A Young Person’s Guide to Slate’s Culturally-Relevant Octogenarians


Earlier this week Slate released their list of most influential octogenarians in America for 2010, highlighting men and women who are still culturally relevant in their 80s, 90s, and beyond (rock on, Wesley E. Brown). As with every year, there are plenty of “fresh old faces” (i.e. newly-qualified icons) as well as some veterans of the list. Assuming that most of you weren’t around for World War II, we’ve pulled together a cheat-sheet to Slate’s cultural relics in the arts — because while you might know who Maurice Sendak is, you probably didn’t realize that he was 4 months old when the stock market crashed in 1929.

Clint Eastwood – 80

Glory Days: Playing the badass anti-hero in classic Westerns (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Dirty Harry) and action flicks (In the Line of Fire) that you saw half of on AMC that one time.

These Days: Since 2003’s Mystic River, Eastwood’s become known for his work as a director, including Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino and Invictus. Eastwood doesn’t show any signs of slowing down either. His newest film, Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, doesn’t look like a winner. But we’re excited to see how he treats J. Edgar Hoover is an upcoming biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Historical Signpost: Eastwood was drafted for the Korean War in 1950 after high school.

Stephen Sondheim – 80

Glory Days: Composer and lyricist behind Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and pre-Edward Scissorhands Sweeney Todd. He also worked with Leonard Bernstein to pen the lyrics to West Side Story.

These Days: Sondheim recently published a volume of his lyrics, accompanied by extensive notes, called Finishing the Hat. A second volume is on the way.

Historical Signpost: From the age of 10 Sondheim was mentored by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Mary Higgins Clark – 82

Glory Days: Clark wrote or co-wrote over 40 suspense and mystery novels, which together have sold over 100 million copies in the US. Her first suspense novel, Where Are The Children, is in its 75th printing.

These Days: She published two novels in 2010, Just Take My Heart and The Shadow of Your Smile, both of which conquered many a vampire teen novel to make it on to the New York Times best-seller list.

Historical Signpost: Clark wrote poems and plays for her friend to put on when she was seven… in 1934.

Edward Albee – 82

Glory Days: Albee secured himself as one of America’s most famous living playwrights with works like The Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virigina Woolf, and A Delicate Balance, which premiered in the ’50s and ’60s.

These Days: He penned a new play called Me, Myself & I in 2007 and is continuing to write. As he told the Guardian this past July when asked what the “high point” of his career has been, the 82-year-old Albee responded, “I hope it hasn’t happened yet.”

Historical Signpost: Albee wrote Virginia Woolf about his time at Trinity College in Connecticut, a school that he was expelled from for skipping class and compulsory chapel in 1947, four years before Jack Kerouac would write On The Road.

Maurice Sendak – 83

Glory Days: Writer and illustrator of children’s library and bedtime story staples such as Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970).

These Days: Sendak worked with director Spike Jonze for ten years to bring a film version of Wild Things to the big screen last year. He’s currently working on an animated film version of Harold and the Purple Crayon with Will Smith.

Historical Signpost: Sendak was 4 months old when the stock market crashed in 1929.

W.S. Merwin – 83

Glory Days: A poet, Merwin won a Pulitzer in 1971 for The Carrier of Ladders. He’s known for his influences from Buddhism and mythology. In 2005, his collection Migration won the National Book Award.

These Days: Merwin jumped 24 spots on Slate’s list this year, ostensibly for his appointment as Poet Laureate for 2010-2011. He won a second Pulitzer for his collection of poems The Shadow of Sirius in 2009.

Historical Signpost: His first book of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published as a part of the Yale Younger Poets Series in 1952, thanks to an endorsement by W. H. Auden.

Tony Bennett – 84

Glory Days: The eternal crooner has been recording for 60 years and has won 15 Grammy Awards. You may know his most iconic song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which was recorded in 1962.

These Days: You may have caught his performance of “America the Beautiful” at the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Bennett also still racking up Grammys, with two for his 2006 album Duets: An American Classic. This past August he showed he’s still hip when he released a live EP on iTunes.

Historical Signpost: Born in 1926, Bennett was old enough in 1944 to be drafted for the end of World War II. He also seems to be immune to aging.

Stan Lee – 87

Glory Days: Think of a comic book hero and Lee probably had a hand in his or her creation. His most famous, including the Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil, The Fantastic Four, and Thor, were notable for their flaws, bucking the archetypal superhero of the time (the late 1950s).

These Days: Lee has served as executive producer on all of the recent blockbuster movie adaptations of his heroes. He also recently teamed up with the NHL to create a superhero for each team in the league.

Historical Signpost: After graduating high school at 16, Lee join the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration in theater.

Betty White – 88

Glory Days: White starred in now one but two classic TV shows: the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls. Last spring, she hosted Saturday Night Live as a result of grassroots campaign on Facebook, and the gig scored her an Emmy.

These Days: Besides the SNL performance, White has starred in the film You Again and her show Hot in Cleveland is gearing up for a second season in 2011.

Historical Signpost: After suffering career interruptions due to World War II, by 1954 White was already hosting her own variety show, the short-lived Betty White Show.

Eli Wallach – 95

Glory Days: Wallach is a legendary method actor, having starred in more than 50 films, including The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly alongside fellow treasure Clint Eastwood. Younger readers may know him as the old actor in The Holiday.

These Days: In 2006, he published an autobiography: The Good, The Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage. He’s also appeared in quite a few films in his old age, including the Wall Street sequel and The Ghost Writer.

Historical Signpost: As a medical administrative officer in World War II, Wallach was stationed in Casablanca and later France. There he and members of his unit performed a play for patients in a hospital called Is This the Army?, in which Wallach played Adolf Hitler.

Elliott Carter – 101

Glory Days: Carter is a classical music composer who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his string quartets in the ’60s and ’70s.

These Days: Carter has published more than 40 works since turning 90, and three since turning 100. A celebration was held at Carnegie Hall for his 100th birthday. He has lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village since 1945.

Historical Signpost: Carter was in the audience when Pierre Monteux conducted the New York premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1924. He was 15 at the time.