Success in Midlife and Afterlife: At Sea with P.D. James

When I boarded the Queen Elizabeth 2 at Southampton, UK, for my first Atlantic crossing in August 2002, I felt like an impostor.

We had invited Levenger customers to join me on an Authors' Cruise, and they had accepted. Or at least, 25 of them had, which was enough that we were able to go ahead with the venture.

So here I was, walking up the gangplank, carrying on a great tradition of passengers who floated on hope as much as water.

I hoped our customers would be pleased with the adventure, although I had not myself actually been on an ocean crossing of any kind, let alone one with authors.

I also hoped our customers would enjoy the slideshow I had put together and that I named Winners & Dogs. It showed how Levenger products came to be, and then invited customers (and other guests aboard ship who might be bored with shuffleboard) to guess which of those products became winners and which, dogs. I was new at giving the presentation, I might add.

And I hoped I wouldn't make a fashion fool of myself. The dress code was black tie, and lots of it. On only two evenings were we allowed to go casual, which for men meant a suit. Normally, my wife, Lori, would help keep me presentable, but she had elected to stay home with our still young boys. I was on my own.

An accidental family
When I showed up in the dining room for our first meal, a lunch, I guessed a sports jacket might suffice. Judging by the friendly smile from the maître d', I guessed right.

"Mr. Leveen...," he repeated slowly, looking down at his chart of tables. "Oh, yes, here..." He lifted his gaze and then his finger from his chart and smiled. "You're at a table for five. Please follow me."

He led me to a round table in the corner, port side, where two women were already seated, the younger of whom was middle-aged.

I shook hands with the older woman, who introduced herself as Phyllis, and then the younger woman, who introduced herself as Clare, Phyllis's daughter. Sitting down, I thought I'd be polite and so asked the older woman if she were an author. "Oh, yes," she said in a modest tone. "I write under the name P.D. James."

Before I had a chance to recover, another couple approached the table. It was David and Helen Gurley Brown.

And so began one of the most magical weeks of my life. For 3,000 nautical miles, our accidental family of five dined in elegance and discussed in intimacy, while the hull of the QE2 parted the waters of the North Atlantic at its customary 28.5 knots.

Midlife change artists, now in their 80s

David Brown was initially a mystery to me, but I quickly learned that he, while less famous than his wife, was a prominent movie producer. He gave an unknown director named Steven Spielberg a start for a movie to be called Jaws, and went on to produce The Sting, Driving Miss Daisy, and A Few Good Men. David, whom I never saw without a tie done in a full Windsor knot, was worldly, debonair, and a legendarily big tipper (in contrast to his parsimonious wife, who prided herself on taking the bus). David started his career as a magazine editor, and he was the one who encouraged Helen, riding her incandescent success with Sex and the Single Girl, to become a magazine editor of a then failing literary magazine called Cosmopolitan.

For her part, Helen was authentic, warm, and a fantastically talented listener. (When I listen today, I still try to model her.) I never met anyone who was as frank about sex. She happily explained how she and David had a steamy sex life despite that, or maybe because, they were in their 80s. She would talk about women naturally rising in all fields, while at the same time I saw how much she enjoyed being the dutiful wife, showering David with attention and affection.

P.D. James--more properly, Baroness James of Holland Park, a member of the House of Lords--was less outgoing than the Browns, but steady and sure as our ship. We learned that she was as engaged in her leadership responsibilities as she was with her writing. And yet she was utterly down to earth.

Phyllis had had to leave school at 16 due to family finances. She married an army doctor who returned from World War II with mental illness and had to be hospitalized. Phyllis supported her two daughters by getting a job in hospital administration. Her first book, which introduced her character detective Adam Dalgliesh, came out in 1962, the year she turned 42. Despite her growing literary success, she continued to work in government service until her retirement in 1979.

Her talk drew the biggest crowd of the voyage, even outdrawing her countryman Dick Francis. She spoke about her very early attraction to murder mysteries, beginning when she read Humpty Dumpty and wondered, "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"

She recalled the mistake in one of her early novels, when a character put his motorcycle in reverse (only to learn after the book was printed that motorcycles don't have reverse). She took pleasure in the rare error, since she was known for getting the descriptive details of her fiction just right.

I was seen sitting next to P.D. James enough times that a certain buzz began in the dining room. Who was that young man (I was 48 at the time), sitting besides the Baroness? One woman got up the nerve to approach our table and ask the author if her escort in the tuxedo was, in fact, the mysterious Adam Dalgliesh. Playing along, I pointed to my wedding ring, which Detective Dalgliesh, being unmarried, would clearly not be wearing.

For all her warmth, P.D. James conveyed an inner seriousness and fortitude. She seemed to me to embody the exhortation of "Keep Calm and Carry On" years before that WWII slogan became emblazoned on products in gift stores.

In beginning her writing career in her 40s, she followed a path trod by her countryman, Winston Churchill, who picked up a paintbrush while in his 40s. But while painting remained a pastime for Churchill, writing became what P.D. James will be remembered for.

As it turned out, at our table were seated three midlife reinventors. 1962 was the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, that Helen Gurley Brown came out with her first book. Both women were then in their 40s, born less than two years apart.

For his part, David left his executive position at Fox when he was 56 to start his own production company. All three midlife change artists were now in their 80s and so used to work they couldn't stop. As David joked, "We had our chance to retire, but missed the opportunity."

At sea

During our crossing, we had days of nothing to see but the expanse of open ocean. On some mornings, whales or dolphins swam alongside. Finally, Newfoundland appeared to starboard, and then another day of open ocean. I came to love those days at sea with only our ship and one another to see--so very unlike cruise ships, with their distracting excursions.

On our morning walks around the deck I got to know William and Beverly Webster, Levenger customers from California. They had always wanted to do such a crossing and our invitation had got them to do it. They liked my Winners & Dogs presentation, and so did David Brown, whom I remember throwing his head back and laughing loudly at my jokes For me, being able to entertain this great producer was all I needed to dispel the doubts I had felt upon boarding.

As our ship entered New York harbor in the pre-dawn hours seven days later, bleary-eyed passengers crowded the bow to see the lights of the city. We steamed past the illuminated Statue of Liberty and, as dawn started to lighten the sky, we saw lower Manhattan Island.

A few hours later, our bags packed and waiting to disembark, I sat on deck with Phyllis and Clare. The sun was pleasantly warm, and we by now were comfortable enough with one another to be able to sit with our thoughts without feeling the need to chat.

I had come to appreciate over the week how very many people wanted a piece of her time--to give a speech, to accept an award, to read their manuscripts. She was soon to be swept up in her duties in the US. And then she had all her governmental work in the House of Lords awaiting her at home. I felt lucky to have had so many hours around that table with her strong and warm presence. As close as we now were, I had a feeling I wouldn't see her again, and I was right.

Life and afterlife
News of the first death of my transatlantic friends came in a note I received in 2004 from Levenger customer Beverly Webster, saying William had passed away. She wrote to say again how very much her husband had enjoyed our crossing.

Next, in 2008, our ship passed away--at least in the way great ships die. The QE2 was retired from transatlantic service, having been replaced by her much younger and much bigger sister, the Queen Mary 2. The QE2 was sent out to pasture, cruising pensioners around the Mediterranean. Then she was sold, say the press releases, to become a floating hotel, permanently tied (with strained lines, I imagine) to a tourist dock in Dubai.

David Brown, that uncommon man with a common name, was next, passing away in 2010. To this day, whenever I'm deciding how much of a tip to leave, I still see this generous man with his full Windsor knot tie and broad smile.

"LA loves girls but New York loves women," wrote Helen Gurley Brown. New York showed its love for the woman she was at her memorial service in 2012 at Lincoln Center. The hall filled with a couple thousand people for her services. I kept wandering the crowd hoping to find someone I knew, but failed. As close as I felt to her, I was but one of thousands of people she had touched with her loving words, spoken and typed by herself on her typewriter, which was always a quarter swivel away in her desk chair.

And now, as the final days of 2014 sift through the sand glass, I think back to meeting Phyllis a dozen years ago at that table on the port side and remember Maya Angelou's observation:

People will forget what you said
People will forget what you did
But people will never forget how you made them feel.

P.D. James made me feel grateful. That was easy, because she emanated gratefulness to have had the career she did--and all the sweeter, at having such a career begin in midlife.

All three of my 80-year-old midlife change artists lived to their 90s, and did so with vigor. How long they will live in the afterlife depends on their work, and on stories like these told by people lucky enough to have known them.

Though the newspapers report P.D. James is deceased, I have a feeling Adam Dalgliesh may turn up some clues that suggest otherwise.