My father was the most brilliant person I ever knew. His last years were tragic in many ways. He had a stroke 5 years ago which left him unable to communicate in but the most rudimentary ways, unable to read more than a headline, unable to be in charge—which had always been his role.
Once in a while a spark of the old daddy peeked through. Like a few weeks ago when we were sitting watching the news together and the newsman was talking about gerrymandering and suddenly I heard daddy say “It’s /ˈɡɛri/;mander.” So I said “I thought a g folllowed by an e or an i was soft.” And he said “There are exceptions.” So I went home to look it up and wouldn’t you know, the work is named after a governor Gerry and was originally pronounced /ˈɡɛri/;mander, and only recently has been commonly pronounced /ˈdʒɛriˌ/mander.
Or the time that Ed was trying to manage some mutual funds for my father and the lady at Vanguard said she needed daddy’s permission to talk to Ed. So he prepared her saying that daddy really couldn’t talk, that he understood but she probably woudn’t get more than a yes or no from him. The next morning, we went over to see him, explained what the lady would ask, called Vanguard and put him on the line and out of his mouth came “What can I do for you this morning young lady ?” Ed was mortified.
But mostly he was silent. His world narrowed. Sitting with Sonia and holding her hand defined its boundaries. For me and Richard and Alison, there was a classic and instantaneous role reversal. We were taking care of him. And after Sonia died in April, his small world became a profoundly lonely one. It is not a surprise that he did not survive her for long. He got thinner, sadder, limper and faded away.
So I have spent the last couple days trying to put the earth back in its orbit. Trying to remember my father the way he was nearly all of my life—the master of the universe. Because that he surely was—our family’s universe, the academic universe, the Jewish universe. He was a force to be loved, admired and to be reckoned with in each of these. He set high standards and we all did our best to meet them.
So what I would like to do today is to bring back that David Landes into our minds and our memories. We have received many wonderful emails with memories of my father. I want to read one of these that captures his public persona and then I want to share with you what I said when my father retired from Harvard 17 years ago, when he was a man in full.
Leon Wieseltier , the literary editor of the New Republic and a great intellectual wrote the following:
I remember David as one of the most interesting people I ever knew, and in so many ways unexpected: a traditionalist who kept inventing new subjects; an economic historian who taught everyone to study culture; a sophisticated man who liked to defend common sense. He had a naturally rigorous mind, which people sometimes mistook for a ferocity of personality. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him that did not impart a new fact or refine an old opinion. And he was one of the great arguers.
As for his Jewishness, which was of course what brought us first together, at Marty’s house in its golden age many years ago: he was something more impressive than a “proud Jew”. In American Jewry, pride is sometimes in inverse proportion to knowledge, and the noisy expression of Jewishness sometimes masks an infirmity about it. The wonderful thing about David was that he was utterly devoid of any anxiety about his identity. He was completely relaxed in his Jewishness; it always felt like a perfect fit. And this, as I say, is rare.
When I spoke at daddy’s retirement party, I was speaking to people who knew him as a professor. They knew him as a formidable thinker and a life changing mentor. I talked about him as a person and my image of him was more vivid and more uncomplicated then than it can be now. So I’d like to bring that daddy back into this room and into our hearts.
Retirement speech, April 13, 1997
My father is a man of many passions and strong opinions.
You know him as a Professor. It all sounds very distinguished. Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics, Harvard University. But, that’s not who he is, that’s a by-product of who he is. Fortunately, for him, universities have been willing to pay him to be himself.
He’s a good economic historian because he loves life. He pursues his passions without hesitation and without apology in his work and in his personal life. He’s not afraid to be unpopular – in fact, in a perverse way, he enjoys that – and he is incredibly and intuitively smart.
So I thought I would share with you, briefly, some of the other sides of David Landes, other facets of his identity that some of you may not appreciate.
His greatest passion, of course, is my mother. I am told his best writing is love poems. He needs no prodding to proudly recount their first date – ages 14 and 15, when he got three kisses. But, tonight is not the time to explore that facet.
I think, that, as good a starting point as any, is my husband Edward’s view of my father, when as a student, he was dating David’s daughter. One day, in those early days, Edward made a comment that suggested he thought my father was taller than he. I quickly pointed out that Ed was 6′ and my father 5’9″. After Ed recovered from his genuine amazement at those facts, he said, “Well, it’s hard to gauge the height of a fire breathing dragon.”
My father can be intimidating. He purposely schedules his classes for 9:00 a.m. to discourage the fainthearted and then at the first lecture hands out a reading list – designed to eliminate any remaining dilettantes. If warm and fuzzy is what you’re looking for – you wouldn’t stay. But if you do, you learn not only history, but Landes on current events, on human nature, on morality, on health and personal hygiene. The second and third lectures are about diseases in Africa.
Teaching for him is sharing passions.
At home, he tries to inculcate French and the Landes way in his grandchildren. He is an antediluvian, unreconstructed male on matters of sex, behavior and domestic chores. Mention co-ed bathrooms in the Houses or the latest sex or gender debate and it’s like waving red in front of a bull. And yet, by example, he has raised children and grandchildren and, remarkably, daughters and granddaughters who are assertive and independent and nothing could make him prouder, for inside, when it comes to family, his love and support and faith are boundless. The dragon has a tender heart.
And all of that is who he is. He feels strongly about many things. He lets everyone know how he feels and he isn’t the least bit influenced by a desire to be accepted. He is the antithesis of the politician.
And, here we might as well get right to my father’s own image of himself. You might think his fantasies include academic acclaim, a book on the “best seller list”.
No, his fantasies are revealed by his heroes. His favorite movie actors are Clint Eastwood, that is before he got old and took on sappy talking roles, Jean Claude Van Dame and Steven Segal. The more action and the less talk – the better.
When my father-in-law retired from his position as an officer at the El Paso National Bank in Texas, his retirement gift was a stainless steel 357 magnum – and I don’t mean a large bottle of champagne – for my father, I’ve heard talk of computer software and other electronic machinery.
Think again. Underneath the professorial façade, there is the action hero. Well into his fifties, he loved walking onto the squash court to face one of the varsity players, looking all the world to that young athlete like a charity case, and winning. Old and crafty beats young and sexy every time.
His favorite and secret book is the Turkish historical novel he’s writing. Ask him and he’ll tell you about the sex and violence. He thinks it will be a huge popular success. It hasn’t struck him that phrases in French, Turkish and Latin may reduce the audience.
He enjoys walking into shops to look at watches, looking like a casual potential customer, only to whip out his loop, he never leaves home without it, to examine the insides of a watch and perhaps, discover a mechanical treasure.
The science of watches, watch collecting and, inevitably, watches and economic history, epitomize the seamlessness of my father’s life. The purchase of the first watch, known affectionately as “super watch, a mechanical toy, the growing development of expertise, the hunt, the capture, the teaching, a book – my father’s personal life and professional life are indistinguishable.
He’s a “Literary Pigpen”, only what clings to him is not dirt, but books. He never goes anywhere without a book. You may have found yourself waiting sometime and wished you had a book to read – that has never happened to him.
He’s got the book. He can’t come out of a bookstore without five or six books, and if you should see him coming out of a bookstore without any books in is hands, it is because he’s bought so many, he’s had to have them shipped home. The house and his studies there, and his studies elsewhere, are buried in books.
I grew up in a home where weekdays were no different from weekends. My father worked at home every day interspersed with everything else. Vacations were not separate from work. My father worked on vacation. It never occurred to us that a detour to visit a woolen mill was an unusual sightseeing destination. After his children left home, travel and work became nearly indistinguishable.
Some might say that his entire life is a vacation – and a tax deductible one at that. And, I don’t see that changing. Unless the publication of his next book,The Wealth and Poverty of Nations makes him persona non grata around the world. The problem is that there are more poor nations than wealthy ones. Those that are wealthy may not be proud of how they got there when the light of historical analysis shines on then. Many of those who can be proud of how they became wealthy, will not be flattered by the attention to how they lost their edge.
Bottom line, my father has a lot to say, he has strong opinions and he’s not too concerned about whether people like what he has to say, and I trust that he will continue to do just that for a long time to come.
So daddy did complete Wealth and Poverty of Nations, his magnum opus. John Kenneth Galbraith said of it “Truly wonderful. No question that this will establish David Landes as preeminent in his field and in his time.” And Kenneth Arrow said “David Landes’s new historical study of the emergence of the current distribution of wealth and poverty among the nations of the world is a picture of enormous sweep and brilliant insight. The incredible wealth of learning is embodied in a light and vigorous prose which carries the reader along irresistibly.”
The book was also criticized by those who found it politically incorrect for judging cultures rather than accepting each as simply different in a world of relativism. But daddy was never afraid to speak his mind and never one to bow to convention. He rather enjoyed a good academic fight.
15 years after its publication, it is still being read and translated. Just yesterday , a box arrived with 2 copies of it in Spanish and 6 in Romanian.
Jacob, David’s 12 year old great-grandson, and a great reader, is reading Wealth and Poverty, and said yesterday: “It is the most readable book of non-fiction I have ever read and I think that when I finish it I will be an expert on many subjects.”
We should all have in our heads a fraction of what was in his and we would count ourselves truly gifted. I am who I am today because of what he put in my head and my heart.