Elaine Brumberg would like very much to get COVID-19 out of her life. It’s taking up too much space. She turns 80 on Thursday, and she’s grown accustomed to filling her time with other, more enjoyable, and fulfilling pursuits: working as a model and makeup artist, writing books, hitting the lecture circuit, and running Thunderbird Bowling Center in Warminster.
Oh, and skydiving. She’s done that before, too, and would like to again.
First, though, there is the matter of COVID-19. She contracted it in March, and it did a number on her: a fever that spiked above 100, total fatigue, and the fear that because of her age, the virus posed a graver threat to her than to someone younger.
“I thought, ‘Please, God, this is not how I want to go,’” she said in a recent FaceTime interview while she was sequestered in her Mount Laurel home.
“When I go, I want to be having sex.”
So you want to have a conversation with Elaine Brumberg? You want to learn about her life, maybe write a story about her? Get ready for lines like that one, statements and sentences that ricochet from heartfelt to hilarious to mildly shocking.
Her possible brush with death? Big whoop. Her symptoms lasted two weeks, then she woke up one morning and felt fine. Her fever had broken. Everything seemed normal again, or at least it would be in time. Once social distancing loosened, she figured, she could reopen Thunderbird, which she has owned and operated for the last two-and-a-half years. It has become her passion. She could get back to being Bucks County’s Bowling Alley Beauty Queen.
But then her partner, David Singer, contracted COVID-19, and his situation was much worse than hers had been because he suffered from diabetes and a heart condition. He started coughing and couldn’t stop. She rushed him to the emergency room. He spent more than three weeks at Jefferson Cherry Hill Hospital, including 13 days on a ventilator.
“I kept worrying, ‘Is he going to make it through the night?’” she said.
Brumberg prides herself on her still-petite figure and her ability, from her appearance to her perpetual energy, to fool people into thinking she’s younger than she is. She began modeling when she was in her 30s, then got a job as a makeup artist for Borghese. The company fired her, she said, after she told a customer that the product the woman wanted to purchase caused dermatological problems. Norman, her husband at the time, had told her, You know which ingredients can hurt these women. You should write a book about that.
So she did. Published in 1986, Save Your Money, Save Your Face became a bestseller. Its warnings to women about which skin-care products might cause allergic reactions, or even cancer, caused the Washington Post to dub Brumberg “the Ralph Nader of the cosmetics industry.” On her book tour, she charmed Phil Donahue into devoting the full hour of his national talk show to her. Not bad for a kid who grew up in Warren County, in northwestern Pennsylvania, and who was the only Jewish person among the 350 students in her high school graduating class.
“I had a guidance counselor when I was 16 who used to pull me by my hair and call me a Jew,” she said. “When I went back for my class reunion, I was the white Oprah of the class.”
She wrote two more books and dozens of articles for publications such as Redbook and Modern Maturity, the precursor of AARP: The Magazine. Norman owned five bowling centers, but after he contracted Parkinson’s disease and died in 2011, Brumberg decided it was time for her to learn the business.
She traveled to suburban Dallas to take a course at the School for Bowling Center Management (who knew such a place existed?) and offered to buy the Warminster location from Norman’s business partner.
“The partner calls me and says, ‘I’m selling it,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘You’re selling it to me. I want to carry on [Norman’s] legacy. I can do anything except brain surgery.’”
She began her relationship with Singer, a former commercial airline pilot and avid skydiver, not long thereafter. To celebrate her birthday one year, they jumped out of a plane. Together, they set to updating and revamping the bowling center. After a friend’s son contracted leukemia, Brumberg geared the center’s programming more toward children. She gave them discounts, let them bowl for free. She took the alleys to them, dressing up like a fairy godmother or one of Santa’s elves, visiting hospitals, unfurling long rugs, and setting up a few plastic pins so kids could bowl near their beds.
“It brings me such joy,” she said. “When I was writing books, it was about my career. If you see the children and parents, you feel like, ‘I’m doing something so special for other people.’”
Then came COVID-19. She closed the bowling center — temporarily, she hoped — and stopped making the visits. Then she got sick, and so did Singer.
Singer recovered enough that doctors took him off the ventilator. On April 15, he and Brumberg FaceTimed for the first time since he’d entered the hospital. He came home two weeks later. The virus has weakened him and keeps him bedridden, and he and Brumberg have to wear N95 masks and can’t touch each other. But he’s home, and for now, that’s enough.
“He’s an amazing man,” she said. “I told him, ‘David, any man who can jump out of an airplane 2,500 times and live to tell it can kick ass.’”
As for the bowling center, Brumberg said she will continue to pay some of her salaried employees for another month, month-and-a-half. Her hope is to reopen by June 1, with some necessary adjustments and tweaks. She wants to install panes of Plexiglass around the cashier counter — debit or credit only, please, none of those germy bills — and between the bathroom sinks and stalls. To maintain social distancing, every other lane would be open for bowling. Every customer would have to wear a mask, and if any of them uses a house bowling ball, it would have to be disinfected first.
“When I reopen,” she said, “I’m going to say I’ve got the cleanest balls in town.”