Remembering Betty Sushman, the elderly woman who ‘lived in the moment’ in viral photo

The Brookline resident died at 91 earlier this month.

September 15: Crowds gathered outside of Coolidge Corner Theater to catch a glimpse of the Black Mass stars as they arrived at a screening of their film—including one woman who caught the world’s attention with her lack of a smartphone.
Betty Sushman, center, was in a crowd gathered outside of Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline for the U.S. premiere of 'Black Mass' on Sept. 15, 2015. The photo became viral worldwide in the following weeks and is still widely shared today. –John Blanding / The Boston Globe, FIle

You’ve likely seen her before.

She leans forward with her arms crossed against the barricade, clad in magenta glasses that match the accents of her black shirt. Her white hair and pallid complexion stand out among the younger, rosier folk in her midst. The people around her snap some unknown scene on their smartphones, their arms lifted, necks craned, fingers ready on the shutter. Many in the background are little more than a screen and a pair of hands.

But the elderly woman simply takes it all in with a tight-lipped smile, like a contemporary Mona Lisa in her golden years. She’s living in the moment.

Advertisement

The photo of the crowd grabbed the world’s attention in the fall of 2015, launched by a popular tweet from a Twitter user who described it as his “new favorite photo of all time.” People are still cropping, editing, and distributing the image over two-and-a-half years later. A Facebook user posted the picture earlier this month, calling it “the most profound photo [he’s] seen for a long time.” The photo’s artifacts betray how often it’s been downloaded and reuploaded, slowly degraded in a continuous cycle of image compression, a testament to its virality. The recent Facebook post has over 360,000 shares.

Betty Sushman, the woman who has graced many a social media feed, died at 91 earlier this month. Her obituary was published in The Boston Globe the next day on May 15. She was born in Roxbury as one of eight, and she lived in Coolidge Corner in Brookline near the Trader Joe’s where she worked. Store captain Micah O’Malley said she worked on the floor for nearly two decades before ending her tenure in January.

Sushman in 2012. —Courtesy Joe Kelly

“She really made a home here; this was a store in a community she loved,” O’Malley said. “She felt a good connection to the customers who shopped here. Many customers knew her by name.”

Advertisement

“She was literally a legend there,” said Joe Greenberg, a nephew-in-law close to Sushman. “There were people who came in just to see Betty.”

Several family members and coworkers confirmed Sushman’s identity in the viral photo. They remembered her as outgoing and independent — she never married or had children.

“Lots of boyfriends,” said Gloria Cocuzzo, a friend and coworker from Trader Joe’s.

Those close to Sushman noted her eclectic taste and her passion for bargain shopping. She loved leopard print, flea markets, and Costco hot dogs.

“She was almost like a 91-year-old kid, very young at heart,” said Debra Kelly, one of Sushman’s nieces. “She had that magnetic personality that made people want to spend time with her.”

“She had a lot of spunk, anyone will tell you that,” O’Malley said. “She carried herself with a lot of charisma and a lot of charm.”

O’Malley remembered visiting Sushman with Cocuzzo the week before she died.

“She had gold flip-flops on,” he said.

Sushman in February. —Courtesy Joe Kelly

Soon after a heart attack last December, Sushman bounced between local hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and assisted-living homes before dying from heart disease this month. Greenberg and Kelly said Sushman also showed signs of dementia in the last years of her life.

“It took its toll,” Kelly said. “I think it did sap a lot of energy.”

Greenberg said she kept an upbeat attitude regardless, even in the throes of dementia.

Sushman deeply missed Brookline while she was in facilities in Quincy and Brighton, according to Kelly. “She never learned how to drive,” she said. “It was a community where she could walk anywhere, do anything. She’d always be hopping on the train.”

Advertisement

It was in Brookline, near the Trader Joe’s, where Sushman was caught in the crowd in that memetic photo in September 2015. She was at the U.S. premiere of “Black Mass,” the biopic of the infamous South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.

“I think her exact words were something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know what all the hoopla is,’” O’Malley said.

The screening was at the Coolidge Corner Theatre — Sushman’s actually wearing a Coolidge shirt in the picture. She was one of over a thousand spectators hoping to spot some of the film’s stars, especially Johnny Depp, who played Bulger. Several coworkers and family members said Depp introduced himself to Sushman — at least according to her.

“She said she told him he had beautiful brown eyes; he gave her a hug and everything,” Kelly said. “She was a real charmer.”

A screenshot from a Boston Globe video on the ‘Black Mass’ premiere showing another angle of the scene. Sushman is visible in the center. —Screenshot, Boston Globe

The photo was snapped by veteran Boston Globe photographer John Blanding, who told Boston.com that his picture of Sushman was a total accident. He said he never even noticed her. To him, the picture was just a generic crowd shot, a quick snap before turning back to the red carpet. The photo didn’t spread online until 10 days after Blanding took it, and he never anticipated it going viral.

“It was more amusement than anything,” Blanding said. “It’s just kind of interesting what can happen to a photo that didn’t really do anything for our purposes.”

Regardless, the imbued message of the image still resonates with him, especially as a photojournalist.

“I very much enjoy being at events where I’m not taking pictures,” Blanding said. “Sometimes you need to just relax and enjoy life.”

There were countless photos from that day in Brookline over two years ago, from both professional photographers and adoring fans. But the public didn’t focus on the pics of the celebrities. It turned to the local woman living in the moment — and in that moment, in that picture, she became her own kind of celebrity.

“It was so typically Betty… she got a big kick out of it,” Cocuzzo said.

Betty Sushman loved meeting people. With that photo, the world got to meet her.