Some people believe it’s never too early to start college, others that it’s never too late. Harry Bernstein never went to college. He lived in an era when only the privileged got a university education, and he wasn’t privileged; he was poor. He might still have gone since he had the high school grades, the ambition to be a writer and the willingness to work his way through, but bigger events conspired against him. The Great Depression was just beginning.
Instead, Harry Bernstein spent his life writing articles for obscure magazines and novels that no one was interested in. He might have had a hard time making ends meet had he not got married. His young wife Ruby had a job in a New York bookstore, and for some time, hers was the only reliable income that came in. Eventually, Harry Bernstein got steady employment, first as a story reader for MGM and then as an editor of various trade publications. Throughout his working life and long after he retired, he continued to produce novels without any publishing success. In his early nineties, he finally decided to give up writing.
For most people that would be just about the end of the story. For Bernstein, it was just the beginning. In 2002, when he was ninety-two, Ruby, who was a year younger, died of leukemia; Bernstein says he felt that he too had died. Yet, in the midst of his depression, something inexplicable took hold of him, something that would utterly transform the remaining years of his life. He started writing again and didn’t stop until shortly before he died in June 2011. This time around, his writing was inspired, and in 2007, The Invisible Wall, his poignant first memoir, was published to widespread critical acclaim. It was followed a year later by The Dream, his second memoir. The New York Times likened the nonagenarian’s literary style to that of the young D. H. Lawrence.
Harry Bernstein had waited ninety-six years to see the publication of his first successful book and went on to write three more in the final four years of his life, two of which were published before he died. That would be a significant literary accomplishment for any author, but an extraordinary achievement for someone approaching his hundredth birthday. In his third memoir, The Golden Willow, he recalls his ninetieth birthday: “… the best I had done so far were some short stories published in little magazines that few people read, some freelance writing for newspaper Sunday supplement magazines, and a short novel published by a small press that nobody had read except myself and the publisher, who went bankrupt right after he published my book.”
Ruby Bernstein had encouraged he husband’s writing from the day they were married. It’s sadly ironic that his success came only after she had died. Yet, it could hardly have happened any other way since his writing revival was a means of coping with losing her – the woman with whom he had spent sixty-seven years. After Ruby, Harry Bernstein’s greatest love was writing, and when one had gone, he found solace in the other. His extraordinary achievement should teach us two valuable lessons: first, it’s never too late to pursue a dream and, second, as long as you love what you do, you’re never too old to do it.