A funny and personal portrait of the comedian who became the headline-making, ground-breaking star ofThe Colbert Report.
“My name is Stephen Colbert, but I actually play someone on television named Stephen Colbert, who looks like me and talks like me, but who says things with a straight face [that] he doesn’t mean.” —Stephen Colbert No other comedian can generate headlines today the way...
A funny and personal portrait of the comedian who became the headline-making, ground-breaking star ofThe Colbert Report.
“My name is Stephen Colbert, but I actually play someone on television named Stephen Colbert, who looks like me and talks like me, but who says things with a straight face [that] he doesn’t mean.”
—Stephen Colbert No other comedian can generate headlines today the way Stephen Colbert can. With his appearance at a Congressional hearing, his rally in Washington, D.C., his bestselling book, his creation of the now-accepted word truthiness, and of course his popular TV show, nearly everyone (except the poor Congressional fools who agree to be interviewed on his show) has heard of him.
Yet all these things are part of a character also named Stephen Colbert. Who is he really? In And Nothing But the Truthiness, biographer Lisa Rogak examines the man behind the character. She reveals the roots of his humor, growing up as the youngest of eleven siblings, and the tragedy that forever altered the family. She charts his early years earning his chops first as a serious acting student and later as a budding impov comic, especially his close connection with Amy Sedaris, which led to the cult TV show Strangers with Candy. And Rogak offers a look inside how The Daily Show works, and the exclusive bond that Colbert and Jon Stewart formed that would lead to Colbert’s own rise to celebrity.
A behind-the-scenes look into the world of one of the biggest comedians in America, And Nothing But the Truthiness is a terrific read for any resident of Colbert Nation.
LISA ROGAK is the author of more than forty books. She is the author of the Edgar- and Anthony-nominated Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King and is the editor of the New York Times–bestselling book Barack Obama in His Own Words.
WHEN STEPHEN TYRONE COLBERT was born, he was the youngest of eleven children—as well as the last—and the first new baby to arrive in the household in five years, which was an eternity considering that his parents brought seven of those older children into the world in just under a decade.
From the day he was brought home from the hospital, his siblings regarded Stephen in the same way they would a new puppy. “My three sisters had a live baby doll: me,” he said.
“He had lots of attention paid to him and was carried around,” said his mother, Lorna. “They used to do little tricks with him.”
“I was very loved,” he said. “My sisters like to say that they are surprised that I learned to walk and that my legs didn’t become vestigial because I was carried around by them so much.”
His sisters weren’t the only ones who spoiled him; in the Colbert household, Lorna served dinner from the youngest to the oldest, so Stephen was the first to eat. “That way, I’d also be ready for seconds first,” he said.
“Being the youngest, I always got a lot of attention,” he said. “It became an addiction. I need attention.”
But the youngest Colbert soon discovered that being cute and cuddly didn’t automatically win him points where it really counted in the family: being funny. “It became an addiction. I need attention.”
“I grew up in a humorocracy where the funniest person in the room is king,” he said. “There was a constant competition to have the better story and be the funniest person in the room, and I wasn’t a particularly funny kid.”
One time, Stephen eavesdropped on his mother while she was telling his siblings that they had to listen to his stories, even though they complained that he was boring. “And to this day I sort of feel like if I’m doing well with an audience, then Mom’s gotten to them and said, ‘You listen to him.’”
Even today, when the family of Colbert adults gets together, Stephen still takes a backseat. “I’m definitely not the funniest person in my family,” he said. “I think my brothers and sisters are so much funnier than me. When we’re together as a family, I just listen to them, but I have stolen from them over the years.”
He still doesn’t think he’s as funny as his brother Jay. One example: “He used to do an impersonation of a squirrel taking a shit while it walked, leaving a trail behind him,” said Stephen. “He swore there was a squirrel that did this in the parking lot when he was in college, and my sister Lulu would get so incredibly embarrassed when he did the impersonation in a public place, but it’s my gold standard when it comes to humor.”
* * *
Lorna Elizabeth Colbert was born on November 6, 1920, to Andrew and Marie Fee Tuck. Andrew was a lawyer and had previously served as a major in the army, while Marie was a housewife who had been educated by nuns. “The Ladies of Loreto, who are very hoity-toity French Canadian nuns,” her grandson Stephen would say years later. “You had to be of means to be educated by them.”
Lorna joined a three-year-old sister by the name of Mary, and Andrew III would arrive two years later. The Tuck family lived in a spacious apartment at 130 Claremont Avenue in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, a relatively prosperous area near Columbia University that overlooked Riverside Drive. They were wealthy enough to have an African-American woman named Eliza Hart serve as their live-in maid.
The neighborhood was filled with white-collar professionals and artists: musicians, writers, and lawyers filled the apartments. The Juilliard School—founded in 1905—was right next door, at 134 Claremont Avenue. Although in Manhattan, the neighborhood was still considered rural for the time; anything north of Central Park was considered to be the country, yet it was easy enough to commute to a downtown office.
The 1920s were booming economic times, and there was much work for an ambitious lawyer with a new family to support. Attorney Tuck did so well in his practice that he moved his family to Westchester County, purchasing a house at 54 Chatsworth Avenue in Larchmont, a growing suburb seventeen miles north of the city; in 1930, the house was valued at $30,000. Their neighbors were engineers, business owners, and bookkeepers, with a few secretaries and apartment superintendents thrown into the mix. The Roaring Twenties brought great wealth to the growing families of the new Victorian and craftsman-style homes that lined the leafy streets of the bucolic village.
The Tucks attended Saint Augustine’s Church, a few blocks away from their house, and shortly after her confirmation, Lorna was sent away to a convent school in Providence, Rhode Island.
Boston Post Road passes through Larchmont, which had once served as a summer resort town where upper-class New Yorkers could escape the oppressive heat of Manhattan. Once the roads connecting Larchmont to New York City were developed and improved in response to the growing popularity of automobiles—by 1925 over two million of the ubiquitous Model T Fords were sold each year—an increasing number of summer residents decided to make Larchmont their home year-round. Located on Long Island Sound, the village’s several pleasant beaches made it an even more attractive place for upper-class families to settle.
Larchmont also beckoned as an attractive address for celebrities of the day: the playwright Edward Albee and the silent movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford all chose Larchmont as their home.
* * *
Fifteen miles away, in the New York City borough of the Bronx, James William Colbert, Jr., was born to James William Colbert and Mary Tormey on December 15, 1920, along with a twin sister, Margaret. The twins were the Colberts’ first children.
The family lived on Jerome Avenue, surrounded mostly by families whose mothers and fathers were born in Russia, Hungary, and Ireland, and whose first language was not English. By contrast, James Sr. was born in Illinois, and Mary was born in New York.
As a sales manager who sold glass bottles for Owens Illinois Glassworks, James hustled to provide for his family, and he did very well. “He evidently had a misspent youth, because he was very good at cards and very good at pool,” said his grandson Stephen years later. “He knew some dicey characters.” “[My grandfather] evidently had a misspent youth, because he was very good at cards and very good at pool.”
As was the case in the rest of New York City—and the country, overall—the 1920s brought bustling times to the Bronx in the aftermath of World War I. The New York subway system was extended into the borough, which helped ease some of the overcrowding in the traditional enclaves where immigrants first settled, like the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Many new large tenement houses were built, especially along the Grand Concourse, and some immigrants headed north, where they could live in New York City but easily commute to their jobs.
The Grand Concourse was the name of a street largely regarded as the “Park Avenue of middle-class Bronx residents,” according to the WPA Guide to New York City. “A lease to an apartment on the Grand Concourse is considered evidence of at least moderate business success.” Indeed, in planning its design, the French engineer Louis Risse used the Champs-Élysées in Paris as his model for the thoroughfare that ran four miles in length when it first opened in 1909.
Once the first subway line was brought to the neighborhood, it set off a construction boom given over to stately six-story apartment buildings built in a suitably grand art deco style in the 1920s and 1930s, including uniformed doormen and elegant lead-glass elevator doors (those touches weren’t seen on the Jerome Avenue that the Colberts knew).
Nevertheless, James was doing well, so in the mid-1920s, the Colbert family moved from Jerome Avenue to a larger apartment at 2877 Grand Concourse, where they paid about a hundred dollars each month for rent.
At the same time, the Concourse was also a magnet for upwardly mobile Jewish families. In fact, by the mid-1930s, Jews would make up about 45 percent of the total population of the Bronx. Since the Colberts were devout Catholics, they belonged to a distinct minority in the neighborhood. “When [James Jr.] turned thirteen and didn’t get Bar Mitzvahed, he knew he wasn’t Jewish,” his son Edward Tuck Colbert would relate years later.
The Catholic population in the Bronx was small and tightly connected. In the 1920s, prejudice against Catholics was commonplace, from Protestants, who viewed Catholicism as a pagan brand of Christianity, to the Ku Klux Klan, who believed that since Catholics answered to Rome, they would never put America first. The 1928 presidential campaign featured the first Catholic candidate of a major party, Al Smith, a Democrat from New York. His religion was cited as a major factor for Republican Herbert Hoover’s landslide victory; Hoover carried forty states, Smith only eight.
Sometime in the early 1930s, New Yorkers began to get restless and uncertain as the roots of the Depression began to take hold. Irish Catholics began to leave the Bronx, despite the fashionable Grand Concourse address, and headed for the relative calm of the developing suburbs in Westchester.
In the early 1930s, the Colberts joined the first wave of Irish-Americans to leave the Bronx, and James and Mary moved their family to Monroe Avenue in Larchmont, just a few blocks away from Lorna Tuck’s house. James Jr. enrolled in junior high at Saint Augustine’s School in Larchmont, where he also served as an altar boy. He later attended Iona Preparatory School in nearby New Rochelle. But Saint Augustine’s was where he would meet Lorna Tuck.
* * *
Lorna spent most of the year at convent school in Providence, Rhode Island, but whenever she came home for vacations or weekends, she kept her eye on the altar boy at Mass. Though they’d occasionally see each other around the neighborhood, their exchanges were mostly limited to greetings in passing and mutual glances during church services.
They finally met for more than a brief moment at a dance class in 1932, when both were just twelve years old. Lorna was invited to the cotillion ball, a gala coming-out event for young women. Despite the economic strife of the Great Depression, they were still in fashion and held regularly throughout the New York metropolitan area among the upper classes. Debs and their potential escorts took classes in the finer arts of polite society, from table etiquette to dancing lessons.
Lorna and a girlfriend invited young men to classes so they could practice their dance steps. Her girlfriend just happened to bring the altar boy from Saint Augustine’s. “I brought a very nice, handsome guy who was a monitor in my school,” Lorna remembered. “He was very tall and good-looking, but Jim Colbert was a much better dancer, so that’s what stuck with me.”
Afterward, the young couples headed for a neighbor’s house for cupcakes, and Jim made sure to sit next to Lorna instead of her girlfriend. They talked for several hours. Lorna had to return to the convent in Rhode Island for school, but she kept her eye on Jim. She liked the fact that Jim was an optimist and that he always had something good to say compared with other boys, who always had something negative to say about the continuing economic misery afoot in the world—despite the fact that in the rarified world of upper-class Larchmont, many families had managed to hold on to their wealth; both the Tucks and Colberts were relatively unscathed by the Depression.
Her crush intensified during high school. When Lorna came home from school, she and a friend would ride down to the beach on their bicycles, and she’d make a point of passing by Jim’s house on Monroe Avenue. But she’d get so nervous that she wouldn’t look for him when they pedaled by. “I’d ask, ‘Was he there, was he there, did he look at me?’”
Lorna also liked that Jim put his studies first. As a straight-A student, it was obvious he had a brilliant mind and was destined to go far in life, though he rarely flaunted it over others. “He was always bookish but he didn’t mention it that much to me because I wasn’t so bookish,” said Lorna.
She dreamed of becoming a singer and actress, and Jim also proved to have an artistic streak. His son Jay later remembered seeing a drawing that Jim did of a nautical scene, which he’d entered in a high school art contest with an honorable-mention ribbon on the back.
Despite their mutual attraction, they weren’t officially a couple and would only see each other at church or on the street. “There wasn’t a big to-do with the parents,” she said, “but they weren’t really alike. They’re both very nice, very lovely, but they just weren’t the same type of people.”
One day when Lorna was around fifteen years old, she decided to take charge. She was scheduled to return to Larchmont for a few days, so she asked her mother to call Jim and ask for a date when she came home. The Tucks belonged to the Westchester Country Club, and Lorna invited him to have a drink at the bar, where she ordered a scotch and water and he ordered a sarsaparilla, a popular health tonic of the day.
In 1938, Jim graduated from Iona Prep and proceeded to the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts. While he was in college, he weighed different career tracks, and even though he loved philosophy and would have preferred to pursue that path, he decided to enroll in medical school at Columbia University.
“He really didn’t want to be a doctor,” said Lorna. Though his parents wanted him to pursue a profession, he didn’t want to become a lawyer, so he turned to medicine as a default move, and because, as his daughter Margo would later say, “It just seemed to be the thing to do at the time.”
His relationship with Lorna quickly intensified during college, and he graduated in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. That fall, Jim enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University with a focus on immunology and infectious disease. A year into the rigorous program, he asked Lorna to marry him. She told him yes, and they began to plan their wedding.
Lorna’s younger brother Andrew was serving as a first lieutenant paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division in World War II and couldn’t make it home for the wedding. He wrote a letter to Jim where he sent his regrets. “I wish terribly that I could be there to ‘hold the ring’ for you,” he said. “I’ll be proud to call you brother. It’s just as well that I’m over here, I’d probably trip in the aisle, lose the ring, and get disgracefully pickled at the reception.”
They married on August 26, 1944, and Jim and Lorna moved into a third-floor walk-up apartment at 630 West 168th Street, right around the block from Columbia’s medical school. It was only two miles away from Lorna’s first apartment on Riverside Park, but it might as well have been a world away since it was a definite step down from what she was used to. “It was just a terrible apartment, with a fire escape outside the window that blocked the view,” she remembered.
Within a few months of the wedding, Lorna was pregnant. She had little to do all day since Jim was off at medical school, sometimes for days at a time—he’d sleep in one of the dorm rooms upstairs from the medical school where students and residents slept when they were on call or between rotations—and besides, she missed her friends back in Westchester. The couple soon moved back to Larchmont, and after a brief stint living with Lorna’s parents, they moved to an apartment a few blocks away, at 12 Chatsworth Avenue.
In the spring of 1945, Lorna was only a few months away from giving birth to their first child when Jim graduated with an MD from Columbia. During World War II, medical schools crammed four years of education into three because they expected that all new physicians would be shipped overseas as soon as they graduated. When the war was declared to be over in June 1945, the couple was thrilled that Jim could stay close to home for the birth of their first child. However, their euphoria was shattered when news arrived that Lorna’s brother Andrew had died. He had made it through the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge, only to be killed in a car accident in Austria at the age of twenty-two, just a month after the war had officially been declared over.
For Lorna, it was almost too much to bear. She was near-term and had been cautioned to stay off her feet for most of her pregnancy, so she decided to spend the summer at the family vacation home in Seventh Lake Inlet, in the Adirondacks Mountains of New York. There, she could rest and grieve the loss of her brother. Jim stayed with her but commuted to the city, where he would start his internship at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. James Colbert III, their first child, was born on September 1, 1945, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
After Jim completed his internship in 1946, he signed up to serve for a year with the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Lorna decided to stay at the vacation home in his absence, but before he left, Lorna became pregnant again. Their second child, Edward, was born on January 20, 1947, while Jim was overseas.
When he returned from Germany in the spring of 1947, the Colberts packed up and headed for New Haven, where Jim would do his residency at the Yale University School of Medicine. There he began to develop a specialty in infectious diseases and immunology. Thus began a fast track for Jim and his career.
Mary Colbert, their first daughter and third child, was born on January 1, 1949, in New Haven. That same year, Jim re-upped with the army and headed back to Germany, but this time his family would come with him for the two years he’d be stationed overseas. He specialized in hepatitis research and headed up the lab at the German epidemiology hospital. While he was still in Germany, he was named an instructor of medicine at Yale and then an assistant professor of medicine. And he and Lorna would have another child while in Germany; Billy was born on May 12, 1950, in Munich.
No matter where they were living, Jim liked to take some time off each summer so that he could give his growing family his undivided attention. However, he couldn’t seem to stay away from the hospital. Instead of his usual research and study, he liked to use the time to see patients since he didn’t have time for clinical practice the rest of the year. Even here, he made an impression.
One summer, he was treating a patient with a rare fungal infection that was fatal for patients with compromised immune systems. However, the patient was rude and uncooperative, and though Jim prided himself on getting along with almost anyone, this patient sorely tested him. Lorna remembered that Jim would come home after dealing with the patient and say, “I’m just so inclined to just let him have this disease.”
Remembering the Hippocratic oath, Colbert kept his mouth shut and treated the man, who fully recovered. As it turned out, the patient was the first man to actually survive and be cured of the disease.
Jim later found out that the man had been so hostile to him because he was an anti-Semite and for some reason thought that Dr. Colbert was Jewish. A few months later, when he found out that he had made medical history, the patient had a change of heart and joined the Israeli army because Colbert had cured him. “He said he was so grateful to him that he wanted to do something for his people, so he went to Israel and joined the army,” said his son Edward Tuck. When Jim found out, another doctor recommended that he tell the patient he wasn’t Jewish after all, but Jim disagreed. “There’s no point,” he said. “Don’t ever tell him.”
Shortly after the family returned to New Haven in 1951, Jim was appointed assistant dean of the Yale School of Medicine. As usual, Lorna was pregnant, and they needed to move to a bigger apartment. But there was one big change: Now with four kids—and pregnant again—she no longer was picky about how fancy an apartment was or if there was a fire escape blocking the view of a window. All she cared about was making a good home for her family and protecting her kids. Besides, she had already moved several times since the birth of her first child, so she had the routine of packing and unpacking cribs, furniture, and clothes down to a science.
After they returned to New Haven, the Colberts moved into an apartment at 205 Livingston Street, near the medical school. The previous tenants had left behind a feral cat that had just given birth to a litter of dead kittens in a box in a bedroom in the new apartment, and the mother cat would hiss and snarl and try to attack anyone who tried to come in the room.
Lorna called the city animal control department to remove the cat from the premises, but the guy who showed up thought the cat was too wild to handle. Lorna would have none of it. She was hugely pregnant and tried to play on his sympathies, but the animal-control official refused to deal with the cat.
Lorna grabbed a bag from him and marched into the bedroom. A few moments later, she came out of the room with the cat in the bag and handed it over.
* * *
The family continued to grow. Numbers five and six followed in short order: Margaret—aka Margo—was born on May 25, 1951, and Tom arrived a little over a year later, on July 21, 1952.
In his relatively short career, Dr. Colbert had already built a national reputation in the field of epidemiology and was a sought-after speaker at association meetings and at other medical schools. Jim regularly received job offers.
He turned them all down until the Saint Louis University School of Medicine—today, part of Washington University—called to offer him the position of dean of the medical school. If he accepted the job, at thirty-two years of age, he’d be the youngest person to be dean of a medicine school at the time.
Dr. Colbert credited his military service with his desire to take the position, which he later explained to his son Edward.
“They made me a captain in Germany so I could order everybody around,” said Jim. “I’ve got people working for me, I’m in charge of an entire wing of a hospital, and then I come back to be an intern or resident and go to the end of the line with a nurse telling me what to do?”
“There was an entire generation of men his age who went over to Germany who were put in charge of things very quickly,” said Edward. “That’s what made him want to keep moving up. He said that his whole generation was very impatient because of the war.”
So in October of 1953, he left New Haven while Lorna—eight months pregnant—packed up a house and six kids and moved halfway across the country, into a house at 6211 McPherson Avenue, St. Louis. Days after they arrived, John—aka Jay—was born on October sixth.
When he arrived in St. Louis, Dr. Colbert hit the ground running. His first assignment was to hire the best physicians and researchers he could find. Indeed, it was not unusual for the younger Colberts to sit at the dinner table while a Nobel Prize winner regaled the family with stories as they passed the peas. Colbert not only recruited several physicians and researchers from Yale but also helped design and build one of the first chronic-care facilities to be based at a major American university. The concept was radical for the time; Colbert believed that the patient rooms in a chronic-care wing had to be dark, a world away from the bright, airy rooms that were standard for all patients at the time. He also did away with nurses’ stations, because he thought it reduced the time nurses spent caring for patients; without them, nurses were more inclined to spend time in a patient’s room instead of gabbing with one another.
* * *
After Jay was born, the first Colbert born in St. Louis, three more children—Elizabeth (who was also known as Lulu), Paul, and Peter—followed in quick succession. Despite Dr. Colbert’s tough schedule and long hours, he always made a point to spend time with his constantly growing family, especially on Sundays. They attended Mass every week, no matter where they were, although by the time Peter—the tenth Colbert—was born in 1959, they had long ceased to fit into one car.
“We had to go to church in two cars, there were so many of us,” said Margo Colbert Keegan. One time, she remembered, they were heading out of the driveway of the church and Lorna saw a parishioner hold up a little boy who was crying. “I remember Mom say, ‘Oh, that poor little boy’s … oh my gosh, that’s Paul!’”
After that, Dr. Colbert counted noses whenever the family traveled together, but that only worked for a short time. “When we had eight kids he started to count to eight,” remembered Edward. They may have gotten to eight, but they weren’t necessarily all Colberts. One time, somebody was left behind because one of the kids who had responded was a friend, and not a Colbert.
“After that, we had to answer by name,” said Margo.
“It was just like being in the army, with roll call,” added Edward.
Later on, Stephen would get big laughs by breathlessly reciting the chronological list of his siblings, from oldest to youngest:
In 1960, in addition to his other duties, Dr. Colbert signed on to be chair of the St. Louis chapter of Doctors for Kennedy, to support John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first Catholic to have a good chance at becoming president of the United States. The photograph of the two of them shaking hands—with Jim absolutely beaming—was displayed prominently in his office at the medical school, and visitors often commented on it. Though they were lifelong Republicans, he and Lorna voted for Kennedy. Later on, the photograph was hung in the Colbert home; Stephen later commented, “In our house, the Kennedy picture was like a religious icon.”
* * *
Despite negative feedback from some old-school physicians and nurses on the changes that Dr. Colbert had implemented at Saint Louis University, overall the new building was enthusiastically received by staffers. So after several years on the job, he felt ready to take the next step. The medical school was not accredited, and in order for that to happen, the physicians who were affiliated with the hospital had to start seeing their patients at the hospital instead of at their private offices, which had long been the practice at the university. That way, the students could start working with patients, which was the only way the school could receive accreditation. Colbert asked the physicians to start seeing patients at the hospital, but few altered their ways. He asked a few more times, only to be met with the same response.
With the approval of the board and the president of the university, Dr. Colbert sent every physician a letter to inform them that if they were not going to see patients at the hospital, then the university would have no choice but to end their relationship.
As expected, there was a huge uproar. Not only did Dr. Colbert become persona non grata at the hospital, but his kids went through the same thing at school. “A lot of us had friends whose parents were doctors, and they were affected,” said Edward, who was in his freshman year at Saint Louis University High School in the fall of 1961. “My freshman year of high school was a living hell, because we were now the enemy, the sins of the father and that sort of thing.”
When Eddie and Jimmy came home from school at the end of another long day of taunts and teasing, Dr. Colbert took the boys aside to explain what was going on. But he also presented them with a few scenarios and options, asked for their opinion, and used them as a sounding board. “The thing that I loved about him is that we were kids, but he would talk about what was going on,” Eddie remembered. “We were all very family oriented. It was the only thing that mattered. We weren’t really school oriented, and neither Jim nor I were particularly athletic so we weren’t on teams and we didn’t have this rah, rah school thing.”
Margo, who was only ten at the time, was also on the receiving end of the taunts of her classmates. When her father explained what was going on, he repeatedly said that integrity and dignity were important. “I’m just a little kid, I thought, what are you talking about?” she said. “But as I got older, I realized this is where it all came from. You keep your integrity and dignity at all times.”
Lulu remembered another piece of advice her father gave her: Take every legitimate adventure and don’t be afraid. “As a young girl it was very important to be pretty and popular,” she said. “I remember sitting down and having a conversation with my father—which were rare because there were so many of us—and he said to me, ‘Lulu, there’s nothing sexier than an educated woman.’”
Despite having the support of the president and the board, the uproar from the physicians and their own staff was so complete that the school caved into the pressure and fired Dr. Colbert from his position. He had been with the hospital for eight years. “The university hand-delivered a letter of termination to the house on Christmas Eve, 1961.”
What made matters worse is that they delivered the news when he was out of town on a business trip. Instead of waiting until he returned, the university hand-delivered a letter of termination to the house on Christmas Eve, 1961.
* * *
“The medical profession today offers one of the few real chances for dedication of life,” Dr. Colbert said in 1960. “It is the exact opposite of the materialistic drive that dominates most Americans.”
Regardless of this, with ten children and a wife to support, Jim had to look for a new job. Fortunately, once word got out that he was looking for a new position, requests for interviews came pouring in. “He was really so academically oriented and research oriented that he could have any one of these jobs and make a ton of money,” said Eddie. One came from Bristol-Myers, a major pharmaceutical and consumer-brands company even then. “They wanted to hire him because they wanted to use his reputation for integrity to bolster the company.”
So Jim went to talk to them. “He came home with his coat pockets full of these little plastic white balls,” said Margo. Those balls were for the Ban roll-on deodorant that Bristol-Myers manufactured, and he gave them to his kids to play with.
“They wanted to hire him,” said Eddie.
They all wanted to hire him. And even though the money was better than anything he had made up to that point, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I specifically remember him saying they wanted him to be a front man for the company and he didn’t want to be that,” said Eddie.
“And that was the end of the plastic ball supply,” said Margo.
Dr. Colbert also received a job offer to work with a friend at a plastic-surgery practice out in Beverly Hills, but he turned it down because he didn’t want to live in Hollywood and be a plastic surgeon. Other job offers came in, but they would all require him to sacrifice some degree of his personal integrity. It was incredibly stressful to be out of work, and he lost a lot of weight. So when the National Institutes of Health called with an offer to become associate director for extramural programs at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he jumped at the chance. Once again, Lorna packed up the house and ten kids and headed to 9011 Honeybee Lane in Bethesda, Maryland.
In his new position, Jim’s budget for research was fifty million dollars a year, and Jim would spend much of his time traveling around the world. He loved the job. Old Fashioned 2 oz. whiskey 1 sugar cube 1 dash Angostura bitters 1 lemon twist 1 slice orange 1 cherry In an old-fashioned or rocks glass, combine the sugar cube and bitters. Dissolve sugar with 1 teaspoon of water. Add whiskey and stir. Fill glass with ice cubes and garnish with fruit.
When Jim did land back at home for a few days, the kids fought for the chance to make him an Old Fashioned. “Oh, that was a thing of honor, if you got to make him an Old Fashioned,” said Margo.
As before, no matter how busy he was, Dr. Colbert always made time for two things: church and his family. “Mass for this family is like breathing in and breathing out,” said Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, who would become familiar with the Colbert family a few years later.
More often than not, church was followed by a relaxing drive in the country. The custom of Sunday drives soon became legend in the growing family.
They all piled into a 1957 Ford Country Squire station wagon (a car that could finally fit them all) and headed out. The kids loved ice cream, while Dr. Colbert loved battlefields, particularly those from the Civil War. And although he didn’t always stop for ice cream, much to his children’s dismay, he always stopped for a battlefield. But the potential for an ice-cream cone was always there, if you could just make it through the interminable drives past fields and hills.
Once they were settled in Bethesda, the Sunday drives intensified; after all, there were countless Civil War battlefields a short drive away, including Gettysburg and Harpers Ferry. Once they arrived at said battlefield, all twelve would pile out to look at what was not much more than a hill. Jim would explain what had happened there, and then they’d all pile back in, the kids quiet and obedient because of the promise of ice cream.
Eddie remembers another time when they were driving through a park at a fairly slow speed when his father abruptly told them, “Look at this, look at this!” when suddenly he heard two clicks, followed by the sound of rushing air. To see what everyone was looking at, Jay had pulled himself up by grabbing the door handle. The door swung open, Jay fell out, and before anyone could react, the door closed behind him, and the car kept going. “Everyone is screaming at Dad to stop the car, but he kept driving because he was deaf in one ear,” said Eddie. “We finally went back and got Jay and put him in the car and the next day, Dad took it to the shop to get childproof locks installed. After that, you could only open the door from the outside.”
Into this spirited mêlée, the eleventh—and last—child of James and Lorna Colbert came into the world.