Sep 16, 2013
07:31 AMArts & Entertainment
Author of 'Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar' Takes on Old Age; Connecticut Event
Daniel Klein was the despair of his parents.
A Harvard graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy, he seemed poised to do just what his traditional parents expected, to “make something” of himself. “Don’t disappoint” was their mantra.
Well, he didn’t exactly disappoint—he went on to be a best-selling author—but the path he took to that success left his elders in a state. After a brilliant and lucrative start as a television writer for comedians the likes of Flip Wilson, Godfrey Cambridge and Lily Tomlin, he “kind of burned up,” dropped out when all the late-night shows moved to California, and took a job as a waiter.
“My parents were very upset,” he reported succinctly.
His iconoclastic bent was evident even before he left the world of television writing. “My agent said there is a law of economics that for some people, if you pay them too much, they stop working. I was like that—when I got paid, I would take off for Europe.”
At one point, he spent a whole year in Greece “as a kind of Hippie.” It was a far cry from the career path chosen by his former Harvard classmates, who included the likes of Supreme Court Judge David Souter, a fellow philosophy student who took a more predictable turn toward law.
“I never saw so many bright people as I did at Harvard,” Mr. Klein said, looking back on his academic career. “We were pretty much obligated to mix with the faculty, and you might find yourself sitting at a table with Henry Kissinger or John Kenneth Galbraith. A lot of [my fellow students] went into law, but every time I made a dollar I took off.”
With all his promise and his disinclination to slip on the harness of daily toil, no wonder Mr. Klein’s parents were apprehensive. But he did have a knack for making enough to allow him to live the way he wanted. “At that time you could make a living writing scripts for ABC’s Movie of the Week,” he related. “They would stockpile scripts. It didn’t make any difference if they were ever made—I could sell one a year and live the rest of the year on the pay I got.”
It was this life of relative indolence that eventually opened the door to his vocation as a well-known writer. It was during one of his hiatuses, after his move to Great Barrington, Mass., with his wife, Freke Vuijst, American correspondent for the Dutch newsweekly “Vrij Nederland,” and their daughter, Samara Klein, that he was enjoying the company of Canaan farmer Doug Carlson. “I used to go and drink beer with him,” he recounted, “and one day he told me that his entire herd was pregnant with embryo transplants. That was entirely new in the 1980s. I thought, ‘There is an ABC Movie of the Week. I’ll just switch it from cows to humans.’”
The idea was never translated to a movie but it did lead to his first big hit, a 1982 novel called “Embryo.” “It predated all the modern fertility stuff,” he said, “and it sold like crazy. All of a sudden, I was a writer. I was 40 then and I have made a career ever since writing books.”
His subsequent books have ranged from silly mysteries, including his Elvis Presley detective series with titles such as “Kill Me Tender and “Blue Suede Clues,” to ghost writing a book for a sex therapist. “That one was a hit.
He has struck gold a number of times over the years with the books he has written, especially with the improbable success of New York Times bestseller “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar,” “Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington” and the politically incorrect book of daily affirmations, “Macho Meditations,” all co-written with former Harvard philosophy student and lifelong friend, Tom Cathcart.
“Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar” arose from a casual conversation between the two friends that led to the realization that jokes can illustrate philosophical points of view. It was not an observation instantly appealing to publishers. “Tom and I had a ball writing it,” Mr. Klein reported. “We wrote the thing on speculation and the first 40 publishers it was sent to rejected it. Our agent kept pushing it and the 41st took it. It was number three on the non-fiction best seller list in three weeks. It was a big success. They wanted more books, so we wrote them.”
Somehow, over all those years of following his own idiosyncratic direction, Mr. Klein grew old. A trip to a dentist when he was advised to have tooth implants to avoid the indignity of “a goofy old man smile” and having his “teeth pop out once in a while,” caused him to reflect on the process of aging.
“I wanted to write a personal book about old age,” he said. “I thought maybe old age was a special time of life.”
The result is his latest book, “Travels with Epicurus, A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life,” a slim, elegantly written little treatise arguing that old age is to be embraced, savored and enjoyed as the stage of life that allows time for rumination, for simpler pleasures and for nurturing friendships. The book has been named a Best Book of 2012 by both the New York Times and NPR.
“Old age is ignored in this country,” he said, commenting on the need of Americans to be “forever young” through the use of hormone patches, cosmetic surgery, hair dyes, Viagra and “bucket lists” of all the things that must be done before death overtakes us. “But something about this new philosophy of old age does not sit right with me. … ,” he wrote, “I suspect that if I were to take this popularly accepted route, I would miss out on something deeply significant. … I am seriously concerned that on that route I would miss for eternity ever simply being authentically and contentedly old.”