I spend my professional time in nursing homes, and see much of the downside of old age, but I hear there is a world out there where old people are building a better mousetrap, competing in triathlons, and having more fun than I could imagine.
So in the interest of promoting the end of life as a new beginning, here's my list of the all-time top 10 late bloomers. To qualify for this list, you can't simply be a talented, old achiever. Composer Eliot Carter, who started composing as a young man and continues to compose at past the age of 100, doesn't qualify. Well done, but not a late bloomer. Same goes for Rembrandt, Picasso, Akira Kurowsawa, Philip Roth, and anyone else who got up early and stayed up late. (In an upcoming post, I'll look at top 10 old achievements of all time, which will be awarded whether or not the winner started young or old.)
Sports bloomers are hard to find. As far as significant achievement goes, athletics is for the young. Old people run marathons, much slower marathons. And most senior athletes are not late bloomers, but people who never stopped running.
Math is a field where old mathematicians may not die, but aren't solving many new theorems either. They're writing textbooks.
In other fields, age doesn't matter, or can be an asset. Experience sometimes counts more than unschooled talent. You can write a great novel at any age, or make a killing in business.
Pure late bloomers are hard to find. Chances are that the older debut author, for example, has been writing all along, just unpublished. Even though I published my first book at age 62, it doesn't mean I haven't been writing.
All these caveats aside, in no particular order, the envelops please. I've organized the awards into different areas of achievement:
Harlan David Sanders. Colonel Sanders founded the Kentucky Fried Chicken company at 65, and went on to become a multimillionaire. Everyone knows what "Visiting the Colonel" signifies. The business concept was brand new for him as an older person, but he had been cooking for most of his life. As a young man, he worked in a variety of jobs that had nothing to do with cooking—farmer, steamboat pilot, and insurance salesman. When he hit 40, he opened a service station and starting selling chicken dinners to his customers—developing his pressure frying method over a number of years. Eventually, he opened a popular restaurant. If they hadn't built Interstate 75, which took the traffic away from his business, he might have remained a local legend only. But he knew how to make lemonade out of lemons (if not lemon chicken), and started the franchise business, which we know and some love today.
Grandma Moses. Anna Mary Robertson Moses was a happy, long-time embroiderer until arthritis made that painful and difficult. Instead of the needles, she took up the paint brush at the age of 75, in 1935. Untrained, but in the firm American tradition of primitive art, her paintings were discovered in a drugstore window a la Lana Turner by a prominent collector in 1938, and a New York gallery show led to world-wide fame. Louis Bromfield, Pulitzer Prize winning author, compared her work to that of Peter Bruegel. She continued painting until close to her death in 1961, age 101. Although she started out selling her paintings for $2 or $3, depending on size, in 2006—one of her 3,600 paintings, Sugaring Off (1943)—sold for $1.2 million. Runner-ups in this art category are Bill Traylor, a former slave who started painting at age 83, and none other than Paul Cezanne who would have been only a footnote in art history as a minor impressionist had he not lived long enough to produce his signature late-life still-life inspirations for the cubism of Picasso and Braque.
Abraham and Sarah. As they say in horse racing, I'm putting these two in as a coupled entry. Unlike the rebellious Jesus, a Mozartian prodigy in the field of religion, the founder of the Jewish and Islamic religions was minding his own business in Ur of the Chaldees when God spoke to the 75-year-old man then known as Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you." This involved a move with his barren wife Sarai, age 65, and a number of other relatives including Lot, to Canaan, and the rest, as they say, was biblical history. At age 99, when Sarai was 90, she gave birth to Isaac, sometime after Abram's servant Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, the father of Islam. Isaac's birth lead to a new covenant with God including circumcision and name changes for the parents to Abraham and Sarah. Isaac goes on to become the second patriarch of Judaism, followed by his son Jacob. Sarah dies at 127, and Abraham at 175. Taken literally, this story leads to the conclusion that they don't make men or women like they used to. Symbolically, it is prototypical of the idea that age and wisdom go together. In traditional societies, the authority of elders is greatly respected, perhaps because there are so few of them.
Clara Peller. She was bumping along at age 80 as a manicurist who had raised two children as a single mother, when she was hired to ply her trade for a commercial shot in a barbershop. The Dancer Fitzgerald ad agency noticed her feisty manners and remarkable voice, and hired her as an actress. In 1984, at age 81, she made her iconic debut in a Wendy's commercial. Looking at a competitor's big bun with a small burger, she loudly asked, "Where's the beef?" Clara and her catch phrase appeared in many wildly popular incarnations, and her question became the signature slogan of the ill-fated Walter Mondale campaign for the presidency in 1984 against Reagan. Although her career was short-lived—she died in 1987—Peller lived long enough to be in a few movies, make an appearance on WrestleMania, and get into show business controversy when she was dropped by Wendy's after making a commercial for Prego, saying she found the beef in their spaghetti sauce. After they dumped her, Wendy's sales went into the dumpster until they called upon another old person Dave Thomas, Wendy's founder, to do their commercials. In his role as a commercial actor, Thomas was another late bloomer at 57, and this followed his association as a consultant with Colonel Sanders. He designed the revolving chicken bucket before founding Wendy's at 37.
Harry Bernstein. He published a short story when he was only 24, in 1934, but it was not until he was 96 that his well-received debut novel, The Invisible Wall—based on his hard scrabble childhood in England, before his family emigrated to the U.S.—was published by Random House. In the interim between his short story and novel, Bernstein kept his hand in as a writer for trade publications. After his wife of 67 years died, a return to fiction and memories of his childhood was therapy for his loss and loneliness. He's still growing strong having published two more books since his debut. Bernstein exemplifies the idea that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks, and that in some cases the moment might not be pregnant until ancient age. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, "If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book. It just could not have been done even when I was 10 years younger. I wasn't ready. God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s."
Melchora Aquino de Ramos. When the Philippine Revolution broke out against Spain in 1896, Aquino at 84 was the widow of a village elder and store owner in the town of Caloocan. Her shop became a refuge for injured and sick soldiers and a revolutionary meeting place where she was a respected advisor. When the Spanish arrested her, she refused to tell them the location of her comrades, and they deported, rather than executing, her. After the revolution, and its cooptation by the United States, she returned from exile, and was commemorated as the Grand Woman of the Revolution before dying in 1919 at 107. Other entries in this category include another Filipina, Corazon Aquino—no relation—who became a leader in the people power revolution against the Marcos regime—after her politician husband's assassination, and later the Prime Minister. Ronald Reagan became our oldest president when he took office approaching his 70th birthday—but after a long career as a politician, which followed a long career as an actor. Vaclav Havel, after a distinguished career as a playwright, became President of Czechoslovakia at age 52, following the fall of the Communist regime. Edward VII became King of England at age 60, waiting out the end of the 63 year reign of his mother, Victoria. The current Prince of Wales, Charles, is 61. So if he outlives his mother, Elizabeth II, he will break his Edward's age record of ascension to the British throne.
Tony Randall. After a 50 year marriage, and rumors of him being gay or bisexual, Randall proved himself to be the ultimate metrosexual (he loved opera and the theater) when he fathered his first child with his 50-year-younger second wife at age 75, and a second child two years later. Responding to other rumors saying it was done at a fertility clinic, his wife, Heather Randall, in a Marie Claire interview, said, "I always imagine what it would be like to go on Howard Stern, because I know the first thing he would ask is, ‘What is it like to give an 80-year-old a blow job?' I know this is hard for people to grasp, but sex was not a problem. We had frequent sex until he went into the hospital. It was just a normal part of our married life, and it was happy, and we took care of each other that way until the end."
Alexander Fleming. It was hard to come up with a scientist, because even though there are some who don't make a breakthrough discovery until an advanced age, that usually seems to build on a lifetime of work and experience. We're going to have to mark on the curve here. Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin. After four years as an office worker, an inheritance enabled him to attend university at age 20, and later to go on to a fledgling career as a research physician. That was interrupted by World War I, which—having witnessed many deaths from bacterial infections—led him to a search for an antibiotic. His discovery, like so many in science, was an accident, but an accident that required a trained intelligence to recognize its importance. Reflecting on his discovery at age 47, Fleming recalls, "When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did." It was a case of cleanliness not being close to godliness. In his messy lab, Fleming returned from a vacation and discovered that one of his cultures was contaminated with a fungus—penicillin—that had destroyed all the colonies of the notorious killer staphylococci. It was not until another war broke out, World War II, that others overcame the problem of producing penicillin in sufficient quantities to be widely distributed and clinically useful. For his discovery, Fleming received, the Nobel Prize in 1945, at age 64.
Oscar Swahn. Sports, even more than science or mathematics, requires marking on a curve. There is Jesus Borrego, who set the 1500 meter record for 45-50 year-old-men, when he was 46, in 2008. His time, 3:52:43, would have easily won him the gold medal for the event in the first, 1912, Olympics awarded to 21-year-old Arnold Jackson for his time of 3:56:8. But the winner is Swahn, a Swedish shooter, who won gold at the 1912 Olympics at age 64. He went on to compete in two more Olympics, winning silver at the 1920 Olympics. At age 72, he was not only the oldest Olympian ever, but also the oldest medalist.
Frank Burgos. The annals of crime prove that it's never too late to be bad, although, statistically, crime is a younger person's game. Old age crime is usually played for laughs as in Going in Style—starring oldsters, George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strassberg—about three bored old guys who take up crime for fun. But old age crime is real and not always a joke. I was tempted to name Anthony Marshall, who was convicted last year, at age 85, for stealing $1 million from his mother, Brooke Astor, in her final years before she died at 105, and sentenced to a three year stretch. But thanks to TheSmokingGun.com, I found a series of mug shots of very old criminals including Burgos who was arrested for murder at 94. Google was not my friend, and I was unable to find more information on Burgos, but you can see the mugshots of ancient perps—sexual abusers, thieves, drug traffickers, and murderers—here and here.
As is always the case with these kinds of lists, I'm sure I missed some—obvious or not—and corrections and additions are welcome.
Click here to read the first chapter of my book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009). It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents—all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking, calls it "a book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."