Thornton Burgess, the subject of my 2013 biography Nature’s Ambassador, loved celebrating his January 14 birthday. A modest, low-key man despite his international celebrity, Burgess received the occasional late card or greeting graciously, and I hope readers of this blog will extend the same to me. Although I had every good intention of a timely posting, life, once again, got in the way. Happy (belated) Birthday, Thornton!
Throughout his long life, Thornton Burgess’ birthday remained important to him. He seldom if ever failed to observe it in some way and to comment in his journals on how that day was spent. He relished small, intimate gatherings rather than large, lavish events. In his later years, after the death of his wife Fanny in 1950, he would invite friends out to dinner. He loved getting presents. They were often listed in his journal, not because he was materialistic, but because he genuinely enjoyed being remembered. His birthday was an occasion to draw near to those he loved most and who most loved him.
The following journal entries illustrate his vigorous, optimistic attitude toward life and work, as well as what his birthday meant to him. In light of his wonderful comment on having "too much to live for to grow old," I'll note that Burgess continued writing his syndicated column for nearly 10 more years. In his late 80s, he was working on his final book, The Burgess Book of Nature Lore, which came out in 1965, the year he died at 91.
January 14, 1944
I am 70 this day, an “aged” man as the newspapers would say. Do not feel it. Too much to live for to grow old save in the number of years and they are not a true measure of age. Card from Rosemary. Others from Carl & Elizabeth, Mildred, Thornton W., school in Chester, Pa and Dave Brown up in Ontario. To Chester’s for dinner with Brighams and Vans. Ties, handkerchiefs, china duck, cards, jumbo eggs, a beautiful cake decorated by Florence. A belt, candy and apples from F (undoubtedly his wife Fanny, or “Lady” as he affectionately called her). Altogether a lovely milestone.”
January 14, 1949
”Fair and moderately cold. My 75th birthday a most pleasant one. Many cards and letters from 10 states. Robt. and Eliz called up in evening. No one forgot. ½ doz. pairs of socks from Lady ... To have party at Chester and Ruth’s home tomorrow…Will have contract with Grosset (and Dunlap, a major publisher of Burgess’ books) Guarantee of $1000 for under 100,000 and 2c copy if over. May have a television contract through Hornby (an agent he dealt with). Altogether a happy birthday.”
As a biographer I observe with perhaps more judgment than Burgess did, for he never complained of it, that his wife Fanny seemed inordinately practical and possibly unenthusiastic about birthday gift giving. I also will note with some pleasure that on Thornton Burgess’ January 14 birthday this year the top read on my blog was the post, ”Who Named Peter Rabbit?” (Oct. 8, 2013).
I addressed this thorny topic in my Burgess biography because confusion over which noted author was due credit for Peter’s name - Burgess or Beatrix Potter - was a long-known matter of discussion and disagreement. Several years ago Smithsonian researcher Marcel LaFollette told me that to her knowledge Nature’s Ambassador is the only source of exploration of the issue.
Although Nature’s Ambassador is crammed with anecdotes and details of Burgess' long career as a children's author and naturalist, countless good ones were omitted. I know he would be tickled to have the following one remembered, even belatedly, on the occasion of his 132nd birthday: In 1949 Judge Harold Medina presided over the trial of 11 communist leaders, considered at the time the longest and most picketed trial in US history. According to Medina’s biographer, the widely respected judge relieved legal tensions by reading Burgess’ stories in the New York Herald Tribune every morning during court recess. Like Thornton Burgess, I also love my birthday. When it come later this year, I will remember and hold to my heart his marvelous advice to himself: "Too much to live for to grow old."