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.

"I talked to him about getting unemployment. But he never did it. That would mean going to an office and dealing with people, and he had problems with that."

Burnham's shyness had become a pathology.
"When you first met Robert, you met a wall," says Viola Courtney's friend Michael Bartlett, who met Burnham at this time. "He made a poor first impression. He was very shy; he wouldn't meet your eye. But once you broke that shell, the dike broke and out would come pouring the universe. It was a damned shame that he was crippled . . . by this personality defect which encapsulated this amazing person."

Burnham yearned for the recognition that his books increasingly generated, but he could not bring himself to seek out the people who could give it to him.

He couldn't even face an interviewer.
In 1982, with the popularity of the Handbook probably at its height, a lengthy article about Burnham--the only substantial biographical piece about him--appeared in Astronomy magazine.

Burnham had interviewed himself for the article.
Arrogant, weird and fascinating, a much longer version of the "interview" resides among Burnham's papers. In the 37-page, single-spaced essay, Burnham delves deeply into his philosophical and political thought. He rails equally against what he sees as the foolishness of Western religions as well as the foolishness of a mechanistic view of existence. He also condemns a society that could not see the shortsightedness of fouling the environment in the name of progress.

These beliefs--an Eastern approach to nature and a disdain for organized religion and materialism--were long-held and characteristic of Burnham. Newer was the sense of frustration that the Handbook, considering its scope and popularity, reaped so little compared to books on astrology and other nonsense that commanded million-dollar advances.

Such frustrations about money, Bruce Thomas says, would increasingly consume Burnham.

Viola Courtney says, "He probably would have had opportunities for public speaking, but didn't pursue it. He had a delightful sense of humor." Although Burnham could hardly converse with someone he didn't know well, he had, in 20 years of giving tours at Lowell, developed the ability to speak comfortably before a crowd. Courtney says she wondered why her brother couldn't have found work at a planetarium or some other science-related facility where he could share his immense knowledge. But Burnham would shrug when she suggested it.

Michael Bartlett: "Everyone could see Robert's potential except for Robert."
Bruce Thomas: "He was a very different Bob than the one I had first met. The one who had been optimistic about creativity and the world."

Burnham became obsessed with money-making schemes. Courtney says her brother lost money in at least one pyramid scheme during the early 1980s. He also tried several times to sell items door to door using a unique marketing technique: an army of children. Buying jewelry cheaply from mail-order houses, Burnham would enlist Thomas and other teens to sell the items for him. "He probably thought that if he used kids, they could sell it, because he was no salesman," Thomas says.

Burnham also began selling off the collections of coins, meteorites, jade and other items that he'd spent years collecting. "He was a connoisseur. These were all very high-quality things," Thomas says. He remembers one object in particular, a silver Roman coin stamped with an owl. It was the pride of his collection, Thomas says, but Burnham parted with it for $800 to pay for rent.

"He was getting very stressed and upset. He started to grasp at straws--he'd talk about treasure hunting," Thomas says. What began as a diversion during his years at Lowell--hunting for reputed treasure with a metal detector--turned into a fetish as Burnham's bank account dwindled.

"In some of the final years that I knew him, he would say things like, 'If I get evicted, I don't know what I'm going to do. Become a bum, I guess, and lose all of this stuff.'

"For a year, I gave him 20 dollars a week to help him with groceries," Thomas says, and he knew that two other sons of Lowell astronomers gave Burnham money as well.

In December 1983, Burnham spotted a reference to himself in an issue of Sky & Telescope. Columnist George Lovi wished that more authors would show the dedication and drive of Burnham and several others. Burnham had to respond; his letter appeared five months later.

"Lovi . . . lamented the fact that so few people display the dedication needed to accomplish such a large project. This is hardly surprising when the rewards offered by our society can be so small.

"I have devoted over two decades of my life to astronomy, and my Celestial Handbook has been called a modern classic. I am the discoverer of six comets, not to mention thousands of new proper-motion stars, which my colleagues and I found during a 21-year proper-motion survey at Lowell Observatory. As a result of all these accomplishments, my income has rarely risen much above the poverty level. . . ."

If Burnham, who kept so assiduously to himself, was unsure what impact his books had had on others, he could have had no doubt after the responses to his letter began to arrive.

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