— On a mission to change perceptions about growing older. Starring inspirational people over 70 —


Ageing, ageism, photography, stories

9th March 2020

Ben Jakober, 90

Ben is the co-founder of the Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober, a gallery and sculpture park in northern Mallorca. He is also an artist and sculptor.

“I was born in Vienna in 1930, but after a few years things got a bit difficult, because we were Jews. I remember my father taking me to the main square one evening and there was a small man with a black moustache in a uniform talking to the crowd. My father listened to him as I held his hand and I remember him saying, ‘I think, son, we’re going to have to go soon.’

We moved first to Prague, then I was sent to school in Switzerland and finally I arrived in England with my mother in 1939, just a few months before the war started. My father arrived in 1940; he’d bought a ship in Romania and loaded it with some goods to try to sell – but was promptly arrested and sent to the Isle of Man with all the cargo confiscated. Eventually, my mother sorted things out and got him back.

I was an only child, and the first part of my life was rather solitary. I was alone at school in Switzerland and then alone at boarding school in England, I was alone doing military service in the army and only after that did I start having a more agreeable life. Normality began when I arrived in Paris in the early 50s and joined Rothchilds. By the age of 38 I had made a penny and speculated on things a bit and was able to retire. I ended buying a hill farm in Mallorca, inspired by my best friend, the Italian painter Domenico Gnoli and his wife Yannick, who lived there.

As things turned out, Domenico died of cancer and I ended up marrying Yannick. We’ve been together for about 50 years now. I didn’t plan to get married, and I didn’t do it until I was 45, so there was leeway for me to have a bachelor’s life in Paris. It was more a question of finding a person that I felt I couldn’t live without. We’d been friends for so long. The secret of a long marriage is having similar interests and being forgiving. When one does something wrong, it’s not a reason to get divorced, it’s a reason to reassess things and try to mend them. Just being in love helps too, I suppose. 

We had two children together. Our daughter died in a motorcycle accident when she was 18. That was a terrible thing – one never forgets and one can never get over it. It’s something that you live with and learn to accept. We adopted a son too in Iran. Yannick couldn’t have anymore children and a friend of ours was the head of the orphanage there. We went to visit and there was an irresistible child hanging on to Yannick’s coat tails, so that’s how it happened. He has been through some difficult times, but he is in good shape now and is involved in the arts and living in Paris. 

Our daughter’s death triggered the foundation. We were living in this big house built by Hassan Fathy back then – and our son had moved away, so it was this big space, filled with all this art – and we decided to transform it. It started relatively modestly in 1994 but then it gathered steam and now we’ve transformed the whole house into an exhibition space. We also give free courses to schools, which is very important to us. Our aim now is really to give back to society. Considering our advanced age we are quite busy, although Yannick is 12 years younger than me. 

We divide our time between Mallorca and Marrakech. In both destinations, older people tend to be well treated. In America and England they are sort of shunted aside. We still have our marbles, more or less, so we are invited to participate in things. We are on the board for the Marrakech Biennale, for example. People used to be put out pasture but those times are going. If you are mentally agile, you are still accepted, whatever the age. 

I take no exercise and I drink half a bottle of good claret every night. I suppose I am a bit of a slob, so I consider myself to be very lucky. I’ve been through a few tough illnesses and accidents but thanks to Yannick I am still on my feet and have my own hair! Most of my friends my own age have gone, so we’re lucky that we have made lots of new ones. The idea of dying is normal, but the loss of consciousness would be unbearable, so I would have to do something about that. I will go to my maker in the same way that I came; naked, because we will have given everything away. 

The greatest piece of advice I’ve learned is that honesty is one of the most important things in life. And try to make more friends than enemies.” 

With thanks to Belmond La Residencia, a five-star hotel in Mallorca, which offers bespoke art tours to the Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober and beyond. 

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