Talent, Luck, and Timing, Cont'd

"Never give up!" "Follow your dream!" That's what many success gurus say, in hard times. But how far should their advice go? I thought of the question when following up a New York Times obituary of Doris Eaton Travis, 106, "Last of the Ziegfeld Girls." No, Ms. Travis never stopped dancing, or learning, and her life remains an inspiration -- not least her earning a bachelor's degree with Phi Beta Kappa honors at 88. But an article in Playbill based on an interview six years ago, which I found through Wikipedia, tells a slightly but significantly different story:

The Eatons' heyday was short. Offers from both Broadway and Hollywood dried up with the arrival of the Depression. Suddenly, the fabulous family business was finished. The clan didn't handle the reversal in fortunes well. Charlie, Mary and Pearl all battled alcoholism. Glamorous Mary married "three drunks in a row," as her brother Joe put it, and died of severe metamorphosis of the liver in 1948.

"Ballet dancing and the theatre was really my sister's whole life," remembered Doris, who still chokes up when discussing Mary. "It was something inward with her. With Pearl, she liked it but it was a job. With me, it was just a job. I never had stars in my eyes about the theatre. With Mary, her dancing was part of her soul. And when she had no place to go, I think she just died inside."

The article continues:

"I reached the age of 32," she recalled, "and I took a good look at myself and said 'What's going on here? This is nothing. This is not life.' I went back to church and began to study and find myself. I got some inner strength from that."

Depression-era people thought a lot about resilience. Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, put it thus, as quoted by one online review:

"If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under?

It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under...? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn't."

Doris Eaton became a star of the dance by deciding to end her Broadway career. Luck in the form of an opportunity with the Arthur Murray studio chain played a big part. But equally important was her ability to change her goals without a sense of defeat -- even moving to start a business in hard-hit Detroit. This is the positive sense of the notorious maxim coined by her Broadway friend W.C. Fields: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No use being a damned fool about it."

It's all very well to warn of the excesses of the Ivy League fast track, as David Brooks has done. What's more important for education and for public life is to understand the alternative scenic route to success.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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