Aristocrats aren’t always born; some, like Greta VonBouterer, are made. The German émigré often seemed to possess the airs of a baroness. Her beauty—the auburn hair, deep red lips and graceful smile—bewitched many men. As a 16-year-old she rejected a marriage proposal on a steamer from Europe to her new home in Canada. But Greta wasn’t to the manor born. She started life as Greta Nuss, the daughter of Teresa, a homemaker, and Paul, a Siemens salesman. The ethnically German family lived comfortably, but without titles, in Novi Sad, a small city in what is now northwestern Serbia. Greta was schooled in Hungarian and Serbian reflecting the region’s shifting politics.
The family fled during World War II and took refuge in Graz, Austria. There, Greta spent her days running through the Palais Saurau with friend Nicolas Harnoncourt, who would become one of Europe’s preeminent conductors. In high school, she immigrated to Toronto. Greta had great expectations, a phrase from a favorite author, Charles Dickens. Her tastes reflected her aspirations—a penchant for highbrow anything. Her lack of English didn’t prevent Greta from graduating top of her class. But her dreams were dashed when her family decided to send only her brother to college. She went to work at a chocolate factory. At a church social, Greta met Zoltan Kiss, a Hungarian engineer. They moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he worked for RCA on lasers and solar cells. Greta raised their children Gabriella and Gregory. After her marriage to Zoltan ended, Greta married Herb Schapiro, a writer and teacher who turned the essays of poor city kids into a Broadway hit, “The Me Nobody Knows.”
In the meantime, Greta gave birth to her second son, Mark. At home, she was a magnetic presence, dancing around the house in her impossibly high Charles Jourdan heels. She would put on the latest Herb Alpert album and simply march around, one hand on hip, the rest of the family falling in line behind her. She drove her children always to higher successes. She bribed Gregory $2.50 a poem to memorize sonnets. She forced Mark to learn French by sending him for a year to French school. For Gabriella, the goal was closer to Greta’s heart—her daughter must be independent. But she also spoiled them with after school opportunities and lessons.
Gabriella became a jewelry designer, Gregory, an architect, and Mark, a diplomat who served on President Obama’s National Security Council staff. After her second divorce, Greta adopted the name of VonBouterer and opened up travel agency, International Travel Arts, creating elaborate vacations for select clients. Her new name suited her. Though she grew less reserved in her later years, she never lost the grace that made people believe she was born to the aristocracy.