The Old and the Restless

His friends could not have picked a better place to celebrate developer Norman Leventhal's 80th birthday. Post Office Square was once a concrete eyesore, a parking garage scarring the space between the downtown's office towers like a clear-cut in the redwoods. Leventhal transformed it into a green quadrangle where even the most hardened stockbrokers can melt in the afternoon sun. And that was just one in a list of projects he had completed since World War II — Rowes Wharf, Center Plaza, Le Méridien hotel, the South Station arcade. So it was fitting that some of the city's wealthiest and most influential citizens should gather in the twilight of Leventhal's career to rename the square Norman B. Leventhal Park.

“Norman not only answered the call,” said the emcee, “he usually made the call.”

For Leventhal, the day bookended half a century of calling the shots in Boston development. It was the perfect occasion to bring to a close a career already pushed 15 years past retirement age.

But that was four years ago, and Leventhal still shows no signs of letting up. He sits on the executive committee to redesign City Hall Plaza; spearheads educational exhibits drawn from his collection of antique maps; attends meetings as an emeritus member of the boards of MIT and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; and lobbies for cultural space above the Big Dig as an executive member of the Artery Business Committee. Now 84, Leventhal keeps this schedule at an age when many of his contemporaries are marking golf scores, if not salivating into their bibs. So what if he doesn't live to see the Big Dig open? “I hope to see some of it,” he says, laughing. “I'm optimistic, I'm healthy, and I expect to be here for a while.”

Unlike most of his octogenarian peers, Leventhal forges on with the energy of someone a quarter (never mind half) his age. You won't catch him, or a handful of his contemporaries, staring moodily into the surface of some New Hampshire lake. They've lived through the Depression, one or two world wars, the civil rights movement, and the Internet boom, yet still keep active in a city that usually emphasizes youth, not age.

As the typical life span pushes 80 — a child born today will live to an average age of 76 years, 3 months — more and more people are remaining healthy and lucid into their golden years. Unlike the old-timers featured in Tom Brokaw's best-selling book, The Greatest Generation they aren't wasting time stoically recounting lives of hardship and war. Their eyes are fixed on the future. And they believe their best years are in front of them.

“The city's getting better and better, and I'm keeping up with it,” says Martin Slobodkin, cultural coordinator of Creative Allies, a club that sponsors outings to art and entertainment events every single day of the year. “I've never seen a restaurant scene like this, a cultural scene like this. It's become much more dynamic and cosmopolitan.”

Slobodkin, who turned 82 in January, starts his day at 5 in the morning with a few pages of Proust. If the sun's out, he rides his bike the five miles from Cambridge to his office on Newbury Street, usually listening on his Walkman to a book on tape. Three days a week, he works out and plays squash at the Harvard Club with his friend Jerry Hickey, the 80-year-old editor emeritus of Bostonia, Boston University's alumni magazine. Slobodkin has one word for his peers confined in nursing homes: “depressing.” He attributes his own longevity to the years during the 1950s and '60s that he was president of the L Street Brownies, the swimming club famous for taking winter dunks in Boston Harbor. “I never got sick, I never got a cold; I felt like a million bucks,” he gushes. “I found the fountain of youth.”

In those days, Slobodkin was notorious for frequenting up to 30 parties a week — a dizzying circuit of gallery openings, Champagne dinners, and private saturnalia. Recently married for the third time, he's cut back some: These days, he hits only three or so parties a week. But he continues to believe that staying physically and mentally active staves off aging. “I have the opposite of Alzheimer's,” he boasts. “I can't forget anything. The more you know, the more you can know.”

His outlook is supremely optimistic — and infectious. “I've probably psyched myself into believing I never had it so good,” says Hickey, who credits Slobodkin with inspiring his rosy attitude. Hickey still spends full days editing and assigning stories, usually reporting to work after canoeing on the Charles. Neither Hickey nor Slobodkin seems concerned that the Grim Reaper may be just around the corner. In fact, their attitude toward death is surprisingly jocular. “I die, I die — period,” says Slobodkin. “People say your lifestyle determines your death style. I've already determined my death. At the age of 92, I'm going to be shot by a jealous husband.”

A few years ago, Hickey developed throat cancer after a quarter century of smoking. Three operations and 35 radiation treatments later, his doctor said his rigorous exercise regimen was all that saved him. But this brush with death hasn't phased him. “I'm writing a poem; I want to call it 'Dead Heat,'” he says. “I have about five friends who are waiting. We're all moving on, and I hope we all die at the same time. You get the feeling that closure is coming, but it just seems like a natural thing. This is the way the chapter ends.”

If Dr. Richard Dupee is right, that kind of thinking has as much to do with Hickey's long life as his squash game. Dupee studies human longevity as chief of geriatrics at New England Medical Center. He admits that aging is a slippery science. Rats and mice live more than 50 percent longer on a reduced-calorie diet, and cold-blooded animals have been shown to live longer by lowering their temperature and metabolism. But no one knows exactly what makes humans live longer, except that good genes might skew the odds somewhat.

“There are a number of theories,” says Dupee, ticking off hypotheses filled with million-dollar words like “immunological” and “neuroendocrine.” But none takes into account the X-factor of positive thinking. “If I look at my patients who have made it into their eighties and nineties, every single one of them has a positive attitude,” says Dupee. “I think the key is attitude.”

That word — “attitude” — perfectly describes Elma Lewis, the 80-year-old artistic director of the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury. The grande dame of Boston's black community undergoes dialysis three times a week, peers through Coke-bottle lenses, and holds court from the perch of a wheelchair. She also continues to direct the annual performance of Black Nativity, the Langston Hughes musical that is now a 32-year-old holiday tradition. Cantankerous and feisty, she has received more than 400 awards and honorary degrees, but she has little patience with praise: “Anything works if you stick at it long enough.”

Growing up black and female in Roxbury during the Depression, Lewis started life with two strikes against her. But she learned self-respect from her parents, who were followers of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. “We were raised unlike most black people to have great love and faith for Africans everywhere,” she says. She became a dancer and then, at age 28, founded her school in order to educate blacks in music, dance, and theater and educate the world about blacks. Now more than five decades old, the school has weathered constant financial straits to boast thousands of graduates.

Lewis is far from satisfied. Behind her thick glasses flickers the determination of the girl she once was, as she speaks of her hope that the institution will become an international cultural center. “When you're black, you're always told what you can't do,” she says. “My father said that when I was three I saw a little girl on the stage and said 'That's what I'm going to do,' and from there it was off to the races.”

During their own epic lifetimes, Lewis and her fellow octogenarians have raced alongside the giants of the last century. Lewis used to hang out in New York's legendary Rainbow Room with her friend Duke Ellington, for instance, persuading him to play free concerts in Boston's Franklin Park in the 1960s and '70s. Hickey tells of meeting his personal hero, T. S. Eliot, in 1951, while working as a young publishing agent. Harry Ellis Dickson, associate conductor laureate of the Boston Pops, recalls attending Adolf Hitler's speeches when he studied in Germany in the 1930s. “It was a terrible time,” says Dickson, who is Jewish. “I could see so-called intelligent people falling under the spell of this madman. I wore an American flag in my lapel for protection.”

In the music world, 93-year-old Dickson has seen it all, first as a violinist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then as an associate conductor and — for a short time after the death of his friend Arthur Fiedler — conductor of the Boston Pops. “Strange guy,” he says of Fiedler, chuckling. “He hated everybody. No one realized it with that benign face of his.” Like Leventhal, Dickson has a small park named in his honor, on Westland Avenue. “Maybe they'll bury me there,” he quips.

But not yet. Dickson still conducts several times a year, and his birthday has become an annual event at Symphony Hall, attended by worthies including his son-in-law Mike Dukakis and 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace (no spring chicken himself at 83). Those parties are most notably marked by Dickson's storytelling, which also shines through in his three books chronicling the life of Symphony Hall.

If there is one principle many of Boston's “greatest generation” share, it's an appreciation of the written word. Over their lifetimes, octogenarians have watched literature, particularly the novel, decline from the preeminent art form to an elitist indulgence that's taken a back seat to movies, television, and the Internet. But Saul Bellow, the 86-year-old Nobel Prize-winning writer who still teaches literature at Boston University and just published his 20th book, retains confidence in the written word. “A good many readers survive the pressure of modern times, which seems calculated to destroy our interest in books,” he says.

Bellow's novels span nearly 60 years and take in the major events of the century. But he rejects the notion that his generation is greater for surviving the Depression and World War II. “I haven't given it much thought, but I'm not buying it,” he says. “I missed the Revolutionary War. I missed the Civil War. I missed World War I. . . . ” Then, suddenly, he realizes that's not true. Reaching back to when he was a three-year-old in Montreal, he recalls the end of the First World War in 1918. “I was madly excited,” he says. “Troops were marching, bands were playing, people were shouting 'Armistice!' and I had no idea what armistice was.”

It's a breathtaking sweep across more than 80 years, made all the more vital since Bellow's two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Naomi Rose, might someday have similar memories of the World Trade Center attack. Bellow made headlines for fathering Naomi Rose so late in life, but living in Brookline with his toddler and his wife, Janis Freedman, 43, he seems unconcerned that he won't see his daughter grow to adulthood. “I'm not frightened,” he says. “She has a very good mother who takes care of her. Like everyone else who enters life, she takes her chances.”