Sky Writer

Stargazers revere Arizona Robert Burnham Jr., creator of the most complete, practical, inspirational book ever written about the night sky. But like so many people of genius, he would spend his last years alone and destitute.

Burnham told her a tale of fragments of visions: his hand magically going through the door of a car; traveling on a city street in another van; in a hotel room high in the sky with a big window without glass; a tremendously loud sound that forced him toward the open window; someone saying, "Let's go to the beach."

But the moment he heard himself say his name to the Newport Beach police officer, Burnham felt normal. From that point on, he could account for his whereabouts.

"He had no memory how he came to Newport Beach, no idea of reality during the prior [seven]-week period. All he remembered were the hallucinations," Courtney says.

No one remembers Burnham, who was 54 at the time of his disappearance, using illicit drugs of any kind. Bruce Thomas says Burnham often spoke against their use.

Says Michael Bartlett: "The job at Lowell was virtually the only job he ever had in his life. It took care of all of the mundane things in his life. Throughout that period he didn't have to worry about the things he needed, and he had meager needs. . . . But when that job ended, it cut the legs out from under him. Then suddenly he needed to fend for himself.

"If he had some kind of mental breakdown, this is what precipitated it."
Whatever had caused Burnham to lose a grip on reality seemed to have passed.
But Courtney says Burnham admitted to her that he feared ending up in a mental institution. It was the reason he refused her suggestion to seek an examination.

She had other suggestions as well. While she had come to Burnham's aid without question, as the days wore on, her living situation became intolerable. Sharing her trailer with her brother gave her no privacy, and Burnham never left the house. She suggested he get a job, and she made that request stronger after his semiannual October royalty check arrived.

It was for only $300. Burnham had taken so many advances in the past, there was hardly anything left of his pay.

Burnham did some telemarketing from the trailer, but he hung his hopes on a check he'd been waiting years for: royalties on the Japanese edition of his Handbook, which had finally been published.

Burnham told Courtney that he expected a lucrative check in April 1986.
She says he counted on more than $10,000, a bonanza, considering his current living situation. Courtney, desperate for some privacy, bought a townhouse with Bartlett. She told Burnham he could stay in the trailer rent-free indefinitely as long as he paid utilities. She hoped it would be an incentive for him to find a steady job.

Burnham became convinced that the Japanese edition would finally change his fortunes.

Then, the check arrived. It was for $500.
It devastated him, Courtney says.
Courtney tried again to wake her brother up to financial reality. "I told him, 'You can't live on the royalties from Dover. You can't live on the royalties of the Japanese book. In your mail-order schemes, you lost more than you've made. You need employment, then you can get an apartment and bring your things down from Flagstaff.'"

She shrugs. "Those were my plans for him. But he didn't seem to have any plans of his own."

Bartlett says, "At this point, he didn't seem to have any zest for life left."

"Perhaps he left Phoenix because he was afraid I would keep pushing to get him some kind of counseling," Courtney says, and she appears to battle feelings of guilt.

Every weekend, Courtney would visit Burnham at the mobile home. But early in June, Burnham left without warning.

She would learn that on May 30, 1986, Burnham had withdrawn the last $20 from his bank account. He left with the money, the clothes on his back, and his social security card.

When she noticed that Burnham's royalty checks stopped coming to the trailer, she asked a Dover employee if it was forwarding his checks. Yes, she was told. But Burnham had requested that Dover not divulge the address.

She never saw him again.

The old man who sold paintings of cats in San Diego's Balboa Park would line up early on weekend mornings so that he could get a one-day vendor's license before they ran out.

Then he would arrange his paintings on a bench and sit down amid them. He wasn't much of a salesman. He didn't hawk his wares. He simply waited for someone to come by and look at them.

During the week, he would simply sit on the bench, alone. Or he would paint his cats.

Workers at the nearby Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater remember him. Dennis Mammana, the planetarium's astronomer, remembers seeing the man sitting on the same bench, day after day.

When he's asked if he knew the man was the author of Burnham's Celestial Handbook, Mammana replies:

"He couldn't have been. Robert Burnham, the man who wrote the Celestial Handbook, was an editor at Astronomy magazine at the time."

When Mammana's told that he has made the common mistake of confusing the two writers--that there were in fact two Robert Burnhams, and the author of the Handbook had ended up sitting on a park bench outside his planetarium--Mammana sounds dismayed.

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