John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Archive for February, 2010

Stories from Those Who Knew My Father

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

One of the pleasures of publishing a memoir about my father is how many people write and call me with stories about him. Of course I know that he was much respected by the people he worked with. As I quote in the book, “I have never worked for a better managing editor or a nicer guy,” and “I guess it’s enough to say that, in my opinion, few have been privileged to work for a fairer person who tried to do an honest job.”

Still, it’s lovely when Ada Feyerick, who was a history-archeology editor at Horizon, tells me on the phone that my father was the best person she ever worked for, considerate and relaxed and supportive. (Ada has written a wonderfully engaging memoir herself, The Sixties: An American Family in Europe, available from Academia Books, 15 E. Hartshorn Drive, Short Hills, NJ 07078.)

Oliver Jensen and Joe Thorndike

Oliver Jensen and Joe Thorndike

Ada came to my father’s funeral service on the Cape in 2006, as did Bob Ginna. I didn’t know Bob (though I’d read plenty about him in James Salter’s memoir, Burning The Days), but he told some great stories about working with Joe Thorndike in New York.

Shirley Tomkievicz, yet another editor at Horizon, writes to me about my father and his friend Oliver: “Yes, Joe did reach out with more flair than Oliver, because for all his reserve, Joe was warmer than Oliver and not nearly so walled in. Much less conventional.”

My father was warmer than the outgoing and exuberant Oliver! Much less conventional! How I love hearing these other perspectives.

Don’t we all want this, for our parents to be remembered? It wasn’t my first goal in writing the book—I began it because of how crushing it was to watch my father’s mind disappear—but it gladdens me now to talk to these people who knew him.

And these days, to balance things out, I’m writing a novel about my mother. Only fiction can do her justice.

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Obsessions, Grand and Less So

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

I’d like to be obsessed with travels to distant lands, with a book on the best-seller list, with a flood of easy money or a new and sumptuous love affair. If any of this comes to me in the next few months, I promise a complete depiction.

Instead, what I keep perking up to these days are stories of death and old age, of how patients confront disease and their own mortality, of what people do in their advanced years—or simply their last years. All rather grim subjects, perhaps—but I’m long past fighting what interests me, I just follow it.

What woke me up last week were some comments by Loudon Wainwright Jr, the singer-songwriter, in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Loudon Wainwright Sr. worked with my father at Life, and once described my father as “a handsome, bright, reserved, efficient fellow…ambitious and proud,” and marked from the start for bigger things. So I’ve listened to Loudon Jr.’s songs with extra interest, and I was fascinated to hear what he had to say about Charlie Poole, the banjo player and leader of the North Carolina Ramblers. Wainwright’s latest album is called “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project”, and on Fresh Air Wainwright described the end of Poole’s life, at the age of 39. Basically, he drank himself to death.


Wikipedia puts it this way: “Poole’s life ended after a 13-week drinking bender. He had been invited to Hollywood to play background music for a film. According to some reports, he was disheartened by the slump in record sales due to the Depression. Poole never made it to Hollywood. He died of a heart attack in May 1931.”

He went out the way he wanted to live, high wide and handsome. Or one could see it that way. Perhaps it was a good deal more desperate than that—especially with that note about being disheartened, which sounds a lot like depression.

Could I just go crazy like that some day, just to stir things up? Could my father have faced his oncoming dementia with a more violent, a more exuberant response?

Probably not. We are usually so much who we are.

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Book Recommendations at Blackbirdinc

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Though the proximate demise of the book is often foretold these days, almost 300,000 new titles were published in the U.S. in 2008. (This according to Bowker and their Books In Print database.) Readers are dying off, it’s said, succumbing to the lure of their various screens—though I’m at my screen as I write this, and I have yet to be rendered insensate. And if I’m part of a dying breed I’ve got plenty of company.

Along this line, here’s a heartening website. Jeff Haden has taken to asking people whose books he admires to recommend the books they love, or are currently reading. presents an eclectic group, and it’s a fascination to me to see what other writers suggest.


When Jeff Haden asked me for my recommendations, I found I couldn’t choose a half dozen books from my shelves—because that would have left out dozens of others that I’ve loved. So I picked the best book of all, ever (might as well go out on a limb), the book I’ve read over and over and that has moved me like no other, James Salter’s novel Light Years. That’s Salter on the left. I added two other of his books, made some comments about them, and they’re all at You’ll find Haden’s website well worth the click.

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Terry Pratchett’s Suicide Plans

Friday, February 12th, 2010


Here’s an interesting article from London’s Daily Mail, by the English novelist Terry Pratchett.

It begins:

“How did I get involved in the debate surrounding assisted death? It was by accident, after taking a long and, yes, informed look at my future as someone with Alzheimer’s.

As a result of my coming out about the disease after I was diagnosed at the age of 59, I have contacts in medical research circles all over the world, and I have no reason to believe a cure is imminent.

I do think, on their good advice, that there may be some interesting developments in the next couple of years, and I’m not the only one to hope for some kind of stepping stone – a treatment that will keep me going long enough for a better one to be developed.

I enjoy my life and wish to continue it for as long as I am still myself, knowing who I am and recognising my nearest and dearest.

But I know enough about the endgame to be fearful of it, despite the fact that as a wealthy man I could probably shield myself from the worst. But even the wealthy, whatever they may do, have their appointment with death.

Back in my early days as a journalist, I was told something that surprised me at the time: no one has to do what the doctor tells them.”

Pratchett goes on to claim that he won’t let the dementia he’s been diagnosed with overwhelm him, that he’ll take his own life with the time comes.

There’s the rub: when the time comes. How does one ever know? And with dementia getting abiggger and bigger foothold, one day the Alzheimer’s patient will forget about his suicide plans, so carefully thought out.

Here was my response to the Daily Mail’s online comment board:

I completely agree with Terry Pratchett about assisted suicide. But consider my father, who felt just the same. He joined the Hemlock Society, he built up a supply of sleeping pills (back when Nembutal was still available to the U.S. public). Then, at the age of 91, his memory and language left him. At some point he no longer remembered his stash of pills. He hadn’t wanted to live while bedbound, incontinent and oblivious—but that was a decision he forgot.

More than that, he wanted to live. That’s what I saw in the year I took care of him—that he didn’t want to die. When he was ready he made it clear. Eight days before his death he began to plead with me, “Please help me get out of here. Help me, I have to get out of here, can’t you help me get out of here?” But before that week he held to life.

It makes me wonder about myself. Like my father before me, I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want to live through a protracted and painful decline—and I’ve kept the pills he never used. But my guess is that no matter I feel now, when the time comes I’ll probably hold on just as tightly as he did, and far longer than I can imagine now.

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Seventy Years of Marriage

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Visiting an old friend in Montreal, I am taken to visit her 91-year-old mother. She’s bent but lively, and her mind remains as fluid as ever. We speak in French, which is a trial for me, but I manage to capture most of what she says. It helps that she speaks the clearest French of anyone I know, having come originally from Bordeaux.

She lives in a nursing home that looks, on the upper floors, much like any apartment building. She receives help from physical therapists, aides and people who clean for her, and her room is bright, filled with old photos and new books, including those by President Obama, one of her heroes. (Omar Sharif is another, ever since his role in Doctor Zhivago.) All in all, especially with help from her daughter Elisabeth, she leads a pretty good life. She’s glad to see me, and I’m glad to see her.

But what stays with me after my visit is the story Elisabeth tells me of another old woman in the home, about the same age, who lives with her husband in a single room. They have been married for seventy years. And periodically, every three months or so, the woman undergoes a kind of meltdown. She takes the elevator down to the lobby and common rooms, deshabille, her clothes streaming off her, her arms raised and her voice in a roar.

‘It’s too much!” she screams in French. “Seventy years is too much! I can’t go on with this man, he’s hopeless, he’s killing me, I can’t stand it. Think of it, seventy years. No, it’s too long, a marriage should not go on so long. I need to be by myself. Is this never going to happen? Do I have to go on with him forever? He drives me crazy, some day I’m going to kill him. No, I cannot go on like this, I’m at the end of my rope. Seventy years is way too much!”

Her husband, I should point out, is completely compos mentis. Though sometimes cantankerous, he suffers from no dementia at all.  Madame, it could be worse!

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