“The epitaph that I would want, if I had a stone, which I ain’t gonna have, would be a line from ‘Scaramouche’: ‘He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.’”
John D. Spooner, perhaps the world’s most youthful 74-year-old, was enjoying a chicken salad on rye from the “underpants place,” so named, by him, for the way the deli folds the white paper wrapping. The nationally recognized investment adviser and best-selling author was the very picture of a Boston WASP, with bow tie and Harvard suspenders — except that he was bar mitzvahed at Temple Israel, and sometimes wears high-top sneakers, in red.
Besides riffing on takeout origami, Spooner was happily chatting about his latest work, the recently published “No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Letters to My Grandchildren.”
It’s addressed to the two eldest of his five grandkids, Alyssa, 19, and Wesley, 17, and contains advice that goes all the way from “Buy, don’t sell stocks during panics like 9/11” to “Don’t be a pain in the butt around the house.” The 234-page book also includes lessons drawn from “Antiques Roadshow,” Katharine Hepburn, and his own stern father (“Never expect anyone else to do anything for you”).
Spooner, a local boy who graduated from Brookline High School, has been called “a national treasure” and a “Boston institution.” True, and yet, those titles conjure a staid individual who couldn’t be more unlike the actual Spooner. The man is so engaged in the world around him that he prefers to write his books (longhand) in bars and restaurants. And he’s so self-deprecating that he’s just tacked up yet another cartoon in his office , this one showing an old guy wearing a towel around his waist. “Warning,” the guy says as he approaches his wife in bed, “viewer discretion is advised.”
Louie Howland, who edited five of Spooner’s books and is the man Spooner said “probably knows me, or thinks he does, better than anyone else,” summed up his friend like this: “I’ve seen him down and depressed, but he always finds some way to lighten it up. I think that’s an essential part of his character. It’s the sense of a comic. His vision of humanity is that people are good and deserve to be treated well, and that life is a lot of fun.”
A person could spend a very interesting afternoon just taking a guided tour of Spooner’s 39th floor State Street office. The view out the floor-to-ceiling windows — of Boston Harbor and the city — is the least interesting part of the exhibit.
“That’s me with Jack Nicholson,” he said, looking at a photo snapped after a game of golf. (The men knew each other through a mutual friend, a Hollywood producer.) “Nicholson told me he took multiple lessons for years before he went on a golf course, and he did the same kind of preparation for roles,” Spooner said. He did a Nicholson impersonation. “It may look easy, Johnny boy, but it ain’t.”
And, look, there’s Spooner with Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona in the summer of 1959. Spooner was there with pals doing the post-college European tour on the cheap, and the author was there for the running of the bulls. And there he is again, in a Paul Szep cartoon. “How can we build you any kind of investment portfolio if you keep squandering your savings on bills?” the Spooner character asks. Then there’s the mock-up of a Playboy magazine cover. “Our Wizard Broker Asks: Do You Want to Make Money or Do You Just Want to Fool Around?,” a reference to Spooner’s 1999 book with a similar title.
Office décor also includes framed covers of his other books, including the nonfiction works “Confessions of a Stockbroker,” “Smart People,” and “Sex and Money,” and one of his novels, “The Foursome.”
“No One Ever Told Us That” has made both the Globe’s bestseller list and Amazon’s “budgeting and money management” top-seller list. The book has also had the nice side effect of elevating his relationship with Alyssa and Wesley — which, he notes in jest, was already strong, in part because they share an enemy with their grandfather: their parents.
Alyssa Fabyan, a rising sophomore at Roger Williams University, said she and her brother have heard their Papa’s advice before, “but we never paid that much attention.” And now that it’s in a book? “He definitely knows what he’s talking about,” said Alyssa. “I guess he’s kind of legit.”
The book’s success is “bittersweet,” Spooner said. Susan, his wife of 45 happy years, died last June, of lung cancer. “I’m here,” Spooner said, describing his feelings, “but I’m not here.”
For the first eight months after her death, he went out every night, either for dinner with family or friends or to work on his next book, often at Toscano, on Charles Street.
“I didn’t want to be home,” he said. “It’s like I’m 28 again — not married, only with more money. It’s nice to have the money, but what the hell am I going to do with it?”
The one thing he is going to do, he said, is continue both his day and night jobs. “Life doesn’t work unless I’ve got a writing project.” Why is a 74-year-old man working two full-time jobs? In part, because of his father, Herbert. Spooner wanted to be a writer when he graduated from Harvard in 1959, but his father wanted him to join him in the investment business.
“If you want to write badly enough you’ll find the time,” Spooner senior told his son. “I was determined to write my way to freedom,” Spooner writes in his latest book. And he did, kind of.
“The Pheasant-Lined Vest of Charlie Freeman: A Novel of Wall Street,” which was published in 1967, took three years to write, but during that period Spooner discovered something: The stock market was all about human nature, not math, and he liked it. “I had, totally by accident, found the perfect business for me,” he writes in a chapter called “Good accidents in life.”
Spooner says his literary agent, another Boston institution, Ike Williams, thinks “No One Ever Told Us” could be the start of a franchise. And indeed, Spooner’s currently writing a version for women that will contain financial and life advice.
With a second advice book on the way, what advice would Spooner give himself?
“I actually continually give myself advice,” he said. “Mostly calming-down advice, particularly if you claim, as I always do, that life is absurd. [It’s hard when] tough things intrude on this. Everything isn’t absurd. Some things are tragic.
“I’m at the age where I’m losing a friend almost one a month. What can you do? One of the things I say to myself is ‘This too will pass,’ because I don’t have anyone else telling me this. If you had mentors, coaches, teachers, people who helped you on your path, and you lose them, what’s really difficult is that it’s just you.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.