I badly needed the money I’d get for private lessons, but I had to be frank with Bill Lederer that he should not get his hopes up. Starting to play classical guitar at the age of 64 wouldn’t be easy; fingers with six decades of habits don’t easily adapt to fingerboard gymnastics. Nor does the mind unaccustomed to musical thinking readily hear pitches or make sense of notations on the page. I told him he would probably manage only the most basic repertoire.
He understood. He said that he wanted to do it anyway.
His insistence that age could not prevent a determined individual from doing what he intended to was inspirational to me, then and still.
On that first day, we talked about his interest in the science of marriage, about emerging dietary theories, and about cross-country skiing. In addition to starting to take up classical guitar, he was writing a book with the working title The Seven Myths of Marriage (later published with a different title). He was experimenting with a new dietary regimen that involved whole grains, raw food, and a lot of fasting — in fact, he told me, was 10 days into a 28-day fast.
He was fascinated with biorhythms (a theory of human behavior based on cycles of 23, 28, and 33 days for, respectively, one’s physical, emotional, and intellectual states), and he had a little computer that could show your high, low, and “critical” cycles from birth to the present. He showed me a prototype of new type of ski that he had designed and licensed to Head, the leading ski manufacturer at the time, shorter and wider than typical cross country skis so that they functioned better off groomed trails.
Was he trying to impress me, or was he just a big personality overflowing with life, with many enthusiasms? Based on my own experience — people have wondered the same of me and my multitude of interests –, I’d say both.
After all, he came from a generation of macho writers that included Hemingway. He’d had a manly career: years in the Navy, action on a gunboat on the Yangtze River in China, work as a war correspondent in Spain during the Civil war there; he’d been a competitive boxer in the Navy and a member of the U.S. track and field team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Or had he? Talking with Bill was disconcerting because he was first and foremost a storyteller, and the line between the facts of his life and the version he told me could be very vague. I came to understand that if it made for a good tale, he’d tell it. Truth need not always be based on fact.
I got to know him pretty well over more than two decades. Beyond guitar lessons, I cut his lawns, got up his firewood, dredged the milfoil out of his pond, and did carpentry on the house and barn. I lived at his place for some very hard months during my divorce; under his guidance, I tried out his fitness machines and diets and gave myself vitamin B12 injections. I ate the strange bachelor meals he cooked. I built him an Irish harp and joined him in presenting lectures at the American Dowsing Society’s annual meetings; I labored beside him in a decade-long effort to cull his valuable mementos, writing notes, clippings, photos, items of historical interest from the boxes in his barn. (We created a separate archive of tapes of his briefing Pres. Richard Nixon on communist China.)
But no matter how well or long I knew him, I was never clear just how much of what he told me was factual. Had he really competed in the Olympics? Had he really been welterweight champ of the U.S. Navy Boxing Team? Had he really met Andres Segovia playing Bach on guitar, in a cafe in Republican-held Spain during the Civil War, while working for the CIA?
Until writing this blog, I have never attempted to verify or discredit his claims. My Googling efforts of the last few days provide no evidence that any of these were true.
Mostly, I don’t and didn’t care what was real or not. Gurdjieff himself had admitted to being as much a sham as a shaman. No matter their powers, all wizards use some sleight of hand.
That first day, we talked until the sun was setting. We’d had our guitars out of their cases for only about five minutes in three hours, but we agreed to meet again soon. My last impression of Bill that day: As I drove away, this 64-year-old guy, 10 days into a 28-day fast, skated off into the winter-dark, frigid snowfields on those skis he had designed and built himself.