GREENWICH, Connecticut / Greenwich Citizen / May 5, 2011
Greenwich resident Roy Rowan numbers Pablo Picasso and Pablo Casals among his heroes because both the artist and the cellist produced masterpieces well into their 90s. Now, Rowan, an author and journalist, has followed in their footsteps -- at 91, publishing his ninth book, "Never Too Late: A 90-Year-Old's Pursuit of a Whirlwind Life."
Author and former journalist Roy Rowan, 91, keeps himself pretty busy and just completed his ninth book. He works out of his office, which is located in the loft of his Greenwich condominium, not far from Long Island Sound, writes Anne W. Semmes of Greenwich Citizen
And what a life it has been.
As a journalist and editor for Life, Time and Fortune magazines, Rowan covered Mao's revolution in China, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He also befriended presidents and potentates and spent a month traveling with Jimmy Hoffa. Rowan's past books document the author's adventures and illustrate a wide range of interests from "Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist's Firsthand Account of the 1946-1949 Chinese Revolution," to "First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends," and from "The Four Days of Mayaguez" to "Surfcaster's Quest: Seeking Stripers, Blues, and Solitude at the Edge of the Surging Sea." (Rowan has lived on the shores of Greenwich for 52 years and is an avid surfcaster.)
In his newest work, which NBC News anchor Brian Williams calls "a how-to-guide to growing older in great fashion," Rowan talks about the art of living. The Citizen asked Rowan about his approach to writing, events that have influenced him and his attitude toward obstacles he has faced.
What is your new book about?
It is simply one ninety-year-old man's views of the pleasures and potentials of old age based on a long life crammed full of adventures as a correspondent for Time, Life, and Fortune magazines. And I should add, the lessons learned along the way from diverse groups of people, from the world's most powerful leaders, to the world's most pitiful people -- the homeless men and women living on the streets of New York.
Your book is found in the inspiration section of bookstores, and indeed is full of inspirational stories with some heart-stopping quotes. What inspired you to write the book? And do you keep a quote book?
About three years ago, I was standing up on a Madison Avenue bus in New York City when a very pretty young woman got up and offered me her seat. I was stunned. "Do I really look so old and tottery?" I thought. "After all, it wasn't eons ago that the same two legs I was standing on had carried me over all 26 miles, 385 yards of the New York Marathon."
I politely refused the seat but thought what if I'd said, "Why don't we get off this old rattletrap and get a drink." Wouldn't that have shocked her? Not that I drink much any more. Maybe a glass of pinot noir now and then.
And yes, I keep a compendium of quotes I like so that I might find something that is appropriate in my writing. I love literary quotes. I've been getting "Quotes of the Day" from the Internet until that suddenly stopped.
How long did you spend writing what reads as part memoir?
Three years. It's really my third memoir, after "Powerful People: From Mao to Now, A Reporter's Fifty-Year Pursuit," and "Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist's Firsthand Account of the 1946-1949 Chinese Revolution." At my age you can't spend much time doing original research. You have to have pretty much what you need to start with.
Meeting my wife Helen and getting my start with Life. In 1946 after mustering out of the army, with an idea of becoming a freelance reporter and photographer, I took a job running a fleet of trucks in Central China for the United Nations. The civil war between Mao's Communists and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists was raging there and my trucks were constantly being commandeered or worse yet, shot at by one army or the other. After surviving that job for more than a year a bullet pierced the windshield of my jeep. That did it! I found my way to Shanghai and resigned. With no job, and a recent rejection from the Columbia School of Journalism, I walked into the Palace Hotel bar to drown my sorrows. Standing next to me was a man who introduced himself as Bill Gray, the Time-Life bureau chief in Shanghai, who offered me a drink. I learned from him that Life had just published pictures of mine of 5,000 human skulls arranged as a memorial to villagers murdered by the Japanese during WWII. Bill not only hired me as the Life correspondent in China, he later introduced me to Helen, working then as a picture researcher for Life in New York.
You've battled cancer twice and credit your survival to your "confident optimism." Can you share a little of that story?
In 1974 while covering the war in Vietnam, I made a quick trip back to New York, where I discovered I had a very serious form of melanoma requiring immediate "radical surgery." Part of my therapy in the hospital was writing a 6,000-word article on how a positive attitude can help your immune system. The article was published in the Atlantic and then condensed in the Readers' Digest.
To celebrate my discharge from the hospital, a friend in Washington, D.C. arranged a little dinner party, inviting the then-Vice President Jerry Ford and Betty. Unbeknown to the guests, Ford was about to become the 38th President of the United States. I sat next to Betty, who lectured me on the need to keep a positive attitude about my cancer. Three months later it was discovered that Betty had breast cancer. So I sent her my as-yet-unpublished manuscript with a note, saying, "You lectured me on being positive, now it's my turn to lecture you." That started a friendship with the Fords that lasted for the rest of the president's life. It also resulted in my first book, "The Four Days of Mayaguez," my first-hand account of a four-day war over freeing an American container ship, the Mayaguez.
What's a typical day like for Roy Rowan?
Author Roy Rowan in his home in Greenwich (ctnews.com)
At 10 a.m., I have breakfast with Helen. If I'm writing, I'll work until two. We'll have a light lunch and then take a walk and a nap and then I'll cook dinner. We're CNN addicts and watch it at dinnertime. We go to bed early; around 10 p.m.
You write about the importance of keeping in touch with friends. How often do you keep in touch?
I'm talking to friends two or three times a day. Most of our friends are a generation younger. I'm e-mailing messages and writing real letters, which is much nicer than e-mails. I must have 300 names in my electronic Rolodex. I go into New York to the Dutch Treat Club -- we have a speaker and entertainer there every Tuesday. Last Tuesday we celebrated the launching of my book at the Overseas Press Club in New York City.
What's up next for Roy Rowan?
I might do some drawing and painting. I did that with Paul Sample, the artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College when I was an undergraduate. A lot depends on what happens with the movie version of "Chasing the Dragon." There've been three screenplays so far. It's now in the hands of the China Film Group -- the main film company in China. They're putting up one-half to two-thirds of the money providing that my Hollywood agent, Preferred Artists, comes up with an American director or producer. I would like to go to China as a consultant, and perhaps also write one more book on the making of a movie in China, the country where I got my start as a journalist.
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