Better Late Than Ever Books: Like so many other success stories, author Brendan Gill excelled early. But, going strong at 81, he prefers to focus on those who seem more fitted to a big finish.

July 11, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Brendan Gill is no late bloomer. He's 81 years old. He has been in full bloom all his life. And he doesn't show any signs of fading.

The New Yorker writer is as spirited, happy, realistic, interesting, genial and youthful an octogenarian as you could imagine. He has just published a book of vignettes about people who have achieved success and renown late, or at least later, in life. Called "Late Bloomers," it includes such tardy luminaries as Julia Child, Paul Cezanne, Eubie Blake, Harry Truman, Miquel Cervantes, Col. Harland Sanders and Emily Post.

"In my vanity," he confesses, amusedly and amusingly, "I've always assumed I've been blooming since the cradle. Nobody else thinks that. That's a personal opinion."

"But it's true," he says, "that I've been spoiled at life, compared to other people, by never having to do anything but what seemed to me to be play rather than work."

On the road promoting his book, he is making more stops than an Amtrak train to New York. He paused Tuesday for a couple of hours at the River Inn, a comfortable hostelry on a leafy street in Foggy Bottom. He grabbed a sandwich with some sort of green hanging out of it and sipped orange juice.

"I always wanted to be at the New Yorker," he says. "I started writing short stories for the New Yorker the moment I got out of Yale. And I've been there ever since. Sixty years."

He was 21 and newly married when he started on what has been the most sophisticated magazine in America during most of his tenure. The magazine was just 11 years old then. Gill wrote all about it in his popular, witty and acutely observed bio-history "Here at The New Yorker."

"I was able to do many different things," he says. "I was a book reviewer, a movie reviewer, a play reviewer. There's nothing I haven't done."

He's written innumerable short stories, poems and profiles for the New Yorker. He currently writes the architectural column, "The Sky Line." A year or so ago, he received the first Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award of New York's Municipal Art Society for his work in architectural preservation.

"When you reach a certain age, you start getting awards," he says. "They're always scraping the bottom of the barrel because everybody's dying. So if you live long enough, your turn comes."

But he did join arms with Jackie O. in famously defending Grand Central Station from destruction, and he has been engaged in many other works of architectural preservation in New York.

He also wears the rosette of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the lapel of a jacket that might be called an Italian plaid. He's a tall, ever-so-slightly stooped man with a big-featured face, adorned with a noble nose and punctuated with dark, piercing eyes. But he's not a particularly careful dresser. With his gray-blue jacket, he's wearing a green-and-white striped shirt and a lilac tie.

"I am said to be the most ill-dressed man in New York City life," Gill observes, indifferently.

The joy of competing

When he was elected to the Institute of Arts and Letters at 80, he called to ask if he would be the oldest member.

"No," he says. "I was told there was a man of 97 elected three years ago, a musicologist. He hit the hundred mark last year. The Institute gave him $10,000, just as a present for being 100 years old, a surprise present.

"He's under the impression he's going to receive $10,000 a year from now on. So he has an incentive to live forever."

Gill believes he is the senior person at the New Yorker. He arrived in the age of James Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. and Katherine White, S. J. Perelman and the now-legendary Harold Ross, the hard-boiled founding editor.

He served with William Shawn, Ross' kind, brilliant and retiring successor, J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote, John Cheever, John Updike and John McPhee. He survives in the era of the new New Yorker of Tina Brown, when long-banned naughty words are allowed in the headlines and copy and naughty paintings permitted on the cover.

"Think how fortunate I am at 81 to be still writing for the New Yorker magazine," he marvels. "There's an army of young people, and gifted young people, and they're very competitive, as they should be, and as I have been in my life, pressing against me from behind. So I have the joy of contest which a lot of old people don't have."

He says the word joy with great, hearty emphasis.

"And when I go down in defeat, as I am bound to do in a year or two, I will go down joyously, and I will not go down in bitterness."

As some of his contemporaries on the New Yorker have when they've lost the "know-how." "Old men always think they are getting better," he says. "Which is a an absolutely positive sign they are getting worse."

And he offers cogent advice to young people pressing at his heel: "Leap before you look," he says. "If you look, you won't leap. Jump! Jump! Jump!"

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