The last Civil War widow.
The last Iwo Jima flag raiser.
The last person still alive to have flown with Amelia Earhart.
Historian Stuart Lutz tracked down 39 of history’s last-known survivors for his new book, The Last Leaf, and collected their personal stories. Through their eyes, you can see what it was like to throw a curve ball to Babe Ruth during the slugger’s historic home-run streak. Or be there for the world’s first television broadcast. Or step onstage with the great magician Harry Houdini. AARP Bulletin spoke with Lutz about his remarkable search for witnesses to amazing moments in history, and asked about the most memorable stories he collected for the book.
Q. When you were creating this book, what remarkable moments stand out?
A. I did a public interview in April with former Ziegfeld Follies girl Doris Eaton Travis, who was 106. Her first stage performance was in 1911. She’s just a terrific example of how to live and remain active. She graduated college at age 88, and then started working on her master’s degree. She died two weeks later, so I was her last stage performance.
Q. Some of these stories would make a great movie.
A. If I had to pick one chapter of the 39 that is the most emotional, incredible story, there’s nothing that would take second place to Esther Raab. She’s one of the last survivors of the Nazi death camp Sobibor in Poland. If you went to Sobibor, you were dead within a few hours. But Esther was chosen to be one of the few Sobibor slaves, which saved her life. She pulled clothing and valuables off the dead people. She and some of the others finally plotted to kill their Nazi captors.
A. They did it brilliantly. On the escape day, one person told their captor, “I found this beautiful leather coat for you, come see me at 4 p.m. in the workshop.” They’d tell another captor, “Come see me at 4:30.” They spaced it out so there’d be enough time to clean up after they killed each captor, and then they all escaped into the woods.
Q. Her story reads like a miracle.
A. And that’s not the end. The night before the escape, Mrs. Raab’s mother came to her in a dream—both her parents had been killed by the Nazis—and told her that if she went to this barn she’d known as a child, she would be safe. After she escaped into the woods, she eventually made it to the barn. She discovered her brother was already living there, after escaping from another prison camp. They lived there—with the owner’s knowledge—until the end of the war. After the war, she saw one of the Nazi commandants from the camp, had him arrested, and testified at his trial. She eventually moved to the United States, married and had children.
A. In 1911, 146 women died in New York City because the factory doors were locked during a fire. The fire started on the eighth floor. Rose worked on the ninth floor, where most people jumped out of the window and died. Rose ran up to the 10th floor and saw the executives had gotten out by jumping to another building. She did the same thing. She died in 2001, at age 107, a month before the 90th anniversary of the fire.
Q. It’s striking to learn how many “last leaves” lived incredibly long lives—and were very active right to the end.
A. Absolutely! When I called up the last suffragette, about 1999, to see if she wanted to be interviewed, she was about 98. I heard her flipping through her datebook in the background, and she said, “You can come in three weeks, that’s the first time I have free to see someone.”
Q. And speaking of active, there’s Norman Vaughan.
A. He was an amazing character! He was the last man alive to have gone to Antarctica when Admiral Byrd flew over the South Pole in 1929. He dropped out of Harvard so he could go on the expedition. He was on a dogsled team, and tested outdoor sleeping gear. At one point he slept outside in 73 degrees below zero. Byrd said, “I can’t afford to pay you, but I’ll name a mountain after you.” So on his 89th birthday, he climbed the 10,000-plus foot Mount Vaughan. He did the Iditarod well into his 80s. For his centennial, he was planning a return to Mount Vaughan but died before he could raise enough funds.
Q. It’s remarkable to think that there are people still alive who are connected to America’s most legendary people—like Amelia Earhart.
A. We tend to think of Amelia Earhart as virtually ancient history, but there’s still a man alive who flew with her. Her stepson flew around the country with her doing various promotions that would pay for her fuel. And in 1933 they flew together to the World’s Fair in Chicago. There’s a great photo of him at age 6 or 7 with Earhart in full flight gear.
Q. The flip side of that are the “last leaves” who should be famous but aren’t. Like Pem Farnsworth, whose husband Philo Farnsworth invented the television set.
A. The intention of the book was to rescue some of these people from obscurity. We know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, that the Wright brothers flew the first plane. But we use the television every day and nobody’s heard of Philo Farnsworth, who should be a household name. His wife, Pem, was there at the very first television broadcast in 1927.
Q. It seemed like the ideas came to Philo from another planet, and he just transcribed them.
A. He thought of himself as a conduit. Inventions came to him and he gave them to the public as a whole. He never became a wealthy man. When he was 14, he was plowing a field, and as he was going up and down the rows, he thought of an electron gun doing the same thing to produce a television image.
Q. So many of these stories are like footnotes to history. Like the last three Civil War widows. It’s unbelievable that they were with us until just recently.
A. All three married when they were in their late teens or early 20s, and they married eightysomething Civil War soldiers. For Mrs. Janeway, the last Union widow, it absolutely was love. They lived together for 10 years, and after he died, she never remarried. No man she ever met could top him.
Q. What about the others?
A. For the two Confederate widows, it was more out of economic necessity. They got married in the ’20s, during the horrific farm depression. One of the few reliable forms of income was a pension. Until Mrs. Janeway died in 2003, every month she got a check from the federal government for his Civil War service 140 years earlier.
Q. You must have seen some great memorabilia during your visits.
A. For sure! Hal Prieste was the last Olympian from the 1920 Olympics. He won the bronze medal for diving in 1920 in Antwerp. That was the first games where the Olympic Committee created a flag with the familiar five rings. The Olympic Committee created one flag. On a dare, Mr. Prieste shimmied up the flagpole, stole the flag and was chased by the police, who weren’t going to catch a world-class athlete. It was like stealing the Mona Lisa—what do you do with it? The Olympic Committee had no idea what happened to it, and Mr. Prieste kept it in his apartment for 80 years. He finally ’fessed up to the crime, and in 2000—at age 104—he flew 22 hours to Sydney to give back the flag he’d stolen 80 years earlier. He was part of the Olympic opening ceremonies, and Bob Costas told Mr. Prieste’s story of the pilfered Olympic flag. I got to see the flag before he gave it back.
Q. Did you get to keep any interesting mementos?
A. Doris Eaton Travis, the Ziegfeld Follies girl, was born in 1904, and I took a photo of her with my son. If he lives into his 90s, he will have a photo of him with someone born 200 years earlier, which is pretty cool.
Q. Some of the “last leaves” didn’t get attention until much later in their lives. Like Paul Hopkins, the last pitcher to give up a home run to Babe Ruth.
A. In 1927, Babe Ruth hit a then-record 60 home runs. Paul Hopkins gave up the 59th home run to Babe Ruth and then faded into the background—became a banker. Then, in 1998, when the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run chase heated up again, there was a realization that there was still a pitcher from the 1927 home-run race. Mr. Hopkins was invited to throw out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium and was accorded other honors. Suddenly everybody wanted his signature.
Q. How many people have such incredible stories to share, but we just don’t take the time to ask them?
A. The worst thing for me is reading a New York Times obituary of a last survivor. The last person from the Bretton Woods conference in the mid-1940s, which set up the International Monetary Fund, just died recently. And I never thought to look for him.
Q. Do you think you’re in a race against time to find more “last leaves”?
A. There’s one Enola Gay crewman now, I’d like to get him in "Last Leaves" volume 2. There’s one last man from the first NBA game. There are still a number of wind-talkers left. There was one Indian War widow left. Her husband fought Native Americans in the West in the late 19th century; she was a young woman who married a much older man. Sadly, she died before I could get to her. I have an interview next week with a guy who was on Wall Street on the day of the Great Crash in 1929, and I think he’s 104. If you want to take 50 days that absolutely changed America, that was it.
Q. If any “last leaves”—or their children—are reading this, what should they do?
A. I’m working on a second book, and looking for more final survivors and last eyewitnesses to great history. If they or one of their children read this, they can e-mail me at TheLastLeaf@aol.com. I’d love to talk to them.
Christie Findlay lives in Accokeek, Md.