By Brendan Gill. Artisan. $14. 95.
This little book is as charming in look and feel as in content. Barely five and a half by seven inches, it is slightly larger than the common paperback and a little heavier, though not as thick. The front hard cover has fuzzy, gently colored pictures of Julia Child, President Truman, Colonel Sanders, and Coco Chanel, variously beloved senior icons in modern mythology; and the rear, a small beaming photograph of the maker of the book, the octogenarian Brendan Gill, in a sweater.
The dust jacket is translucent, further obscuring the pictures in a pleasant nostalgic haze. Inside, each pair of open pages carries text on the left and a likeness of the subject, often in color, on the right, except for Mr. Gill's elegant foreword and afterword and the several pages of contents and wise sayings about old age. The paper is satisfyingly thick and polished.
Mr. Gill's seventy-six late bloomers range from Larry Aldrich, ninety-six, the still-living creator and director of a small museum of modern art in Connecticut, to Zeppelin, 1838-1917, the count, "whose name," in Gill's words, "has become the generic term for a certain kind of lighter-than-air machine, invented late in his life and successfully flown years before the Wright brothers found themselves swooping over the dunes at Kitty Hawk."
By "late bloomers," Gill means only that the persons have continued to thrive into later life, perhaps more spectacularly toward the end, at times bursting into a climactic bloom, "who," to quote Gill, "at whatever cost and under whatever circumstances have succeeded in finding themselves." He celebrates persons who have simply been steadily productive over a substantial lifetime, as well as some, like Ian Fleming, who didn't make it out of their fifties. We get a good number of classically known personages, like Montaigne, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad, Pope John XXIII, Grandma Moses, Mother Teresa. Pictures tend to emphasize a relaxed confidence or good cheer. Julia Child, with her mischievous smile, wine glass in one hand and done lobster in the other, looks well advanced in contentment.
The texts for each subject, none longer than a page, are deliciously succinct, more concerned with the quality of the person than with extended biographical detail. Gill cherishes piquant morsels and revealing anecdotes. Thus we learn of Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) that "[becoming] a fashionable artist, he went...