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.