Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Age-Before-Beauty Weekend

As 94-year-old Kirk Douglas upstages the upstarts at the Oscars comes word that the oldest living veteran of World War I has died at 110.

Kirk teases the supporting actresses by dawdling with the envelope, pinches winner Melissa Leo at her request and, after she drops an F-bomb, lets her grab his cane as they exit, she looking less steady than he.

Meanwhile, Frank Buckles, who as a 16-year-old lied about his age to enlist in 1917 and survived World War II as a civilian Japanese prisoner, takes with him not only his title but the apparently easygoing temperament that sustained him for a century plus a decade.

In the longevity sweepstakes, my bragging rights as 87 looms later this week seem feeble by comparison but prompt thoughts about aging, a subject that usually elicits commentary from isn't-he-or-she cute to it's-the-pits. ("Old age is a shipwreck," said Charles de Gaulle, but typically the General was middle-aged and not talking about himself.)

The truth, as it usually is, exists in a (forgive me) grey area. If you're healthy, you can do much of what you did before but, like life insurance, it costs twice as much to get half the return.

If there is a secret to aging, it involves the paradox of simultaneous involvement and detachment. Younger people keep urging you not to live in the past, but the past keeps living in you in a search for meaning in what you were too busy to think about when you were doing it.

With the dropping away of old grudges and regrets comes a focus on the present and a future you will never see but hope to influence in some small way with what you have learned over the years.

Watching Kirk Douglas now recalls a time when we were together in a Park Avenue duplex at one of those gatherings where the privileged babble away with no human connection whatever.

To keep the conversation going, I suggested a game: Name the actor you would want to star in a movie of your life. “As for me,” I said, nodding at him across the table, “I see Kirk in the part.”

He smiled the familiar dazzling smile that never quite reaches his eyes, a flash of the amused anger that fueled his movie-star charm. I smiled back in what I took to be a moment of shared irony between Jewish boys of dirt-poor parents being wined, dined and bored by the very rich.

I meant what I said then. I still do. Colin Firth is much too young and callow for the part.

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