Longform

Sky Writer

Page 13 of 15

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She would learn that on May 30, 1986, Burnham had withdrawn the last $20 from his bank account.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.

"Somebody had told me that he claimed to be Robert Burnham. This is just incredible. I'm sure no one believed him. I mean, you don't expect that someone in that condition would be capable of producing such a work. The book is on every astronomer's shelf.

"What a resource he could have been."


Dave Amero remembers that Robert Burnham was a very nice man who lived down the hall from him at the Golden West Hotel, a residence hotel in downtown San Diego which, judging by the people lounging in the lobby, is inhabited primarily by older men with little income.

Amero and Dick Frishkoren are behind the hotel's counter in the center of a large lobby which hints at a grandiose past long gone.

Frishkoren is a snappy dresser, and it's difficult to believe he's ever actually stayed in the place. Amero, on the other hand, has dull eyes and a simple but straightforward way of speaking, and it doesn't seem surprising that he's lived in the hotel for 28 years.

Both men remember Burnham staying at the hotel several years, and the dates 1986 to 1993 sound right.

"He said he was an author and that he was working on a new book. He said something about painting, and he spent a lot of time just sitting in the lobby," Amero says. The hotel lies about a mile from Balboa Park.

Frishkoren estimates that in those years, Burnham would have paid about $200 per month to stay in the hotel.

Amero also remembers that Burnham seemed ill.


In the fall of 1991, Bruce Thomas had relocated to San Diego. One day, he took a walk in Balboa Park with two friends and found himself amid the weekend vendors. There were performers of various types. Tarot readings could be had cheaply. And a man sitting on a bench was selling paintings of cats.

He seemed familiar, Thomas thought as he walked past him. The beard threw him off, but then it came to him: It was Robert Burnham.

Thomas turned back to him.
"Bob?"
Burnham kept staring at the ground. Then, without looking up, he said: "Yeah, it's me. Hi, Bruce."

Thomas sat down with Burnham and introduced his friends, telling them that this was the man he mentioned so often.

"It was awkward. My friends sidled away while I talked to Bob for 10 minutes or so. He seemed uncomfortable. He said that he'd been in San Diego on and off for many years, and had liked it and decided to move there. He said he was just taking it easy and was still getting checks from Dover."

Thomas bought a painting for $5.
When Thomas asked Burnham where he was staying, Burnham said he was living somewhere downtown that didn't have a phone. Then he changed the subject.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega