Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | January 15, 2011

Late Bloomers

This morning, I watched part of a documentary about photographer Eve Arnold, a nice Jewish girl from Pennsylvania who, despite her Orthodox raising, became a photographer. [Auth. Note: Orthodox Jews do not believe in creating images of people – something about stealing their soul. Very tradition Jews are apparently worried their souls can somehow go walkabout. They won’t look into a cat’s eyes for the same reason.]

Her choice of profession was almost accidental. When given a camera by a friend, Arnold left medical school to learn about photography. Her extraordinary work made her the first woman allowed in Magnum Photos agency, a previously all male bastion devoted to helping photographers keep control of their work.

Her photographic career didn’t actually start until her late thirties, which seemed kind of late for a career change of that magnitude, especially given the heights to which she rose. Shooting everyone and everywhere from Mongolia to Hollywood, she photographed all the nobs and Nazis, starving children in Africa, and a load of movie types. In 1996, at 83 or 84 (depending on the source,) she was interviewed by Angelica Houston for the documentary by Beeban Kidron. At that point, she was living in a nursing home in England and could no longer hold a camera steady. [Author Note: I haven’t found any reports of her death.]

While I shuddered over the cliche, “late bloomer,” the next question struck me like the ex deus machina sixten-wheeler. Why did 32-years-old seem like such an advanced age to someone nearly thirty years older than that? Perhaps because, about fifty years ago, some shortsighted dork made a name for himself declaring “Never trust anyone over thirty.” Though not long after, at the beginning of his third decade later, it was reported as, a footnote to history, he was asked if he had reconsidered the position. Naturally, he was quoted as saying, he hadn’t and no one should believe anything he said. I didn’t.

Still, the notion had taken hold in an already youth-obsessed society. Moreover, the computer revolution has made millionaires out of teenagers, Hollywood continues to glorify precocious youngsters with extraordinarily bad habits, and the anti-aging industry is booming.

Okay, thirty-eight imaybe somewhat early for a midlife profession metamorphosis. So, what about “Grandma Moses?” She left her embroidery behind in her mid-seventies to take up painting. Whether she was primarily concerned about her embroidered compositions in worsted wool being eviscerated by moths, as Judith Stein postulated. Or her arthritis slammed the lid on needle work, she had something to say. Going on to became an icon and a phenomenon, she said it with vigor. Similarly at 85, Jeanne Calment took up the sport of fencing at 85, and lived to the age of 122.

Then there are all the entertainers who suddenly appeared – some as overnight successes after 25 years in the business. A few were actual late bloomers. Margaret Rutherford did not start acting until she was over thirty. Still, she went on to have a decades long career, an Oscar, and the undying love of audiences around the world. Also, Phyllis comedienne Diller, was 37 when she started her career.

Before her forty-ninth birthday, Susan Boyle seduced the world with her voice. Yet, the A-K1 crowd will remember retired manicurist Clara Peller of “where’s the beef” fame from half a century early. Even with no experience before her TV commercial debut, found her self, at more than 89 in demand for series guest shots. Zelda Rubinstein of “Poltergeist” fame was 45 when she gave up a steady, long-time career as a medical lab technician. After retiring from accounting, Peg Phillips of “Northern Exposure” became an actress. And BAFTA winning British actress Liz Smith did not become a professional actress until the age of 50.

In business, 95-year-old Irene Wells Pennington became best known in her nineties when she helped straighten out problems in her husband’s oil business after he went senile in his 90s. Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s first environmental work of note occurred when she was almost 60.

Melchora Aquino was an uneducated Filipino peasant woman, the mother of six children, who became an activist in the fight to gain independence from Spain. Known as the Grand Woman of the revolution, she was 84 when the Philippine Revolution broke out in 1896.

When they should be retiring to the good life, many women have left tradition existences to take conquer the world. At 39 with less than a sou to her name, ‘Mother of Women’s Suffrage’ Louisa Lawson left her farm and husband. She took four children hundreds of miles to a Sydney, Australia and created “Dawn,” the suffragette magazine which existed for 17 years. Moreover, Mother Jones (‘the Miners’ Angel’ known as ‘the greatest woman agitator of our times’), Irish-American anti-war activist and labor radical; at 37 years of age she became active in the union movement following the death of her husband and was active for many of the next 63 years.
Writers, too, have published their first major work late in life.

Mary Wesley wrote two children’s books in her late fifties, but her writing career did not take off until her first novel. She wrote it at 70, after the death of her husband. At age 74,Harriet Doerr published her first novel which was very well received. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Though a columnist in her forties, she did not publish her first novel in the Little House series of children’s books until her sixties. While she first published in her thirties, we remember memoirist and novelist Flora Thompson, for her semi-autobiographical Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy. She did not publish the first volume until she was 60.

Children’s author Mary Alice Fontenot wrote her first book at 51 and wrote almost thirty additional books, well into her eighties and nineties. Maya Angelou – was in her 60s when her poetry and books became popular. In philosophy Last, but never least, Jessica Mitford, British author of the international best-seller, The American Way of Death, in her 70s had a cabaret singing act in San Francisco. The reviews weren’t terrific, but you can make your own decision here.  This website has more examples of the late bloomers, but lets not forget Julia Child – became a chef after many years as a secret intelligence officer. She was 49 when her first book was published, 51 when her  TV program “The French Chef” first aired.
So, here I am on the sunny side of 62 sitting on four, as yet unsubmitted novels at various stages of “finished,” wondering if I’ll be the next J. K. Rowling. Though the first Potter was written in her thirty-second year, Rowling qualifies as another late bloomer under the pernicious dictum of the sixties. The previous sections of her life included education on the continent and a varied, unrelated work history abroad.

Despite rampant cliches, I look at those harbingers of long and successful living, and know the more rational dictum “it’s never too late” is not just some pie-in-the-sky, sunshine up my skirt platitude from the Pollyanna Academy of Arts. “It’s not over ’til it’s over” is another good one. Let’s keep them, and ourselves alive!

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