Beloved wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, surgical nurse, WWII veteran, artist, interior designer, model, actor, author, Ms. Senior NY, competitive tennis player, philanthropist and fun-loving, caring, Christian woman Vivien Gurfein, who lived in Great Neck for 34 years, passed away on Dec. 14. She was 93.
Born and raised in Lincolnshire, England, Vivien, the child of a liaison between an aristocrat and a chauffeur, grew up a free-spirited, barefoot, horse-riding child, until sent to a convent for discipline. As a teenager, she was trained as a surgical nurse and supervised by strict nuns while treating wounded troops and civilian casualties during WWII.
During the evenings, when she was not on duty, she would sneak out through the morgue to go dancing with the American doctors who were supporting the British war effort in Nottingham. So as not to get caught by the nuns when returning to her dorm late at night, she would surreptitiously climb back over a 10-foot wrought-iron spiked fence.
She eventually fell in love with an American doctor, Ben Schaefer, got married, had her first child, Dawn, and moved to America. While raising her daughter in Garden City, she entered the competitive world of modeling in New York City. She had two more daughters, Caprice and Cydria, and resumed her nursing career as a psychiatric nurse at Creedmoor Hospital in Queens and a surgical nurse for a Long Island plastic surgical group.
For those who know how fully Vivien lived her life, they find it hard to fathom that in her late 30s, she became very depressed, felt driven toward suicide by tensions in her tumultuous marriage and decided to end her life. Fortunately, this was one of the very few things at which she was unsuccessful.
According to Vivien, she was eventually “liberated” by remarriage to Arthur Gurfein, who gave her free reign and a new lease on life. In addition to continuing her career as a surgical nurse, this time for 30 years with Drs. Eugene and Adam Bodian of Great Neck, she zealously immersed herself in art, altruistic endeavors and raising a son, David, and a stepson Gedaliah.
Her life was filled with creative pursuits, including personal writings, acting, poetry and art. As a prolific artist, she created many water color and oil paintings, mosaics and sculptures; restored murals in various mansions; and taught interior design fabrics and textiles at C.W. Post College, where she eventually earned her bachelor’s degree at age 59.
Vivien was always very physically fit, active and loved the outdoors throughout her life. Doctors called her The Enigma, because she was in such incredibly great health, was on no medication and maintained her day-to-day joie de vivre. She was an avid gardener and loved to hike, swim, golf and play tennis, even competitively as a member of Shelter Rock Tennis Club. It would not be surprising for Vivien, right up into her 90s, to walk five miles to church—or anywhere else—or be upset if someone refused to play tennis with her because they felt it too hot or too cold to play outdoors.
She also immersed herself in many charitable organizations and volunteer activities. In addition to being on the vestry of All Saints Church in Great Neck and participating in all the church’s activities, including the Book Nook, the Thrift Shop and even dressing as Strawberry Shortcake for the Church’s annual Strawberry Festival, she was an extremely well-respected docent at Old Westbury Gardens who taught Manors for Minors dressed as Mary Poppins’ mother and volunteered to spend four extended tours overseas in Israel supporting the Israeli Defense Force. She was also extremely involved with, and represented, the English Speaking Union, The National Arts Club and the British War Veterans of America.
At age 85, she wrote and published her memoir Limey…and Proud of It! At 87, she went on to win Miss Congeniality and was second runner up in the Ms. New York Senior America Pageant, after bringing the house down and receiving a standing ovation with “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” a song she used to sing to young schoolchildren in British bomb shelters to keep their spirits up during the war.
She spent her last few years enjoying time with her grandchildren, Chris, Margot, Maura, Avery, Jonathan, Bruce and Avery; playing with the dogs, Murphy and Scout; and actively engaging future potential constituents for her son, David, who ran for a seat in Congress.
On the night of Dec. 14, 2018, just a little more than a month before she turned 94, she passed away quickly and painlessly in her sleep after being diagnosed with pneumonia, which eventually turned out to be lung cancer. Not surprisingly, Vivien, who devoted most of her life serving and caring for others, donated her body to science and medicine, “In the hope that I may be a help to others.”
She is survived by her three daughters, Dawn, Caprice and Cydria; her stepson, Gedaliah; her son, David; her grandchildren Christopher, Margot, Maura, Bruce, Jonathan, Yerachmeil, Avery and Avery; and 10 great-grandchildren.
A celebration of life ceremony with a service and reception will be held in Vivien’s honor on Saturday, Feb. 2, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 855 Middle Neck Rd.