What inspired you to interview the last survivors and/or witnesses to historical events?
When I was a boy, my older relatives would come and tell me the great stories about their lives. One cousin was in the Flying Tigers during World War II, and he told me about how his plane was shot down over China. His parachute tangled in a tree and he spent two weeks up there, surviving on rainwater, until the Chinese underground cut him down. Similarly, my great-grandparents, married for 77 years, would visit and tell me about growing up in Russia before 1900, coming to America, seeing a plane for the first time, and all these other great stories about their encounters with modernity, and what we take today to be mundane. So I always had an interest in oral history. As I got older, I would read newspaper articles that someone who was the final survivor of an event was still alive, and it often shocked me. For example, I was surprised to see in 2000 that there was still an escapee from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. The last Bolshevik died in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. I thought a book that collected all these final stories would be an interesting concept, and one that had never been done before.
What do you hope readers will take from The Last Leaf?
Two things, one macro and one micro. The macro is that even though we think of long-ago events as "history," they are frequently still in the memories of participants and survivors decades after the event. There are numerous examples of this in The Last Leaf. For example, Bob Halgrim worked with Thomas Edison (who died in 1931), whom Life magazine voted as the most influential man of the past 1,000 years. Until Mr. Halgrim's death in 2005, he could tell me what it was like to work for the greatest inventor ever, and he remembered seeing a film with the inventor of the movie projector (what an awesome life experience!). Another example is a man who just died last month, Lt. John Finn. He was the final Medal of Honor recipient for heroic actions on Pearl Harbor Day. Until his passing, he could tell someone what it was like to fight on Pearl Harbor Day and be wounded twenty times by shrapnel. To sum up the macro, I often think of the famous William Faulkner quote, "The past isn't dead; in fact, it's not even past."
On the micro level, we all have stories to tell, and I think the best of them are worth writing down for your future generations to read. My grandmother, who was a wonderful author, wrote down her memories of escaping Russia after the Revolution (including saying farewell forever to her dear grandparents, knowing she would never see them again once she left for America) and being carried through the streets on New York City by her father, whom she had never met. I try to re-read her book once a year. I keep a journal, and many years from now, my descendents can read about how I stayed up until 3AM on the night of the contested Bush-Gore election (and I wrote in my journal throughout the night) and my immediate reactions to September 11th after I went out and watched the attack from the Jersey City heights.
How did you choose whom to interview? Did you encounter any resistance to being interviewed or discussing the past?
The hard part was not choosing people to interview, but finding them in the first place. They had to be the final (or one of the final) survivors of, or last eyewitnesses to, historically important events. Some of the well-known people and events in the book include the Scopes Monkey Trial, Harry Houdini, Babe Ruth, and the Iwo Jima flag raising. I also wanted to find events and people that were unfairly lost in the greater American historical consciousness and put them in the book so readers could learn about some of our more neglected history. Thus, The Last Leaf has stories of Philo Farnsworth (the long-forgotten inventor of television) and the 1904 General Slocum fire (the worst blaze in New York City history prior to September 11th, 2001).
I did not encounter any resistance to discussing the past. After all, if the "Last Leaf" did not want to be interviewed about history, I would not have been invited over in the first place. I did find a few people, especially among the World War II crowd, that did not tell their families of their personal history for many years afterwards. One example was Frank Holmgren, the final sailor of the USS Juneau, the Navy ship that held the five doomed Sullivan Brothers. There were 725 men on the ship, and only ten were pulled out of the water. After World War II, he did not mention the sinking to his wife and children until 1987, when he was invited to Juneau, Alaska, to dedicate a monument to the ship. Once his story was out, however, he was willing to share it with me and other historians. He was one of the kindest and most gracious people I met when doing interviews.
What was your most memorable interview?
I interviewed thirty of the thirty-nine Last Leaves in person, and the sum experience was one of the most unusual and awesome experiences of my life. Some of the most memorable experiences include watching Robert Lockwood, Jr., the last bluesman to play with the legendary Robert Johnson, give a concert at a Cleveland blues club; seeing Hal Prieste, the final participant in the 1920 Olympic Games, with the original Olympic flag that he stole in 1920 (he gave it back to the Olympics at the 2000 Games in Sydney); listening to Slim Bryant, the last musician to play with country legend Jimmie Rodgers, play guitar for me; getting a guided tour of the ENIAC (the first electronic computer) from Dr. Arthur Burks, the final living designer; and visiting Frank Buckles, America's last World War I soldier.
With that said, if I picked one experience that really, really stayed with me, it would be Gertrude Grubb Janeway, the last Union Civil War widow who died in 2003. Even though her husband fought for the North, she was completely Southern, living near Knoxville, Tennessee. Until her death, she received a $70 monthly check from the Federal government for her husband's service one hundred forty years previous. To summarize her story, she was a teenager when she married an octogenarian Civil War veteran, John Janeway in 1927. They were married for a decade; she never remarried, since Mr. Janeway was the true love of her life. But this is what I found to be so interesting and unique. She flatly rejected all modernity, and essentially lived a 19th Century existence, even into the 21st Century. She lived in a small cabin that she and her husband bought in the 1920s. She did not get electricity until the 1980s, and she finally acquired a television in the 1990s. She never drove, instead, she walked eight miles each way to church on Sunday morning. She never traveled. I found her choice of a fading American, and specifically Southern, way of life to be memorable. I'll never see that again.
How did you locate the Last Leaves, and how did you go about confirming that they indeed were the last survivor or the last witness to an event?
There were a few methods I used to locate the Last Leaves. For example, McKinley Wooden was the final soldier from Battery D, which was led by Captain Harry S Truman during World War I. I had wondered if there were any soldiers left from Battery D, so I called the Truman Library in Kansas, and they gave me Mr. Wooden's name and the town he lived in. I dropped him a note and secured an interview. I have also used government resources, so the V.A. confirmed who were the last Union widow (the Confederate widows never got Federal pensions) and the final American World War I soldier. Historical societies have also been a great help. When I wanted to find out if there were any survivors of the 1904 General Slocum fire, I typed it into Google, and was pleasantly surprised to find there was a historical society dedicated to the General Slocum. I dropped the president an email about my project, and he told me there were two survivors left; one of them lived twenty minutes away, so I arranged with Mrs. Wotherspoon to have an interview. Likewise, Bryan College in Tennessee does annual recreations of the Scopes Monkey Trial, so I called the head of the event, and he told me that there was still one participant left who lived in Chattanooga. This man was the honored guest at the yearly gathering.
What do you do when you're not gathering stories from the Last Leaves or writing?
I care for my sixteen month old son three days a week, and I own a firm that buys, sells, authenticates and appraises historic documents, letters and manuscripts.
What projects are you working on now?
I have to paint my garage before the end of the month, or else I will get a fine from the town. That's my most pressing project right now.
I have started interviews for The Last Leaf, Volume II. Next week, I am meeting with a 104 year old man who is the last living person to have worked on Wall Street on the day of the 1929 Crash that led to the Great Depression. I have a list of about six or eight final survivors of other important events that I would love to interview. I would also like to do a book on the aftermath of the Vietnam War here in America.
Thanks, Stuart! I wish you much success with The Last Leaf, and I'm looking forward to reading the next installment.
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