Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, and Friend


Jack Horkheimer died last week.

Son of a bitch. I didn’t hear right away because I was on my way to a week in Maine. An e-mail got through to me on the road. Well, I thought, I’ll just wait for the canned “Star Gazer” obits to appear, and when I get back to town I’ll get around to writing about my friend, the one who hated that he’d been forced by PBS to drop his “Star Hustler” tag because someone somewhere had no goddamned sense of humor.

Actually, to me he jokingly called himself the “Star Geezer,” and he loved being the guy who showed up on your PBS station for five minutes at like midnight to tell you what was in the sky that week. He’d dance around your television set, marveling at the brightness of Antares or the proximity of Jupiter and the Moon, and he made it sound like so much fun to go outside in the city and look up at a glowing orange sky of crud. Well, even if you didn’t go outside, it was still fun to watch Jack pointing out the constellations. It was fun because he made it fun. His craziness was infectious.

(And yes, I note that, without much subtlety, a 2006 Astronomy magazine profile that the Washington Post and others are drawing from for their official obits compared the never-married Jack to Rip Taylor and Charles Nelson Reilly — hint, hint — and more than a few are calling his act “campy”. Was Jack gay? Probably. But he never discussed it with me, at least.)

In his later years, it was obviously a pain in the ass to keep filming those shows for a guy whose every breath was labored. But he wasn’t going to stop. No way. Even after his death at 72, there are still some shows he completed that will be showing up on his website for a few days.

That was Jack.

I hadn’t heard from him since last year, when we’d talked, once again, about our favorite mutual interest: a dead American astronomer named Robert Burnham, Jr.

In 1997, I wrote the first long biographical piece about Burnham, who is famous (at least among people who use telescopes) for a 2,000-page bible of the night sky he produced, called Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Its three volumes are a treasure of lore about the night sky, and it was obvious to me, as someone who occasionally watched and always admired Horkheimer’s shows, that he was drawing heavily from Burnham’s collected wisdom.

I figured Jack would want to hear about the real story of Burnham, who had seemed to vanish after writing his masterpiece. So I addressed a copy to Jack at the Miami planetarium where he worked.

A few days after I mailed that article, Jack called me, telling me that he was grateful to learn so much about Burnham. (I’ll never forget Jack’s words: “I got that in the mail, saw what it was about, and took it to read in the bath, where I could take my time with it. And I wept like a baby.”) Yes, he’d mined the Celestial Handbook for much of his show material. We talked and talked about Burnham, and about planetariums. (I’d been a planetarian for three years in the early 1990s, to help pay for grad school.)

Jack and I quickly became friends.

I visited him in Miami, and later I moved to South Florida. He talked about having me to the set to see him film a show. I talked about doing a lengthy piece about his background, something that would really give “Star Hustler” its due. Neither of those things happened. We were both busy.

Then, in October 2005, Jack called me and left a message. He wanted me to call right back.

He sounded more manic than usual, if that was possible.

It was a strange conversation. Partly, Jack sounded guilty. Several times, I’d brought up the idea of a long article about him, but he always put me off, saying he didn’t want to be profiled. Now, he was telling me that he’d given such an interview to Astronomy magazine, and it would be appearing in their January 2006 issue.

He knew I’d be disappointed, but then he told me he wanted me to do something more important anyway.

Forget the usual biography. He wanted an investigation done. He wanted me to solve the mystery of his lungs.

Jack couldn’t breathe for shit. It was obvious in the way he talked. It was the reason he never left Miami (except for an occasional cruise, as long as it stayed in humid nearby regions).

His condition was supposed to be congenital. At least, that’s what he told everyone. But now, he said he was willing to share a secret with me. His doctor, he said, was shocked when he found evidence of scar tissue in his lungs. Confused, his doctor said it looked like, at some point in the past, Jack had been irradiated.

In other words, Jack’s lungs worked poorly not because he’d been born that way, but because he’d been injured.

Jack told me he thought he knew how that had happened, but he told me it would sound fairly outlandish. Brace yourself, he warned.

Jack had been born in 1938 in Wisconsin. (He was originally saddled with Foley Arthur Horkheimer, which he later dropped for the stage name Jack Foley, which then became Jack Horkheimer.) He was a sickly child, and that had disappointed his wealthy father, Jack remembered. So in 1948 or 1949, his mother had taken him to Oklahoma City, to a place called the Balyeat Hay Fever and Asthma Clinic.

There, he was given a radical treatment for his asthma: he was bombarded with X-Rays for 45 minutes each day.

Finally, he said, he can remember a nurse smuggling him out of the place to his mother, telling her to get him away from the clinic if she wanted the boy to live.

Jack knew it was a story that sounded cinematic. But he swore it was true. For the rest of his life, he’d been diagnosed with something called bronchiectasis, a condition something like cystic fibrosis that made it difficult to breathe. But after his doctor had recently noticed the scar tissue in his lungs, his memories of that Oklahoma clinic came back.

“Tony, I swear, they thought X-Rays were a proper treatment for asthma. And they were using some of us as guinea pigs. I want you to use your reporting skills and see if you can find confirmation of this. I have to believe my memories are real, but I want proof,” Jack pleaded.

I told him I’d do what I could. For a few weeks, I searched for information about the Balyeat Hay Fever and Asthma Clinic, as well as any references to using X-Rays to treat asthma in old medical literature. (An asthma sufferer myself, the concept sounded barbaric and bizarre. But it also sounded like something that might have been tried in the post-Hiroshima era.)

Eventually, I got a small break. A government document mentioned a study of irradiation from that time period. From it I was able to get a name of a person whose father had gone through the treatment as a child. That person sent me a letter on Balyeat letterhead that was sent to his father’s parents, explaining his treatment: X-Rays for asthma. The doctor at Balyeat overseeing the patient was named George S. Bozalis.

George had passed away, but his son, John R. Bozalis, was practicing at what the Balyeat clinic had become, the Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic. I called him up.

“That was what they were doing way back then,” Bozalis acknowledged when I asked about X-Ray experimentation for asthma in 1948 or 1949. “The thymus gland was being irradiated. It was somewhat accepted treatment.”

I asked if the clinic still had records of that era. “There’s no archive. But there’s no question that some of it went on,” Bozalis told me. “I don’t know what more to say. Yes, that sort of treatment did go on for a short period of time. How did it stop? Obviously, it fell out of favor.”

Bozalis said that his father retired shortly after he joined the clinic as a young doctor. “He promptly got Alzheimer’s and passed away and that was that. I know it happened. Where it came from, and the thinking, how long it lasted…I can’t tell you.”

He sounded anything but proud of the legacy. But I had to give him credit for being so forthcoming about what his father had done.

I called up Jack and told him we needed to have dinner again soon. I had news for him.

We always met at a ratty but lovable old-school seafood joint in Miami, Jack’s regular haunt. Excitedly, I told him what I’d been able to find out. I didn’t have documented proof that Jack himself had been irradiated at Balyeat as a child, but I did have proof of the misguided treatment happening, exactly at the time Jack remembered.

It surprised me that Jack wasn’t more thrilled to hear the news. He thanked me, but then he just went into another angry rant about it. I guess he really didn’t need proof for his own memories. Maybe he’d sent me to look for documents because he needed one other person, at least, to believe him.

Jack and I had one further transaction after that episode. In 2006, it came time to get a proper memorial for Burnham. With the help of Tom and Jennifer Polakis, amateur astronomer friends in Arizona, some of us wanted to get a plaque made and accepted by Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, where Burnham had worked.

Jack immediately cut us a check for $1,000 to help pay for the memorial. And he said if we needed more, just to ask. He was like that.

Over the next couple of years, Jennifer Polakis kept the project alive as a marvelous plaque was fabricated, and cemented to a boulder by the side of the path you take to the Pluto Telescope at Lowell. In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh had used the instrument to find Pluto. In the 1960s, Burnham and an astronomer named Norm Thomas had used it to provide a new map of nearby stars with high apparent motion.

Now, when you walk to that telescope, you see the plaque to Burnham, Lowell’s first public acknowledgment of him since he left the institution in 1979.

Jack was very happy to hear that the plaque had been placed, and that we’d had a dedication ceremony for Burnham last summer. Jack never forgot how much he owed to Burnham and his amazing books about the night sky.

Jack would have loved to attend. But he couldn’t go. It was the lungs, of course.

Last week, Jack died younger than he should have. But he’d had many close calls, and lived longer than he himself expected to.

He was a kick in the pants. Mouthy. Opinionated. Funny as hell. I’ll miss him very much.

As for Jack’s memorial? Well, I know what he’d want. He’d want me to go out tonight and try to spot Jupiter between a couple of godawful skyscrapers in the New York night.

I might just do that.