WASHINGTON -- Brendan Gill is no late bloomer. He's 81 years old. He has been in full bloom all his life. And he doesn't show any signs of fading.
The New Yorker writer is as spirited, happy, realistic, interesting, genial and youthful an octogenarian as you could imagine. He has just published a book of vignettes about people who have achieved success and renown late, or at least later, in life. Called "Late Bloomers," it includes such tardy luminaries as Julia Child, Paul Cezanne, Eubie Blake, Harry Truman, Miquel Cervantes, Col. Harland Sanders and Emily Post.
"In my vanity," he confesses, amusedly and amusingly, "I've always assumed I've been blooming since the cradle. Nobody else thinks that. That's a personal opinion."
"But it's true," he says, "that I've been spoiled at life, compared to other people, by never having to do anything but what seemed to me to be play rather than work."
On the road promoting his book, he is making more stops than an Amtrak train to New York. He paused Tuesday for a couple of hours at the River Inn, a comfortable hostelry on a leafy street in Foggy Bottom. He grabbed a sandwich with some sort of green hanging out of it and sipped orange juice.
"I always wanted to be at the New Yorker," he says. "I started writing short stories for the New Yorker the moment I got out of Yale. And I've been there ever since. Sixty years."
He was 21 and newly married when he started on what has been the most sophisticated magazine in America during most of his tenure. The magazine was just 11 years old then. Gill wrote all about it in his popular, witty and acutely observed bio-history "Here at The New Yorker."
"I was able to do many different things," he says. "I was a book reviewer, a movie reviewer, a play reviewer. There's nothing I haven't done."
He's written innumerable short stories, poems and profiles for the New Yorker. He currently writes the architectural column, "The Sky Line." A year or so ago, he received the first Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award of New York's Municipal Art Society for his work in architectural preservation.
"When you reach a certain age, you start getting awards," he says. "They're always scraping the bottom of the barrel because everybody's dying. So if you live long enough, your turn comes."
But he did join arms with Jackie O. in famously defending Grand Central Station from destruction, and he has been engaged in many other works of architectural preservation in New York.
He also wears the rosette of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the lapel of a jacket that might be called an Italian plaid. He's a tall, ever-so-slightly stooped man with a big-featured face, adorned with a noble nose and punctuated with dark, piercing eyes. But he's not a particularly careful dresser. With his gray-blue jacket, he's wearing a green-and-white striped shirt and a lilac tie.
"I am said to be the most ill-dressed man in New York City life," Gill observes, indifferently.
The joy of competing
When he was elected to the Institute of Arts and Letters at 80, he called to ask if he would be the oldest member.
"No," he says. "I was told there was a man of 97 elected three years ago, a musicologist. He hit the hundred mark last year. The Institute gave him $10,000, just as a present for being 100 years old, a surprise present.
"He's under the impression he's going to receive $10,000 a year from now on. So he has an incentive to live forever."
Gill believes he is the senior person at the New Yorker. He arrived in the age of James Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. and Katherine White, S. J. Perelman and the now-legendary Harold Ross, the hard-boiled founding editor.
He served with William Shawn, Ross' kind, brilliant and retiring successor, J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote, John Cheever, John Updike and John McPhee. He survives in the era of the new New Yorker of Tina Brown, when long-banned naughty words are allowed in the headlines and copy and naughty paintings permitted on the cover.
"Think how fortunate I am at 81 to be still writing for the New Yorker magazine," he marvels. "There's an army of young people, and gifted young people, and they're very competitive, as they should be, and as I have been in my life, pressing against me from behind. So I have the joy of contest which a lot of old people don't have."
He says the word joy with great, hearty emphasis.
"And when I go down in defeat, as I am bound to do in a year or two, I will go down joyously, and I will not go down in bitterness."
As some of his contemporaries on the New Yorker have when they've lost the "know-how." "Old men always think they are getting better," he says. "Which is a an absolutely positive sign they are getting worse."
And he offers cogent advice to young people pressing at his heel: "Leap before you look," he says. "If you look, you won't leap. Jump! Jump! Jump!"
Showered by favors
He's followed the dictum of his adored father. A wealthy surgeon in Hartford, Conn., who invested profitably in insurance stocks, Michael Henry Richard Gill gave each of his five children their inheritance when they were born.
"Spend your money while you're young," Dr. Gill exhorted his children.
"I was the only member of the family to take him seriously," Brendan Gill says. He likes to say he has lived by his wits since.
Nobody ever made much money at the old New Yorker, which was notoriously stingy when Raoul Fleischmann owned it. Somewhat late for Gill, the Tina Brown New Yorker, now owned by Si Newhouse, is noticeably more generous to its staffers.
But he says: "It would be a scandal if a person like me, who has been so fortunate in the beginning, would show the least bitterness or regret that life has not dealt justly with me.
"Life has been kinder to me than I deserve," he says happily. "It's showered favors on me at every moment of my life. It was my good fortune last week to celebrate my 60th wedding anniversary.
"My wife [Anne] is even younger in spirit and more energetic in life than I am. We have six astonishingly amusing and fruitful children and 11 grandchildren, including a little adopted Chinese granddaughter. I boast she's just been accepted at Harvard at 2. Very few people can make that boast. And it's roughly true."
His daughter is returning to Harvard to get another degree, he explains, and little Emma has been accepted at a pre-day school at the university, another early bloomer.
He found it very difficult to define "late bloomers" for his book -- "because some people grow old so much earlier than other people," he says. "Friends of mine in their 40s and 50s have begun striking a valedictory posture, waving goodbye to life.
"Other people like me are deeply involved in their 80s and seem to be still saying hello in one form or another to the possibilities of life, to what Scott Fitzgerald called 'the promises of life.' "
75 people for the book
But he managed to select 75 "people who at whatever cost and whatever circumstances have succeeded in finding themselves. If the hour happens to be later than they may have wished, take heart! So much more cherished the bloom."
He sneaked in some of his friends: Brooke Astor, the socialite philanthropist who wrote a first-rate novel in her late 80s; Philip Johnson, the architect who started his practice at 39 and is still at work at 90; Louise Nevelson, the sculptor who achieved fame only in her 60s with her black wood constructions; Louise Bourgeoise, another sculptor whose work went unrecognized until she was early 60.
He also put in some of his personal historical favorites: Michel de Montaigne, the French essayist who had "all the qualities one wants to admire"; Laurence Sterne, who wrote "Tristam Shanty," one of the great comic novels, as if it were no harder than humming a tune; and Jonathan Swift, the irascible satirist who wrote "Gulliver's Travel," chosen "partly because he was Irish."
The publishers asked Gill to include the odd couple of Colonel Sanders and Mother Teresa, neither of whom he admires.
In fact, he despises Colonel Sanders, whom he describes as "a crotchety, right-wing, anti-welfare, hell-and-damnation millionaire." Mother Teresa is simply not a saint, he says, and lacks the high moral posture she professes.
"I may have uttered some vile expletive," Gill says. "But it wasn't that I wasn't going to do them. They're representative of our society."
"Late Bloomers" is a handsome little volume (5 1/2 inches by 6 3/4 inches) with a pocket bio of each bloomer accompanied by a portrait. The book reminded one reviewer of editions of the lives of the saints he recalled from his youth.
"The challenge was to write in 287 words something that would have some actual value," Gill says. "It was fun for me, whether you can actually do it or not."
He has succeeded admirably well. The vignettes are models of concision that might have pleased his early New Yorker mentors. He's managed to include some pithy nugget of fact and a handsome turn of phrase in each one.
His own favorite line comes on the page devoted to Gertrude Jekyll, the doughty spinster who transformed Victorian gardening into something modern. Her life blossomed in middle age when she met the young architect Edwin Lutyens.
"They became an indissoluble team," Gill writes, "whose fame will last as long as her roses climb his walls."
Not bad for an early bloomer.
Legendary bloomers in their own time
A "double bloomer," he created the first black musical ever to play on Broadway in the early 1920s, then didn't return to prominence again until the 1970s.
In her 50s, when "she whipped up her first omelette on TV ... the world became her oyster."
At 60, he succeeded FDR, and "to general surprise, proved to be a tough-minded executive."
Pub Date: 7/11/96