Pittsburgh native and best-selling author David McCullough shares his own story.
With two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of presidents Harry Truman and John Adams and the success of the “John Adams” HBO mini-series this past spring, you would think renowned historian and writer David McCullough would slow down. But this 74-year-old Point Breeze native, named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress this year, has no plans to do such a thing. In fact, he has a new book in the works about Americans in Paris—“It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time,” says McCullough. “I still have so much to learn,” explains the writer, whose first love was painting.
The Shady Side Academy and Yale University graduate values education and family life and maintains the balance of both. As father to his five kids and grandfather to his 18 grandchildren, he and his wife, Rosalee, made a conscious decision to encourage reading and exploration as a viable way of learning. “We believe education begins in the home. We gave our kids the books we loved to read and would drive to places like Gettysburg for them to experience history,” says McCullough.
Most recently the McCullough family went on a vacation to Williamsburg, Va. “It was 24 members of our family, and it was the most delightful experience.” Williamsburg has a special place in his life, because it was during his teenage years, around 14 or 15, when McCullough took a trip with a friend’s family to Williamsburg as well as to Charlottesville, Va., and his passion for history was born. “It absolutely changed my life. I knew that’s when my interest in history began.” The author has written a total of seven books, including The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback and Brave Companions. Many people say they appreciate how he incorporates Pittsburgh into his work, but McCullough qualifies, adding, “I’m not working Pittsburgh into my books. Pittsburgh is a part of history. It comes up all the time.” Speaking of history, this spring McCullough came back to his hometown as a featured guest at the Pittsburgh 250 History Makers Gala at the Sen. John Heinz History Center (he was named a History Maker at the 2000 gala).
PM: What about Pittsburgh today appeals to you?
DM.: This is my hometown and I love it, period. I come back a few times a year to visit family—my brother George still lives here. I visit the street where I grew up on Glen Arden Drive—it’s a time warp, which I enjoy.
PM: Would you consider writing a book about Pittsburgh?
DM.: I think about it a lot. I’ve collected material about it for about 30 years or more and I may.
PM: Tell us about your Paris book project.
DM.: It’s about Americans in Paris over 100 years, including Mary Cassatt and Gertrude Stein, who were both born in Allegheny City, the North Side. Henry O. Tanner, a brilliant painter, was born and grew up in Allegheny City. Gene Kelly, needless to say, and the list goes on.
PM: Where did you learn the art of storytelling?
DM.: My dad was a great storyteller. He never went to college, but boy he could tell a story. He could make crossing the street sound like an adventure.
PM: What books interest you?
DM.: I like to read books by Anthony Trollope, a magnificent 19th-century English novelist.
PM: What would people be surprised to know about you?
DM.: You might suspect something like I know Shakespeare well, but the truth is I don’t. I like song lyrics. I know the words to hundreds of songs.
PM: Whom would play you in a movie?
DM.: Donald O’Connor, no Clark Gable—I’ve got it—Cary Grant. That’s my final answer.
PM: Whom do you admire?
DM.: My wife, Rosalee.
Famous last words.
DM.: If we lose our desire for a better life, life is kaput.