David Bruce: Old Age Anecdotes

What are the anti-aging secrets of top movie stars? How is an aging movie star able to act credibly in an action movie? Of course, diet and exercise help, although tricks can help, too. For example, wrinkles in close-ups can be eliminated through technology after the film has been shot. In addition, hemorrhoid cream can work well for short periods of time, according to award-winning make-up artist Daniel Phillips. An aging star can put hemorrhoid cream on the bags under his eyes, and for a couple of hours the skin will tighten—long enough to shoot some close-ups.

When the Greek tragedian Sophocles, author of Oedipus the King, was 89 years old, his son brought him to trial in an effort to have him declared incompetent so that he could seize his estate. At the trial, Sophocles said, “If I am Sophocles, I am not out of my mind; if I am out of my mind, I am not Sophocles.” To prove that he was competent, he read some passages of his latest play, a work-in-progress titled Oedipus at Colonus. The jury was convinced that Sophocles’s mind was as sharp as ever, and the case was dismissed.

In 1970, when Maggie Kuhn reached the age of 65, she was forced to retire by the Presbyterian Church, which gave her a sewing machine. Ms. Kuhn never even took the sewing machine out of the box, preferring instead to form the Gray Panthers, an organization dedicated to fighting ageism: discrimination against seniors. She believed that seniors have a lot to contribute to society, saying, “We are the elders of the tribe; the elders are concerned with the tribe’s survival and not their own.”

First-grade students often have a very poor conception of age. One first-grader asked his teacher — she was 22 — how old she was. In turn, she asked, “How old do you think I am?” He replied, “Sixty.” When she told him that he was wrong, the student asked, “More or less?” (In an Ohio classroom, a teacher told her students about General Sherman’s march through the South and the devastation he wrought. One of her students asked, “Where did you hide?”)

Professional violinists seldom like to give up their instrument even after their playing days are over. Josef Gingold met Joseph Szigeti after he had retired, and he noticed that Mr. Szigeti was carrying a violin case with him, so he asked him if he was still playing. Unfortunately, Mr. Szigeti had gotten so old that the violin strings cut his fingers, but he explained, “Since I was six years old, I’ve been travelling with the violin. It feels so nice to hold it.”

By the time of choreographer George Balanchine’s last bows on stage, he had grown frail and easily lost his balance. When he took a bow with the other members of the New York City Ballet, he whispered to ballerina Merrill Ashley as he took her hand, “I need to hold your hand. Don’t let go.” And when he later took a solo bow, he was discreetly holding onto the curtain to help him maintain his balance.

Middle-aged librarian Vera H. Henegar started a new job at an elementary school. One day, as a group of young students arrived at the library, Ms. Henegar bent over to pick up a book card from the floor. As she straightened up, she groaned and said, “I must be getting old.” One of the young students told her, “Why, Mrs. Henegar, you can’t be getting old! This is your first year here!”

Six months before she died of old age, Anna Sokolow was still choreographing, despite her need for round-the-clock care. Her caregiver, Jason, would watch her, and he knew that she was still creating steps: “Anna still choreographs, you know. She choreographs in her mind. At night I watch her eyes moving behind her lids. She sees movement. She hears music. Dance is her life.”

Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer once officiated at a wedding of elderly people. The 76-year-old groom, whose best man was his grandson, was hard of hearing, and in the middle of the ceremony he thought the blessing was over so he gave his 69-year-old bride a passionate kiss. The grandson whispered to Rabbi Kertzer that to people as old as the groom and bride, time was precious.

Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola lived a long life, dying at age 93. In fact, she lived so long that she was forced to get a certificate of fides vitae to prove that she was still alive so that she could collect her pension. (She is known for painting people in happy moods, although the style of the time was to paint only people in somber moods.)

As everyone does who lives long enough, Marlene Dietrich aged. Her famous legs swelled because of circulation problems, so she designed boots tall enough to cover the swelling. Because the degree of swelling varied considerably, she had her boots manufactured in several different sizes so she could always find one pair that fit.

When theatrical maven George Abbott was 95 years ago, he had to get a pacemaker. When he asked about its disadvantages, the doctor joked, “You’ll have to have a new battery after 10 years.” As it happened, when Mr. Abbott was 105 years old, he needed a new battery. Eventually, he died at age 107.

Musicians can make good music well into their old age. Brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs once attended an exhibition of new instruments when he was in his 80s. He picked up a tuba, and tested it to see how good it was. A crowd gathered around him because they liked the music he was making.

Sir Malcolm Sargent was witty. Asked what one had to know to play the cymbals, he answered, “Nothing — just when.” In his old age, when asked to what he attributed his advanced age, he replied, “Well, I suppose I must attribute it to the fact that I haven’t yet died.”

Even after Edgar Degas’ eyesight grew bad in his old age, he still collected works of art. Once he bought a painting at an auction and then asked a friend, “Is it beautiful?”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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