(Robert Anschuetz grew up with his two brothers and two sisters at the corner of Forest Avenue and River Street in the Swaine-Anschuetz house. Together with their friends, they played throughout the River Street neighborhood in the tradition of the “River St. kids” mentioned in this article. Robert’s mother, Janice Anschuetz, has written a series of articles for the Gleanings called the “River Street Saga”. This article fits in nicely with that series.)
In a series of articles known as “The River Street Saga,” Janice Anschuetz has outlined several of the interesting and sometimes famous characters who grew up or lived on River Street in Ypsilanti. In this article, I will highlight another interesting man named Walter B. Piktin who was born in Ypsilanti and had several interesting River Street connections. Pitkin, who is best known for the catch-phrase taken from the title of his best-selling book, “Life Begins at Forty,” was a world-renowned lecturer, author, inventor, farmer and philosopher. We know he grew up in Ypsilanti and played with the children on River Street because of a type-written note found in the Ypsilanti Historical Society’s archives in the folder associated with his neighbors, the Swaine family, who lived at the corner of Forest Avenue and River Street. It is not clear who wrote the note, which reads as follows:
“Just ordinary boys,” neighbors along N. River St. might have said fifty or so years ago. “But today some of those same neighbors consider River Boulevard to have produced a number of outstanding citizens. There have been some world-famous men who spent their boyhood in homes on or right off River St.,” one such neighbor reflects. “Some of those boys turned out to be authors, scientists and famous business men.” Walter Pitkin was such as person. He authored “Life Begins at Forty.” Born in Ypsilanti February 6, 1878, he attended the University of Michigan and wrote the well-known book in 1932. He died in January, 1953. Although he made his home in later life at Dover, New Jersey, Pitkin once played with the “River St. kids.”
As the note says, Walter Boughton Pitkin was born in Ypsilanti on February 6, 1878. Walter was the son of Caleb Seymour and Lucy Tryphene (Boughton) Pitkin. Caleb himself was born in Ypsilanti in 1854, the son of Elnathan Atwater and Lucy Abigail (Seymour) Pitkin. Caleb’s siblings were Amelia, Althea, Clement, and Walter. Caleb attended school at the Ypsilanti Seminary until the age of twelve. In 1866, Caleb began working at the Ypsilanti Commercial newspaper, where he served as a printer and later as a foreman. In 1874, Caleb Pitkin and Lucy Boughton were married, and they had three other children besides Walter - Frank (who died in infancy), Grace and Edith. Lucy was the daughter of John and Charlotte (Pullen) Boughton of New York. Following John Boughton’s death, Charlotte moved her family to Michigan and married William C. Tenney in 1866.
Elnathan Pitkin came to Michigan from Ohio, and his family had previously come to Ohio from Connecticut and, prior to that, England. Elnathan was a peddler of Bible tracts to the Indians of Michigan, and settled in Ypsilanti to become a pastor. Several of Elnathan’s ancestors held political offices in Connecticut. The family history in America can be traced to 1639, where the first Pitkin to immigrate to the Bay Colony, William Pitkin, was the first surveyor of the colony of Massachusetts.
From Walter B. Pitkin’s autobiography, On My Own, we learn a little about the living conditions in 1870’s Ypsilanti when he was born. This excerpt from his autobiography was told to Walter from the perspective of his mother:
“Before you were born, a terrible epidemic of typhoid fever swept Ypsilanti. Almost every house in the village had somebody sick and dying. Your Aunt Althea seemed immune to the disease. It struck your father and uncle. Your father resisted it well. But poor Uncle Walter went delirious. He escaped from his bed one night, roamed the streets in his night dress, climbed into the church steeple and rang the big bell.”
The 1873-74 Ypsilanti city directory shows that Caleb Pitkin lived at 6 Michigan Street. This is the same address given as the residence of his father, Elnathan Pitkin, whose profession is listed as a cooper and bill poster. Prior to Congress Street being renamed Michigan Avenue, Michigan Street was the name given to the street that is now known as Ferris Street. In 1947, River Street resident Jessie Swaine recalled that Walter Pitkin’s parents lived in a house that had been torn down for a parking lot behind the city police station. At that time, the police station had recently moved to the corner of Ferris Street and Washington Street. The 1878 Ypsilanti city directory shows that Caleb Pitkin had moved to a house on Chidester Street, which is located not far from his father’s home on Michigan Street, just south of the Huron River. The Chidester Street residence is where Walter Pitkin was born and raised until his family left for Detroit in 1880. Although Pitkin lived only a short time in Ypsilanti, he carried with him for his entire life the values of his hometown that he learned from his family’s roots in Ypsilanti. Again, from Pitkin’s biography:
“In 1873 my father had been a successful youth of seventeen. He had an interest in the Ypsilanti Commercial and its job printing business. His father was a minister of good repute in town. His younger brother, Walter, was helping out in the job office. Prosperity was around the corner. That is, around some corner.”
Caleb and Lucy Pitkin moved to Detroit for greener pastures in March, 1880, when Walter was only two years old. In Detroit, Caleb was connected with various printing firms and newspapers for several years. In 1893, while still working for the printing firms, Caleb was elected a member of the Detroit Board of Education for a term of four years. In 1894, Caleb gave up his various printing jobs and was appointed to a clerkship in the construction department of the Detroit water works. In 1896, Caleb was unanimously elected to the presidency of the Board of Education. In 1897, Caleb left his position with the city water works and was appointed to the chief clerk of the supervisor’s office with the Detroit Board of Education. Caleb went on to be the Prohibition candidate for U.S. Representative from Michigan’s 1st District in 1890.
In spite of the fact that the Pitkin family moved away from Ypsilanti, Walter’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins still remained in Ypsilanti, so there was a reason for him to frequently visit his birthplace. In 1947, Jessie Swaine recalled that young Walter Pitkin’s maternal grandmother Charlotte Tenney’s house was located on Cross Street, just two houses east of River Street. So it made sense that a young Walter, visiting his Grandmother, would have played with the “River St. kids” mentioned in the note found in the Swaine family file. It also appears that Walter’s father Caleb occasionally had reason to travel to Ypsilanti as part of his job in the printing industry, perhaps to supply material for the Ypsilanti newspapers. From Walter’s autobiography (again, from the perspective of his mother):
“Your father used to take you back with him to Ypsilanti, when he went on business trips. You always had a good time.”
Walter recalled visits back to his hometown:
“Here I see things clearly in small spots. I see the great grist mill at the end of the bridge, on the side toward the railway station. Great? To me, a four-year-old, it was titanic. I see its vast wheel turning slowly, the spray on the blades, the black green water of the spillway; the long, low dam across the Huron River…”
In 1864, the first school for African American children in Ypsilanti, the Adams Street School, was built on the east side of Adams Street south of Buffalo Street. Walter’s aunt Althea Pitkin was the first teacher at this school. Althea married Conrad Unsinger in 1874, and one of their daughters, Clara Unsinger, later married Shelley Hutchinson, of S&H Green Stamp fame. The Hutchinson mansion, where Walter’s cousin Clara lived with Shelley, was across the street from the Swaine house. Both houses still stand proudly on River Street. In a messy divorce, Mrs. Hutchinson later moved across the street from the Hutchinson house to a much smaller home on River Street. Did Walter, as a young adult, have reason to visit his cousin Clara on River Street during one of his return visits to Ypsilanti? We can only speculate.
As a child, Walter Pitkin was an avid reader and read a little bit of everything, including magazines, novels, Shakespeare and encyclopedias. Walter later recalled his childhood penchant for voracious reading, “No matter how wild – be it dime novel or pure fantasy in verse – I read everything that told of tomorrow.” His early appetite for reading obviously helped him formulate his utopian ideals of future living and technology that he later scribed in his own writings.
Walter Pitkin graduated from Detroit High School in 1896. At this time, his father was president of the Detroit Board of Education. Pitkin enrolled at the University of Michigan, but became disenchanted with college education and left school in 1899 before he attained his degree. After dropping out, he joined the United States commission to the Paris Exposition of 1900. While in Paris, he studied at the famous Sorbonne. A year later, he returned to America and entered the Hartford Theological Seminary, in Hartford, Connecticut. While in Hartford, he met Mary Bartholomew Gray, the daughter of a Hartford banker, and they were married in 1903.
Walter had an itch to return to Europe, and he and his new wife Mary soon moved to Germany. Walter enrolled at separate times at the University of Berlin and the University of Munich, where he studied philosophy, art, and psychology. Some of Pitkin’s university writings reached a wide audience, and they attracted the attention of some professors at Columbia University in New York. Although Pitkin had yet to attain a college degree, he was offered a job to teach in the department of psychology at Columbia. He accepted, and joined the faculty in 1905. He ended up teaching there for 38 years.
While at Columbia, Pitkin had side editing jobs with the New York Tribune (1907-1908) and the New York Evening Post (1909-1910). In 1912, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and Pitkin became a professor of journalism. Professor Pitkin, who never did attain a college degree in his lifetime, was now a professor of psychology and journalism at an Ivy League school. Pitkin and his wife had an ideal life, and though he worked in Manhattan, his family lived on a 110-acre farm in what was then a rural Dover (now Randolph), New Jersey.
In 1912, Pitkin edited and contributed to The New Realism philosophical manifesto. “New Realism” aspired to align philosophy with contemporary science. Pitkin began writing prolifically, and several of his articles were published under his name and a variety of pseudonyms. While still teaching at Columbia, he was editor of several publications, including Parents’ Magazine, Farm Journal and the American edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
In addition to many published articles, Pitkin wrote several full-length books in his storied career. The most famous of these was Life Begins at Forty, which he wrote at age 54 in 1932. Life Begins at Forty was immensely popular, becoming the best selling non-fiction book of the year. Some literary critics mocked the enthusiastic portrayal of the future described in his book. But for Americans mired in the deep swells of the depression, it provided hope for aging Americans that the best was yet to come. Pitkin pointed out that with new standards of living, better technology and increased opportunities for leisure, life after forty could become enjoyable, productive, profitable, and exciting. Here is a sample of Pitkin’s view of being over forty excerpted from his book:
“You who are crossing forty may not know it, but you are the luckiest generation ever. The advantages you are about to enjoy will soon be recited, with a sincere undertone of envy. The whole world has been remodeled for your greater glory. Ancient philosophies and rituals are being demolished to clear the ground for whatever you choose to erect upon their sites. Every day brings forth some new thing that adds to the joy of life after forty. Work becomes easy and brief. Play grows richer and longer. Leisure lengthens. Life's afternoon is brighter, warmer, fuller of song; and long before the shadows stretch, every fruit grows ripe.”
There is no doubt that Pitkin’s book portrayed an exciting world of possibilities. Pitkin was brazen with his predictions for the future world. Never one to hold back his opinions, Pitkin laid out his vision of the future with unabashed enthusiasm. Some of his “predictions” look a little fantastic, but some of those wild predictions have since come to fruition. Here are some of the things he said that mankind would be able to envision from his perspective in 1932:
“You will soon look through a 200-inch telescope and scan the back yards of the moon as if they were at the bottom of a little hill. You will remodel your frames and your temperaments with cunningly concocted foods and pills. You will have little cause to worry over the price of clothes and rent. Or, if you do not live to see such wonders, you will at least behold them drawing near — which, of itself, will be a wonder. . . . Yes, you are the luckiest of all. Life begins at forty — now more richly than ever before, and perhaps as richly as ever again.”
Life Begins at Forty was loosely translated into a movie screenplay of the same name in 1935 starring Will Rogers. Additional dialog was added and a plot was developed. The movie plot was set in small-town America, where the publisher of the local paper tries to restore a young man’s reputation who has been wrongfully convicted of theft. Like the book, the movie script is surprisingly insightful and perceptive given the time of its release. The protagonist newspaper publisher remarks that society’s reliance on technology is increasing at such a rate that someday everything could be reduced to the push of a button.
The catch-phrase “Life Begins at Forty” soon became as popular as Pitkin’s book. The phrase was made even more famous by the song Life Begins at Forty, sung by Sophie Tucker in 1947.
That life begins at forty
That's when love and living start to become a gentle art
A woman who's been careful finds that's when she's in her prime
And a good man when he's forty knows just how to take his time
Conservative or sporty, it's not until you're forty
That you learn the how and why and the what and when
In the twenties and the thirties you want your love in large amounts
But after you reach forty, it's the quality that counts
Yes, life begins at forty
And I've just begun to live all over again
The song title Life Begins at Forty was also used by John Lennon for a song written in 1980 - the year both he and Ringo Starr turned 40 and the year that Lennon was murdered. Lennon recorded a demo of the song, and intended to give the song to Starr for him to record on one of his upcoming albums. Lennon felt the country style of the song better suited Starr’s musical style. Following Lennon’s death, the plan for Starr to record the song was scrapped, but the demo recording was eventually released on the John Lennon Anthology box set of 1998. Lennon’s words below are haunting considering that not only did Lennon’s life begin at 40, but it ended there as well. You can search for the song on Youtube and hear the song with the following chorus:
They say life begins at 40
Age is just a state of mind
If all that's true
You know that I've been dead for 39
Following the success of Life Begins at Forty, Pitkin continued with his series of “self-help” style books, including More Power To You (1933), Let’s Get What We Want (1935), Careers After Forty (1937), and Escape from Fear (1940). He also wrote many more articles that appeared in various magazines, including How to Cut Your Worries, How to Prepare for Top Jobs in Industry, and How to Get a Good Job and Keep It! These articles and books went a long way toward helping America heal mentally during the financial crisis and the war years.
Pitkin’s fascinating views of the future were accompanied by his urge to invent things. In 1920, Pitkin patented a moistening device for printing presses. He may have picked up the idea while growing up and watching his father and uncle work in the printing industry, including the Ypsilanti Commercial.
Pitkin’s enthusiasm for life and optimistic views, much written after he passed the threshold of forty, showed that he “practiced what he preached” with his writings. His body of work poured out of his typewriter even as he advanced in age. Pitkin was convinced that only man’s stupidity blocked progress. His Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1932) reflects this belief. This book was considered by many to be his best, and was translated into 15 different languages. Pitkin extended his philosophical teachings beyond the written word and the classroom. In addition to the earlier New Realism movement, in 1932 he founded the Institute of Life Planning, and in 1939 he launched another movement called the American Majority, which he referred to as a “League of the Middle Class”.
Walter and Mary Pitkin had five sons: Richard, John, David, Robert, and Walter B. Pitkin, Jr. Walter Jr. was born in 1913. The elder Walter Pitkin did not think that schools did enough to educate the smartest of students, so he kept his children out of school as long as possible. Coupled by the fact that Walter Jr. suffered from asthma, he was not able to attend school at all. At about age 20, Walter Jr. rented a room in Manhattan near Columbia where his father taught. On his own, he studied furiously to catch up on English, History, Math, and Foreign Languages. He entered Columbia College in 1934 and graduated in 1938 Phi Beta Kappa. Walter Jr. was considered a pioneer in American paperback publishing, and he went on to be a co-founder of Bantam Books in 1945. Walter Jr. was an author of two books himself, including a book mirrored after his father’s best-seller, titled Life Begins at Fifty.
Walter B. Pitkin retired from Columbia University in 1943. His wife Mary died later that year. The last decade of Pitkin’s writing career included his autobiography, On My Own (1944), a retirement planning book called The Best Years (1946), and Road to a Richer Life (1949), which was a guide to happy living and was his thirty-first and final book. In 1948, Pitkin married Katherine B. Johnson, who had been his secretary since 1925. Pitkin spent his final years of retirement in Los Altos, California. The boy from Ypsilanti who went on to raise spirits, educate, and influence so many people all over the world died in Palo Alto, California on January 25, 1953.
Pitkin’s philosophy summarized by Life Begins at Forty doesn’t apply to just a single decade in life. His message can be applied to anybody aspiring to do more with life. We’re only limited by what we aren’t willing to try, and we should strive to live life to the fullest. I’m certain that Walter Pitkin would agree that since “60 is the new 40”, it’s never too late to try something new and make a difference in the world.
(Robert Anschuetz grew up on River Street and is a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)
Photo 1: Walter B. Pitkin (1878-1953)
Photo 2: Area of Walter Pitkin’s Birthplace on Michigan Street in Ypsilanti
Photo 3: Life Begins at Forty, Whittlesey House, McGraw Hill (1932)
Photo 4: Life Begins at 40, Fox Film Corporation (1935)
Photo 5: Life Begins at Forty, Columbia (1947)