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7 Late Life Success Stories

Claudius being proclaimed emperor.“40 is the old age of youth,” Victor Hugo once wrote. “50 the youth of old age.” Many of history’s most influential figures would certainly agree. Rather than living fast and dying young, a surprising number of great men and women didn’t step onto the world stage until well into the second half of their lives. Some had bounced back after misspent youths and catastrophic failures, while others benefited from late-life career changes. From an enigmatic painter to the woman who penned the “Little House on the Prairie” series in her 60s, learn the stories behind seven of history’s most famous late bloomers.

1. Emperor Claudius

Claudius being proclaimed emperor.
Claudius being proclaimed emperor.
Rome’s fourth emperor led a decidedly un-regal early life. He suffered from several embarrassing physical disabilities including a limp, and his own mother described him as a “monstrosity of a human being.” Ignored and ridiculed, Claudius whiled away most of his youth with drinking, dice-playing and academic study. He didn’t assume significant political office until the age of 46, when he became co-consul with his nephew, the Roman Emperor Caligula. Following Caligula’s assassination in A.D. 41, the Praetorian Guard shocked the empire by installing the aging Claudius as Rome’s new leader. Many expected the 50-year-old to be a weak ruler, but he negotiated the treacherous waters of Roman politics with surprising savvy. After avoiding several attempts on his life and consolidating his power, Claudius completed the Roman conquest of Britain and went on to rule for 13 years.

2. Miguel de Cervantes

miguel cervantes
Before he wrote his seminal novel “Don Quixote,” Miguel de Cervantes lived a picaresque life marked by brushes with death, constant financial troubles and more than one stint behind bars. The future literary legend suffered several gunshot wounds and lost the use of his left hand while serving in the Spanish military, and later endured five years as a prisoner and slave after being kidnapped by Barbary pirates. Unable to support himself as a writer, Cervantes spent his 30s and 40s working as a commissary officer for the Navy and as a tax collector, and was twice jailed over accounting irregularities and mismanagement. He was in his late-50s when he finally published his famous tale of a bumbling knight-errant in 1605, but its release marked the beginning of the most creatively fertile period of his life. The elderly Cervantes went on to publish several more poems and novellas, including the second part of Don Quixote, which rolled off the presses only months before his death at age 68.

3. Julia Child

Julia Child during the taping of a cooking show. (Credit: Michael S. Willamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Julia Child during the taping of a cooking show. (Credit: Michael S. Willamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Julia Child’s accessible approach to French cooking made her a television mainstay for most of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, yet her love affair with food started relatively late in life. Long before she ever made her first soufflé, Child pursued a career in writing and advertising and worked for the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the CIA) during World War II. It wasn’t until she moved to Paris with her husband Paul in 1948 that she finally had her first taste of French cuisine. “I was hooked,” she later remembered, “and for life, as it turned out.” Child went on to enroll in a Parisian cooking school and collaborate on the classic book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Following a popular appearance on a Boston public television program in 1963, the 50-year-old began hosting “The French Chef,” the first of several cooking shows that helped introduce Americans to fine dining.

4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

jean jacques rousseau
Credit: DEA/ G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images
“What? That imbecile?” That was the response one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s former employers had in 1752, after he learned the famous underachiever had penned a popular opera. Rousseau had stumbled his way through much of his early career, moving widely around Europe and working variously—and usually unsuccessfully—as a tutor, secretary and music copyist. He only rose to prominence at the age of 38, when his “A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts” won an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. Rousseau went on to write some of the 18th century’s most influential works, including the wildly popular novel “Julie, or the New Heloise” and the political treatise “The Social Contract.” The latter effort—published when Rousseau was 50—would cement his place as one of the world’s towering philosophical minds, and later helped inspire both the French and American Revolutions.

5. Paul Cezanne

Paul Cezanne's self portrait
Paul Cezanne's self portrait
Enigmatic painter Paul Cezanne is now considered one of the fathers of modern art, but he spent most of his life wrestling with his craft and enduring ridicule and rejection. Born into a wealthy family, Cezanne traveled to Paris as a young man to pursue a career in the arts. His early efforts often left him cold, however, and he destroyed many paintings out of frustration and even briefly abandoned art for an abortive career in banking. Cezanne soldiered on throughout the 1870s, but he sold very few canvasses and often saw his work lambasted by art critics. He didn’t get his first one-man exhibition until 1894, when he was 56, and public acclaim eluded him until the early 1900s. By then, Cezanne had finally found a style all his own. He went on to produce such masterpieces as “Pyramid of Skulls” and “The Bathers” before his death in 1906 at the age of 67.

6. Ray Kroc

ray kroc
Credit: Bachrach/Getty Images
After volunteering as an ambulance driver during World War I, Ray Kroc spent most of his career as a paper cup and milkshake machine salesman. During a 1954 trip to visit clients in San Bernardino, California, he became taken with the smooth production methods employed by a local burger joint owned by the brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald. Convinced their operation could be a nationwide success, the 53-year-old Kroc joined forces with the McDonalds and later bought their business outright in 1961. Over the next two decades, he transformed McDonalds into the United States’ most successful fast food restaurant. By the time of his death in 1984, the business Kroc had purchased for only $2.7 million was worth a cool $8 billion and boasted thousands of locations. “I was an overnight success,” Kroc once quipped, “but 30 years is a long, long night.”

7. Laura Ingalls Wilder

laura ingalls wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series has long captured the imaginations of American schoolchildren, but the books were written when their author was in her golden years. Born in 1867 into a pioneer family, Wilder spent her youth living in log cabins and homesteads in the wilds of Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Following a brief career as a schoolteacher in the 1880s, she married and spent the next few decades farming and raising a family. Wilder took up writing in the 1910s at the urging of her daughter, and later penned “Pioneer Girl,” a memoir recounting her youth on the frontier. When the book failed to entice publishers, she reworked it into “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first entry in the children’s series that would make her famous. Wilder was 65 years old when the book came out, but she continued writing and eventually produced several more “Little House” tales, the last of which hit shelves when she was 76 years old.
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