Genius in any field is a rarity, often displayed in a brief “a-ha” moment and seldom as a continuum. Sustaining it to age 90, like Lawrence Holofcener, defies most human boundaries.
The topic of genius has been most recently highlighted with the news of National Geographic doing a ten-part television series on Albert Einstein and a companion lead article in their May 2017 magazine titled “What is Genius?” Also the press recently announced that Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, at age 80 has become an atypical feature filmmaker with the release of her first movie Paris Can Wait.
As National Geographic declares, “Some minds are so exceptional that they changed the world. We don’t know what exactly makes these extraordinary people soar above the rest of us, but science offers clues.” In a comprehensive study on age and achievement across fifteen fields of discipline, it was observed that an individual’s peak years seldom exceed beyond age fifty. After that, creativity rapidly drops off due to deteriorating health and lower motivation and drive.
Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton “maintains the arc of a career depends on two things, your chosen discipline and how soon you master it.” He declares “a first-rate genius at 80 is worth more than a second-rate talent at half that age."
I met Lawrence obliquely enough. While working on the ideal book cover, my illustrator for Churchill and Roosevelt: The Big Sleepover at the White House discovered an image on the Internet of a sculpture called Allies. It’s a life-size bronze of Churchill and Roosevelt chatting amicably on a park bench created by Lawrence in 1995 to celebrate 50 years of peace in Western Europe. Born in 1926, he was 69 when he completed this work.
Allies has become the most frequently photographed sculpture in Great Britain because it’s quite striking and you can sit between the two gentlemen like you’ve known them all your life. The image belonged to Bonham’s British Auction House, one of the oldest in the world dating back to 1793. They had just sold a limited edition of Lawrence’s’ famous Allies sculpture for almost $649,000. Amazingly, when I approached Bonham’s, they graciously said we could use the image provided the buyer of the piece and the sculptor also granted their permission.
Permission from Lawrence and his lovely wife Julia, a creative force in her own right, eventually led to a never too late new friendship, culminating with a visit to their home in Florida last summer. While there, I discovered more about the amazing creative career Lawrence blazed as a musician, actor, director, novelist, playwright, poet, sculptor, and painter. His creativity across several disciplines knew no age restrictions.
Lawrence began his creative career in the 1950s writing lyrics for Jerry Bock. Their early success was writing songs for the Broadway scores of Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Catch a Star. Some of his other popular song compositions included Too Close for Comfort, Without You I’m Nothing, Raining It’s Raining, and the The Story of Alice, which was recorded by the Chad Mitchell Trio.
In the 1960’s, Lawrence shifted his attention to acting on Broadway. He first performed in Stop the World – I want to Get Off. Next he played opposite Carol Channing and then Ginger Rogers in Hello Dolly. Meanwhile, his former writing partner, Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and eventually Lawrence starred in that musical. Later, he acted in the movie Thin Ice as well as Walking and Talking.
Lawrence moved on to writing plays, including Before You Go which began on Broadway and then was produced in regional theatres in Britain, Paris, Sweden, and Mexico City. His subsequent musical I Don’t Live There Anymore was a hit at the 1993 Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC.
A restless creative mind also led him to write A Practical Dictionary of Rhymes, Day of Change, and Britishisms. The latter contains almost five thousand words and phrases common to Britons and confounding to Americans.
Creative forces then pulled Lawrence in a new direction, sculpting. He held his first exhibition in 1979 at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. That was followed by many more shows, awards, and commissions.
In 1985, at age 59, he presented Laurence Olivier with his sculpture, Faces of Olivier, depicting 28 portraits of the great actor's roles. Olivier was a master at changing his appearance according to the needs of his character. Other commissions included a bronze of Queen Victoria for the Isle of Wight’s Museum as well as a life size bronze of Thomas Paine at Bordentown, NJ. Ten years later, Princess Margaret unveiled the Allies on Bond Street in London.
At age 72, Lawrence began another major body of sculpting work celebrating the achievements made by other 20th Century geniuses and celebrities, including Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonard Bernstein, Albert Schweitzer, the Three Tenors and a life-size of John Lennon.
Not believing in retirement and maintaining his “why not” spirit toward new adventures and endeavors, Lawrence continued to sculpt and paint. At age 89, this remarkable man traveled to the British Open at St. Andrews and unveiled his Faces of Golf. This work portrays in bas relief bronze 116 faces of many of the world’s most famous golfers, ranging from 16th century Mary, Queen of Scots to Rory McIlroy. It is now on permanent display on the front of the British Golf Museum in St. Andrews.
But wait, Lawrence wasn’t done yet. To celebrate his 90th birthday, he and Julia flew to Stratford-upon-Avon to unveil and donate a life-size Young Will, to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. The mayor and a large contingency of townspeople and celebrities attended the event. Young Will is now permanently displayed there. Like Allies, visitors can have their picture taken sitting on a bench next to Young Will's outstretched arm and strategically placed foot.
While visiting Lawrence and Julia in their home in July of last year to discuss converting my book to a stage play, my wife and I had a delightful lunch and enjoyed partaking of a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio. In this casual setting, they shared a fascinating story of their global experiences and how Lawrence stole Julia’s heart.
This lovely man, with a bright sparkle in his eye, effused creativity. On a tour of his studio, that reflected a life of achievement, Lawrence had begun a new work on a large canvas. I asked why he was painting the scene upside down and learned that he did it this way so as not to let the image impede his interpretation of shape and colors. Jokingly, he revealed that he painted with acrylic because at his age, there was no time to wait for oil to dry!
Throughout our visit, Lawrence’s humor, wit and generosity shined. My wife, admiring one of his paintings of a favorite pond scene on the Isle of Wight, became speechless when he pulled it off the wall and presented it to her. Embarrassed that her praise was misinterpreted, she tried to decline but Lawrence wouldn’t have it any other way. This gift remains an every day reminder that we were privileged to have met a true creative genius who was also a warm and charming human being, not to mention a modern-day Renaissance Man!
Lawrence passed away in March of this year. Now we continue to treasure our friendship with Julia, a lovely and multi-talented person in her own right. Lucky us!