“I can remember when the air was clean, and sex was dirty.” — George Burns
One way to avoid old age is to think about it the way the great financier, Bernard Baruch, thought about it: “Old age is always 15 years older than I am.” Since he lived to 95, maybe Baruch was on to something. Of course, another way to avoid old age is not to reach it in the first place. But for those of us who are more valiant or more curious, it would behoove us to seek out models.
Let’s have a look at three noted people whose lives stretched out to the centenarian milestone.
Irving Berlin – It speaks well for the American free enterprise system that the biggest-selling Christmas song (White Christmas) and Easter song (Easter Parade) were composed by a Russian-Jewish immigrant, one of the most celebrated songwriters of all time. Since he left his Lower East Side home at a very early age, it was the influence of his father’s work as a Synagogue cantor in Belarus, Russia and, soon afterwards, the street sounds of Bowery music halls and saloons, that primarily shaped Berlin’s career.
His output of famous songs was prodigious. He composed over 900 of them, as well as 19 musicals and the scores of 18 films. With songs like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, God Bless America, Always, Blue Skies and There’s No Business Like Show Business, his influence prompted fellow composer Jerome Kern to comment: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American Music.”
As did many Americans of his era, Irving Berlin remained an ardent conservative throughout his life. Though it seemed for the longest time he’d never lose favor with his American audience, his career finally did undergo a sunset — a sunset that could be summarized in one phrase: “rock and roll,” and then one word, “rock.”
Later in life, Berlin underwent a period of depression, because he felt his songs had become obsolete and were consigned to musical history. For the most part, he was right. But it’s undeniable that he had a long, glorious career while it lasted. Irving Berlin died in his sleep in 1989 at 101 years old.
Jacques Barzun — Born in Créteil, France and reared in Paris and Grenoble, Jacques Barzun became one of America’s most distinguished intellectuals and historians of Western culture. He was brought up in a home visited by noted modernist artists and poets. While visiting America during the First World War, his father was impressed with American cultural values, and decided on the spot that young Jacques should have an American education. He began his American education at 12 in a prep school where, to master English, he walked around with a pocket dictionary and a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Seven years later, Barzun graduated at the top of his class from Columbia University, where he remained for his PhD, and for over 30 years as a professor and provost.
Barzun, the French native, became a distinguished English-language author in the field of the history of ideas and culture. He also wrote prolifically about detective fiction and baseball. The Baseball Hall of Fame posts a plaque with a Barzun quote: “whoever wants to know the heart and the mind of America had better learn baseball.”
He began writing his monumental work, From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Cultural Life 1500 to the Present when he was 92. Jacques Barzun died in San Antonio in 2012 at the age of 104.
Strom Thurmond — If there existed a Vitamin M (for malice) that enhanced longevity, this notorious US Senator from South Carolina had to have taken at least one capsule every day during his very long life. He opposed civil rights legislation in 1957, 1964, and 1965. In fact, in opposition to the 1957 bill, he delivered a filibuster on the floor of the Senate for a non-stop 24 hours and 18 minutes.
Public political dialogue has changed considerably since 1948, when Strom Thurmond ran for president as a Dixiecrat. In that year, Thurmond proclaimed: “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”
Racist… who, Strom Thurmond? Of course not! He was simply for states’ rights, and against federal government interference — or so he said. On that platform, he chose to become an embarrassment to Republicans instead of Democrats when he switched parties in 1964, over disgust with President Johnson’s championing of The Civil Rights Act.
Despite or perhaps in line with his racial animus, Senator Thurmond maintained a deep loyalty to the people of South Carolina. Although opposing federal expenditure legislation at every turn, “Thurmond sought every federal dollar he could get for South Carolina, with a press release seeking credit for every grant made to the state.”
As years went by, he showed a bit of resilience, if only because he knew what he had to do to stay in office. In 1982, he voted to extend the Voting Rights Act which he had opposed fiercely when it was first enacted.
A man of monumental determination and energy, at 65, Thurmond once dropped down on the floor of his Senate office in front of reporters and performed 100 pushups. After a devoted — and always controversial — 48 years in the United States Senate, Strom Thurmond died in his sleep in 2003 at 100 years old.
Six months after the Senator’s death, Essie Mae Washington-Williams proclaimed publicly that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond and Carrie “Tunch” Butler, a black maid who had once worked for Thurmond’s parents.
Here you have, then, three diverse notables who made it to 100. Until we're made privy to more sophisticated DNA information, it’s fair to say that Irving Berlin, Jacques Barzun, and Strom Thurmond have little in common, except for one attribute — a strong sense of purpose in life. Each one of them reinvented themselves when one phase of their career seemed to subside, only to begin a new phase. And for each, age became a mere number instead of an obstacle.