The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors
By: Stuart Lutz
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication Date: March 2010
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: May 2010
What a fascinating book this is! Grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, computer science and social science majors, sports fans, students of history—everyone. When you read The Last Leaf, you will “hear” the voices of real people who were actually there when important events took place. Stuart Lutz, www.TheLastLeaf.com and owner of a firm that buys, sells, and appraises historic documents of various kinds, has interviewed thirty-nine elderly people who have wonderful, irreplaceable stories to tell.
Who are these people? Three widows of Civil War veterans. We learn that it was not uncommon in the early years of the 20th century for impoverished young women to marry Civil War veterans (who were often in their eighties) for financial security (army pensions); the old men made good husbands for teenage girls. The boy who drew names out of a hat to pick the jury for the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Although Thomas Brewer probably met both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, he says he never met John Scopes. The most gripping stories belong to the survivors: Rose Freedman, who survived the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that immolated 146 people, mostly immigrant woman, in “fifteen fiery minutes.” John Fulton, who was present at the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937; it’s interesting to learn that they threw hundreds of ropes off the zeppelin for the ground crew to catch and help it land. Frank Holmgren, survivor of the USS Juneau, which was sunk during World War II, drowning nearly the whole crew; unaccountably, the U.S. Navy left the survivors in the shark-infested ocean for six days. (This story is also told in the 1944 movie, The Fighting Sullivans, which is about four brothers who did not survive.)
Possibly the most harrowing story is that of Esther Raab, a young Jewish woman who was sent to Sobibor, the infamous Nazi death camp. “Sobibor was constructed in the first cold months of 1942,” Lutz writes, “with one purpose: to kill as many people as efficiently as possible” (p. 204). Esther describes the escape (dramatized in a 1987 movie): they spent a summer making plans “and knew that we had to leave before it got cold. … I ran into the woods, and we broke into small groups. … A few days later we found a hut. I couldn’t take being in the woods anymore.” They knocked on the door of the hut, and to their great surprise were greeted by a sympathizer who said, “You must be the people from Sobibor. You killed Nazis. You did right. How many are you? What can I do for you” (pp. 211-213)? After hiding in the hut for several days, the escapees went to a barn Esther had seen in a dream. They hid there for nine months. After the war, she testified at the war crimes trials of three of the camp commanders.
Other fascinating stories are told by the last major designer of ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer; it filled an entire room, ran on vacuum tubes, and was less powerful than today’s laptops. By the last man alive to work with Thomas Edison, who invented more things than anyone else in history. By the final witness to the first television broadcast (in 1927!) and the last person to hear the first commercial radio broadcast in 1920. Athletes and entertainers who tell their stories include the last living pitcher to give up a home run (in 1927) to Babe Ruth; the last musician to play with blues legend Robert Johnson (Johnson always said he sold his soul to the devil in Mississippi in exchange for guitar lessons); the last original Ziegfeld Follies performer; Houdini’s last stage assistant, who keeps her promise to the famous magician and does not reveal any of his secrets.
It’s obvious that Lutz loves doing interviews. Not only does he encourage these elderly people (most of whom are now dead), but he also includes photos of them both in earlier days and on the day of the interview. But the book needs better editing. Lutz has problems with verb tense. He doesn’t seem to realize that the convention for referring to actors is to use their stage names; Kitty Carlisle Hart performed under the name Kitty Carlisle, not Mrs. Moss Hart, so Lutz should refer to her as Miss Carlisle. Sometimes his exposition is misleading, as on page 333, where he writes, “Like Mr. Lockwood, Robert Johnson took up his guitar….” This is exactly backwards. Johnson was older. Lockwood took up his guitar as Johnson had before him and tried to teach himself to play. (One wonders if Prometheus employs competent editors.) Nevertheless, this book has great worth. We need to know these people and their stories.
Quill says: This book offers valuable insights into history and human activities. Anyone who likes a good story—and who doesn’t?—will love this book. Read it aloud to your grandchildren.