Tony Owen was shedding his street clothes in his air-conditioned bedroom, the walls of which were decorated with glossy photos of himself posing with Frank Leahy, Randolph Scott and other pals of the dim and convivial past. Soon Owen would be driving off in his Rolls-Royce to play tennis, after which he would be returning to his 14th-floor apartment for a bite of lunch that Nino, his Panamanian houseboy, would have prepared in his absence. There are worse ways to spend a Friday in Los Angeles, but Owen was bereft. "Retirement is a bloody bore," he complained, kicking off his Guccis. "I hate it."
Owen emerged from the bedroom, a sturdy, gray-haired figure dressed now in his tennis whites. His gloom was also written in droopy eyes, yet he seemed very much a product of the California good life. As if a lot of tennis and daily workouts in his building's well-stocked gym were not activity enough for a man of 66, Owen also liked to ride his 10-speed bicycle, which he passed as he strode now onto the terrace. He sucked in the morning air. The terrace overlooked the Hillcrest Country Club, where Hollywood go-getters eat lunch and negotiate movie deals richer than the cheesecake on their dessert plates. Tony Owen used to run with the Hollywood crowd both as a producer and as the husband of actress Donna Reed. Owen had made deals, too; he had tasted Hillcrest's cheesecake.
But then, four years ago, Owen slipped into retirement, joining the ranks of the 20 million Americans whom gerontologists call, poetically, "pioneers in leisure." The phrase implies that retirement can be treacherous, but it also suggests this: that if ours is fast becoming a leisure culture—and a shorter work week, longer vacations and a $100 billion-a-year recreation boom all point in that direction—then the retired are blazing trails that the entire population, including the young, soon will be following.
One might expect to find the most successful pioneers among men like Tony Owen. Retired on comfortable incomes, they are in the unusual position of having both the time and money to do largely as they please. They are spared the economic worries that in the extreme reduce some retirees to shoplifting for food. But retirement can be an ordeal in the best of circumstances. Even in a leisure culture, work retains a hold on the generation now of retirement age. These are people marked by the Depression and schooled in the work ethic, and some of them find life without toil so unpalatable as to reverse the definition that work is what one has to do, play what one wants to. As usual, Shakespeare put it best: "If all the year were playing holidays/To sport would be as tedious as to work."
The odd thing in Tony Owen's case was that he gave few signs of having fallen so hopelessly under work's sway. He proudly referred to himself as "a vital guy," but his most creative energies often seemed directed at sneaking away to Palm Springs to hit a tennis ball or jetting off to Chicago and New Orleans to see pro football games. He turned out a succession of forgettable grade-B films like Beyond Mombasa and Duel in the Jungle and also produced his wife's long-running TV series The Donna Reed Show. The series fizzled in 1966 and the marriage, which also had a long run—26 years and four children—underwent a similar fate soon after. In 1970 Owen suffered a mild stroke, but he recovered and can joke about its momentary effects on his tennis game. "I'd swing up here," he says, wildly waving his arms, "and the ball would be down there."
But what finally brought about Owen's retirement were the changes that came over the Hollywood he knew—the Hollywood, significantly, of happy endings. It was a classic case of human obsolescence, a circumstance that Owen discussed before leaving for his tennis date.
"A good love story or Western used to be money in the bank," Owen said, settling onto a couch, "but I don't understand the movies these days. That's why I wouldn't want to risk anybody's money on them. That's why if the head of a studio said to me, 'Tony, you can do whatever you want,' I'd have to turn him down. I don't even have lunch with old associates anymore because I can't stand hearing them talk business." He paused. "Sure, I never liked the movie business that much, but you can't just spend your life going to football games or playing tennis."
Owen launched into a recital of how he was approached several years ago by an old friend, also a producer, who wanted his opinion on a couple of scripts. Each time Owen replied the same way. "What's it about?" he said. "I don't know what to make of it." One script was for the pilot of the TV series The Monkees, the other for the movie Five Easy Pieces.
"Big, big, big hits," Tony Owen moaned, remembering.
Leaving Nino alone in the apartment, Owen drove his cocoa-brown Rolls through the shady, virtually deserted streets of Beverly Hills. A few minutes later the car disappeared behind a high wall, stopping in the driveway of a large white-brick house with freshly painted brown shutters. The house had been built by film stars Constance Bennett and Gilbert Roland but belonged now to Archie Preissman, a millionaire real-estate man who, at 76, refuses to retire. Preissman plays tennis three mornings a week, inviting friends to join him on his discreetly landscaped private court.
Owen, paired in doubles with a tanned and leggy brunette, wound up across the net from Preissman and a tennis pro from Palm Springs. The retired producer soon was charging around the court, perspiration all but swamping the tiny alligator on his shirt. But Owen's side lost the set 6-1. Preissman put on a cardigan and yielded his place to a waiting player. Taking a new partner, Owen dropped another set and sat down, breathing heavily.
"Know what your trouble is, Tony?" Archie Preissman said.
"You don't have any responsibility or pressure. A man needs that."
"I'd like to be working again, believe me, Archie."
"It doesn't have to be movies," Preissman continued. He was a pale, spindly man with a faintly freckled forehead. "You can always get into some other business."
Owen, still panting, gazed at the action on the court. He smiled thinly. "I'd even pump gas," he said.
The question could fairly be asked of many another overachiever of his generation: Was Moritz Milburn retired or not? There he was, a trim, utterly capable-looking fellow of 68 in a business suit and narrow rep tie, sitting behind a polished desk in downtown Seattle. In an anteroom sat Mrs. Brooks, Milburn's longtime secretary who had loyally followed along in 1966 when he quit Seattle's United Pacific Corp. Mrs. Brooks was typing. Obviously she was not retired, but what of her boss? What was Moritz Milburn doing in an office?
Milburn laid his eyeglasses on his desk. "I'm still working, that's for sure," he replied firmly. "But instead of just one business, I'm more flexible."
He rose and crossed the carpeted room to ask Mrs. Brooks to heat up some coffee. His movements were brisk and athletic. As a young man Milburn had golfed, skied and shot ducks, sometimes asking his wife Rosalie, "Wouldn't it be great to retire at 50?" On reaching that age in 1955, however, Milburn remained in harness as president of the family-controlled Centennial Mills. Only when he sold out to United Pacific in 1960, joining the new parent company as a vice-president, did he again contemplate retirement, but this time it was in a far different spirit. "After running a company myself, I found things at United Pacific a little quiet," he explains. "Most men retire to escape the rat race. For me it wasn't enough of one."
Milburn's change in attitude reflects social shifts of a broader nature. Where retirement used to be nothing more than a cultural dream for most people, today fully two-thirds of American men above 65 are retired. Furthermore, younger workers are leaving jobs at ever earlier ages, taking advantage of retirement plans that, in the case of some companies, pay partial benefits at 45. But there is no cause for celebration. Surveys disclose, astonishingly, that no more than one-fourth of all retired executives step aside voluntarily; the rest are unwilling retirees for whom the dream has become the worst nightmare.
Many of these involuntary retirements are caused by illness or the kind of obsolescence suffered by Tony Owen. Another form of obsolescence, this one imposed, is mandatory retirement, by which industry makes room for younger blood. Forced to step down, usually at 65, some victims of mandatory retirement become lost souls who continue to show up at executive coffee breaks long after leaving the job. The Gray Panthers, a militant organization of older citizens, urges the abolition of mandatory retirement on the grounds that it constitutes "ageism," condemning to the scrap heap those still willing and able to work. And Alvin Toffler suggests in his best-selling Future Shock that retirement be somehow "gradualized" to avoid "the abrupt, all-or-nothing, ego-crushing change that it now is for most men." Except for progressively longer vacations, however, industry does little in the way of easing retirement shock.
The wealthy and self-employed are sometimes able to gradualize their own retirements and this, in effect, is what Moritz Milburn did when he quit United Pacific. Milburn had tied up his money in stocks and bonds, but he decided to use it instead to build and operate a couple of medium-sized shopping centers. He also accepted directorships with half a dozen companies in everything from insurance to rocketry. Juggling his leisure in much the same way, he began lingering after lunch to play bridge at Seattle's venerable University Club—and then, opting for fresh air, cut down on bridge in favor of golf. Like a mechanic adjusting a carburetor, he was seeking the right mixture.
After years of such fine tuning, it was a contented Moritz Milburn, if not a wholehearted pioneer in leisure, who sipped coffee in the office he had rented to oversee his various activities. "I wouldn't have been happy completely retired," he admitted. "And you know, Rosalie might not have enjoyed it, either. The average woman doesn't want her husband underfoot all day. It's like the woman who told her husband, 'I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.' Of course, I couldn't hide from the truth. I knew I couldn't go 12 hours a day anymore."
So Milburn worked out a compromise, one reflected in the schedule he was then following. It was a Thursday and he had breezed into the office at 9 a.m., 45 minutes later than he used to report for work at Centennial Mills. He had been away since noon the day before when he had gone home early to play with his six-week-old wirehaired pointing griffon. On Friday morning Milburn would begin a three-day weekend fly-fishing in British Columbia. But at this moment his thoughts were on a new business venture: enriching the mixture a bit, he and some partners had just begun dredging for clams north of Seattle. Milburn unfolded a map of the dredging locations. "What you usually see on the Pacific are hard-shelled clams," he said, "but we're after softshells, like in New England."
Since retirement is called the golden years, it seemed symbolic that the office drapes were drawn, forcing the morning sunlight to fight its way through. In front of the windows stood a splendid Chippendale grandfather clock. As Moritz Milburn pored over the map, the clock ticked off more of the seconds and minutes he had so artfully arranged.
Larry and Mabel Westerberg were about to leave on a journey more modest than usual, an overnight trip to Kalamazoo, Mich. to attend the wedding of a grandniece. As the Westerbergs breakfasted in their ivy-covered house in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, a friend who is a doctor stopped by.
"Don't you two ever get tired of traveling?" the doctor demanded. It was the same question he had asked when Larry and Mabel went to the South Pacific and, before that, to Africa.
The Westerbergs laughed, and after a while the doctor went home. He was in his late 70s, but he had refused to retire, insisting that in half a century of practicing medicine he had seen too many people "fold up" on leaving work. And, as generalizations go, this one was fair enough. Studies suggest that memory tends to decrease faster with retirement and that life expectancy declines sharply. It is a phenomenon that W. H. Auden improbably touched on when he wrote of cancer:
"Childless women get it,
And men when they retire;
It's as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire."
But the Westerbergs are exceptions. In the three years since they relinquished to a son-in-law the reins of Queen's-Way to Fashion, the women's apparel firm they founded together, they have thrived in retirement. At 74, Larry is active as a pup, a dapper, mustachioed man who says with a wink, "I'm trying to keep from being arrested for vagrancy." A business magazine once described Mabel as a "nicely rounded dumpling of a grandmother." Her response was succinct and noncommittal. "Of all things," she said.
The Westerbergs have made travel an outlet for at least some of their creative fire. They have taken a raft trip down the Colorado, shooting the rapids and sleeping under the open sky, and three times now have driven some of their 10 grandchildren through Europe. Last winter they lived for several weeks in a mobile home in Texas, later moving on to a condominium on Florida's Gulf Coast where Larry gamely found himself the only man among two dozen women in a calisthenics class at the building's swimming pool. "It was fun," he chirps. "We were taught underwater isometrics. Afterward we got to swim."
Their retirement reflects the same adventurousness that spurred them to found Queen's-Way in 1952. Both were in their 50s, an age when others often are slowing up. Larry was a $14,000-a-year merchandising consultant and the couple's daughters were married. Mabel suddenly got the idea of selling casual wear on "the party plan"—through neighborhood Kaffeeklatsches. Within a year Queen's-Way outgrew the Westerberg basement and moved into its own plant. And it has kept on growing: Queen's-Way today has 7,000 "fashion counselors" in 46 states and rings up annual sales of $26 million. Mabel says, "It wasn't easy to step aside. The business is our baby, don't you know?"
The Westerbergs' adjustment was eased by their having worked side by side at Queen's-Way. That helped spare them the strains that, as Moritz Milburn suggests, women and their newly retired husbands undergo when they are abruptly thrown together for 24 hours a day. Having jointly run a large business, the Westerbergs found it easy to reach agreement on such matters as itineraries and the artwork they began buying during their travels. Their acquisitions have ranged from ivory carvings from Kenya to an oil by Picasso's onetime mistress, Fran√ßoise Gilot, and they even saw eye to eye on the $125 doll that Mabel once discovered in an antique shop in Toledo, Ohio. "Oh, I love it!" she exclaimed. "It reminds me of Mamie, the doll I had when I was young." Larry agreed to buy the doll as a gift for his wife's birthday. "For a 72-year-old woman," he sighed.
The Westerbergs retain a 50% interest in Queen's-Way, even though they have refrained from darkening its doorways too often. Visiting the Queen's-Way receiving terminal the day before their trip to Kalamazoo, they were led on a grand tour by the manager, who complained that they had not visited for three months. This truancy was underscored when the fellow kept addressing them as "Mr. and Mrs. Westenberg." The visitors ignored the error and later, stopping at the main plant, Larry was embarrassed when he forgot the name of a longtime employee.
Strolling through the busy plant, Westerberg proudly pointed out a profit-sharing chart, a conveyor-belt system and a full array of computers. "We're getting so darn sophisticated," he beamed, still using the corporate "we." Then he admitted, "Sometimes I think we're too sophisticated. I get afraid that we're expanding too fast or that the young fellows are spending too much on consulting firms. But we try not to meddle."
"You can't hold on forever, don't you know?" Mabel said.
The Westerbergs regard retirement as a spiritual test. Both are Christian Scientists who give doctors' offices a wide berth and refuse to dwell on life's infirmities. But this did not spare them the gloomy attentions of an acquaintance, an oldtimer in a string tie they ran into at a restaurant following their visit to Queen's-Way.
The man joined the Westerbergs at their table and began telling them, in clinical detail, of illnesses he had suffered in the preceding months. Next he was itemizing the medicines he was taking, a litany he concluded by cackling, "My first name should be Pill." Then he eagerly brought word of the recent death of a mutual friend.
"Sorry to hear it," Larry said.
"Yeah, old Ray's gone."
"Really sorry to hear it," Larry repeated.
"There's not too many of us left nowadays, are there?"
"That's the hell of it."
"He died just before Christmas," the man persisted. The Westerbergs said nothing more.
For the trip to Kalamazoo, Larry Westerberg folded his blue blazer across the back seat of his 1973 Continental. Later, as he drove across the flat Indiana countryside, the talk turned to the man in the restaurant. It was a cruel paradox, Larry and Mabel agreed, that retirement creates the illusion of boundless time just when time, in fact, is running out.
But they refused to despair. "Retired people are unhappy because they think too much about sickness and death," said Mabel. "When they talk the way that fellow did yesterday, we try to be good listeners. But our faith teaches us to believe in life everlasting." She brightened. "We believe in thinking positive, don't you know?"
For Lee Rasch, it was another day—a warm, overcast Monday—in the social whirl that made him feel so at home in Stuart, Fla. The night before, he and Betts Rasch had dined and danced at a Polynesian restaurant and the evening before that they had thrown a dinner party for 14 at their oceanfront house. But now Rasch was hurrying toward his yacht Pipedream, which was docked behind the house. He stopped and wheeled around, the mangrove-dotted shore now at his back. He looked younger than his 60 years, a lean, wrinkle-free man with matinee-idol features.
"We'll be pushing off in five minutes," Rasch called. "Don't be long."
His wife was shoulder-deep in the swimming pool, two inflated vinyl dolphins bobbing at her side. "Be right there," she promised.
Once under way, Betts Rasch began warming fried chicken in Pipedream's galley while Tracy, the couple's black Labrador, lazed on the afterdeck. From the way Lee Rasch was easing the 42-foot vessel through narrow channels and out toward the Intracoastal Waterway, it was apparent that the couple felt as comfortable on Florida's water as on its land. Considering that they had compounded the disruptions of retirement by migrating to a new community—making them pioneers not only in leisure but in literal fact—their adjustment was even more impressive than that of Larry and Mabel Westerberg. But the Rasches are not unique; because of such boldness multiplied many times over, Florida ranks first in over-65 population, a retirement haven where the official state song is Stephen Foster's Old Folks at Home.
Stuart, the self-proclaimed "Sailfish Capital of the World," is a drowsy settlement 40 miles north of Palm Beach that has lately attracted hordes of older people. While no planned community, it is at heart not much different from the Sun Cities, Leisure Villages and other for-retirees-only towns that are proliferating across the U.S. Many residents of these geriatric ghettoes, attaching an importance to the postman's visit equaled only in prisons, stay in touch with the outside world by putting themselves on as many mailing lists as possible. Not everybody is quite so desperate, but a slight sense of estrangement sooner or later reaches even so acclimated a retiree as Roy Erikson, who dwells in a country-club community north of San Diego surrounded by golf-playing corporate refugees exactly like himself.
Erikson retired eight years ago as a ranking executive of Whirlpool Corp. Visiting New York soon after, he was coolly received by a former business associate who had always welcomed him enthusiastically in the past. "It was a shock," Erikson recalls. "I realized it wasn't me he liked all those years but the position I occupied." But Erikson maintained other contacts in the business world, and these proved useful in playing the stock market, which he did with great success. Recently, however, death and distance have thinned out Erikson's contacts, deflating his pride and portfolio alike. "My sources aren't as good as they once were," he grieves.
Some people can adjust to the inevitable isolation and decompression of retirement better than others. One who might have been expected to recoil in terror from the whole experience was Lee Rasch, described by a longtime friend as "the sort who could never bring himself to play golf on weekends because the work ethic told him he should be mowing the grass." Yet it was without a moment's pause that Lee and Betts Rasch sold their antebellum house in Charlottesville, Va. three years ago and betook themselves to Florida. Their two daughters were married, and Lee, a manufacturer's representative for heating and cooling equipment, had wearied both of air travel ("I was afraid I was pushing my luck") and personnel changes in the industry. "The new people didn't always see things the same way as the old," he admits. "If I were younger I'd have adjusted. But frankly, I didn't need the money."
Soon the Rasches were living it up in Stuart with new friends like retired Air Force General Don Graham and his wife Dottie, who joined them aboard Pipe-dream last spring for a cruise to the Bahamas. Where Rasch regarded even golf as frivolous, he now found himself caught up in nautical hijinks so giddy as to inspire a thicket of exclamation marks in the trip's log. When Lee and Dottie chanced to flush Pipedream's two heads at the same instant, thereby blowing a fuse, an entry mused: "Wonder what odds they'd give in Freeport on that happening again?!" After the last conch fritter was consumed ("Great!") and off-color joke exchanged, the log concluded: "The great trip with good friends was over. Ah, the lotus life!"