Old Masters

The Times recently published portraits of what they called Old Masters. It was drawn from an essay that Lewis Lapham wrote for Lapham’s Quarterly. The fifteen portraits are of men and women in their 80s and 90s with substantial and well-known careers. They were each asked five or six questions about how being old affected their work.

Virtually all reported that they were still doing pretty much the same things they always did. While they continued to learn from their experience, they were still working in the same area they started out in.

For example, the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, 84, said: I think I’ve learned more about how to make a movie. [but] The basic approach hasn’t changed.

T. Bone Pickens, 86, the American financier and business magnate, more or less summed up the view of all of the Old Masters. “I don’t consider myself to be old. I just go to work like I did 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. I work the same hours. I haven’t semiretired or slowed down.”

Many reported they stayed in shape and tried to keep fit. Tony Bennett, now 88, plays tennis, Ginette Bedard, 81, long-distance runner keeps running marathons (“I’m going to do this until destiny takes me away.”), T. Bonnes Pickens has a personal trainer, and Supreme Court Judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, works out at the gym each day.

The actor Christopher Plummer, 84, also said it’s important to stay in shape but added, “And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important.”

At the same time, it is sad that so many people who are not especially happy with their job can’t wait to retire. And when they do, they have no idea what to do… “They sit and home and watch television. And that is death.”

The Old Masters never retire, they keep doing what they’ve always done. Plummer said he would simply like to drop dead on the stage. “That would be a nice theatrical way to go.”

For most of these individuals, it hardly seemed to matter how old they are. No one reported about their aches and pains, they didn’t feel any different, and that age isn’t so much chronological as your way of being. They are the fortunate ones.

Aging varies so much among individuals. I suspect most people in their 80s and 90s do begin to feel their age, in all the ways we hear about these days. Perhaps the Old Masters devotion to their work kept the inevitable effects of old age at bay. As Hemingway once wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”