alike were awed by Brew’s impeccable fashion sense and general panache; she seemed to roll out of bed dressed to the nines, in sleek, perfectly crisp designer outfits, adorned with elegant jewelry, all accented by her flawlessly coiffed, jet black hair, courtesy of Manhasset’s “nuBest” salon, where she was a longtime legend.
The couple socialized at the North Shore Country Club, in Glen Head, developing lifelong friendships. Brew took up golf in her 40s, to spend more time with Nelson, but grew to thoroughly enjoy the sport in and of itself. She continued playing well beyond Nelson’s passing, for more than three decades, all the way into her 90s. She credited regular yoga classes as a contributing factor to her lifetime of good health and ability to easily get down on the floor to play with her cherished great-grandchildren even into all but her very final years.
While the couple enjoyed the company of many friends, they were closest with Harold and his wife Iris. Nelson and Harold became best of friends, delivering Brew profound happiness, seeing her husband forge a close bond with her beloved older brother. Years later, as the family expanded, Brew marveled at Iris’s abilities as a hostess during annual family holiday parties at her brother and sister-in-law’s home in Bayside, Queens. Brew was devastated in 2006 when Iris died, and she lost Harold just two years later.
In Lucy, Brew shared a common love of culture and conversation. With Sandy, mother and son enjoyed a playful relationship, and Brew cherished her son’s good-natured teasing during their regular phone calls.
Brew’s life was touched by tragedy on multiple occasions but none more devastating than the death of daughter Anne in 1987. Following Anne’s untimely passing, Grunther played a crucial role in helping to lend emotional support to her son-in-law Peter, as well as Anne and Peter’s children, Laura and Adam. Peter and Brew grew incredibly close over the years, often noting they were not just family, and not just colleagues, but also dear friends. (Laura and Brew’s relationship would, in later years, evolve into an almost sisterly connection — best of friends — with grandmother spending nearly every weekend at her granddaughter’s family home in Westchester County for the better part of a decade, as the younger’s wicked sense of humor uniquely tickled Brew’s funny bone).
Brew cherished the singular relationships she developed with each of her grandchildren. She relished in taking them (and later her great-grandchildren) out to dinner at fine restaurants and accompanying the kids to Broadway shows, supplying culture to the younger members of her clan. Lucy’s children, Ned and Jay Greenberg, as well as Sandy’s children, Nick, Shawn and Jesse Grunther, and Harold’s grandson, Matthew Brustien, were all deeply enriched by Brew’s generosity and wit. Like many Brooklynites scorned by the Dodgers departure to Los Angeles, Brew became a Mets fan when baseball returned to New York in 1962. She accompanied her grandsons to many a Mets game at Shea Stadium, with the boys, in turn, inheriting a lifetime of lessons in love, loss and — occasionally — sweet victory. It wasn’t just baseball she passed along. Brew’s mastery of the English language helped inspire a passion for journalism held by her grandson Adam, a Port Washington native and the publisher of the Examiner Media local news publishing group in Westchester and Putnam counties. In fact, she was The Examiner’s very first print subscriber when it launched in Sept. of 2007.
Successful Second Act
Renowned for her strength, Brew found love again in 1987 with fellow Long Islander Ivan Stock, who played a grandfatherly role for the grandchildren who were born too late to know Nelson. Brew was incredibly fond of Ivan’s straight-talking, unpretentious manner, and the couple enjoyed countless good times together, golfing at North Shore and eating at Julio’s, a favorite restaurant where the couple was pampered as VIPs until Ivan died in 1997. Brew stopped dining at Julio’s following Ivan’s passing, a quiet tribute to their special place but maintained a friendship with Ivan’s son Jay, and his wife, Sharon, for the next two dozen years.
Rose was also uncommonly close with her niece, Susan Macgregor-Scott. The two spoke daily, and Susan showered Brew with daughterly adoration, just as Brew supplied her with unconditional love. Brew had a knack for making new members of the family feel at home, and she welcomed Susan’s late husband, Peter Macgregor-Scott, in her matchless way, a special joy for Susan.
In her final months, following a fall and subsequent surgery, Brew was cared for by her nearby and doting nephew, Steve Brustien, and his wife, a dedicated nurse, Mary, who also kept a watchful and loving eye on her for several years prior. The exceptional and expert care provided by Steve and Mary allowed Brew to remain in her home till her last breath, an intense desire of Brew’s that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
Puzzles, Politics and Passover
Brew was an avid New York Times reader, and reveled in solving the crossword puzzle each day, putting her exceptionally sharp mind and vast knowledge of culture, politics and world events to good use. So assured in her abilities, Brew used ink. She competed unapologetically with her grandchildren at Scrabble, excelled in her regular Bridge game and took no prisoners when betting $1 or so on the golf course. While outwardly social with an authoritative and inimitable presence at any event she attended, possessing an innate ability to command her will, Brew enjoyed almost nothing more than curling up with a good book, or watching an old movie, content in her own company. She was also a proud FDR liberal, having seen Roosevelt enact the New Deal during her adolescence, and rescue the country from financial ruin. Even though women only secured the right to vote in the United States a year before her birth, Brew was excited to cast her ballot for the first female major party presidential nominee in 2016 but was bruised and worried by the election results and the aftermath.
While not highly religious, Brew’s embrace of her Jewish identity and heritage ran incredibly deep, from select customs and food and all the way to her sensibilities around humor. In fact, she was one of the longest standing members of Temple Beth El in Great Neck, having joined in the 1950s.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Throughout her adult life, Brew donated to causes she believed in and volunteered her time. She was a staunch supporter of Israel, civil liberties, and various Democratic Party causes and candidates. As a board member with Pride of Judea Community Services in Queens, Brew advanced the cause of mental health for people struggling with emotional and social problems.
Brew is also survived by her great-grandchildren, Ariel, Jordan, Maddie, Mia, Eliana, Jake, Vivien and Blair, as well as Matthew and his wife Annetta’s daughter Jordie, and many admiring in-laws forever touched by Brew’s grace and goodwill. Brew enjoyed a special ability to deliver lavish but genuine compliments to those she loved and admired, and countless people she encountered throughout her life were buoyed by the praise she provided.
Due to COVID-19, and various travel limitations, the family will schedule a service for Brew at a later date. Brew’s ashes, along with Nelson’s, will be placed in The Tower at Nassau Knolls in Port Washington.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Pride of Judea (jewishboard.org) in Brew’s name.