By Bob Thomas
Sidney Poitier pens letters to his great-granddaughter in his newest book.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It all began when Sidney Poitier flew to Atlanta in late December 2005 for the birth of his first great-granddaughter.
“When I arrived at the hospital, I saw my great-granddaughter in her mother’s arms,” he recalled. “Directly behind her was my daughter, the baby’s grandmother. Next to her was my former wife, who was the baby’s great-grandmother.
“I saw that I was in a room of four generations. I would soon be 80, and Ayele was one day old. I realized that the time between us would be short. I decided I would write a book in the form of letters so I could cover everything that I’ve felt and learned, and talk to her about things that I don’t understand.”
The result is “Life Beyond Measure, Letters to My Great-Granddaughter.” It follows his 1980 autobiography, “This Life,” but is much more personal, with little reference to his movie career. The chapter titles tell of his concerns. Among them: “Me and God,” “Battling the Demons,” “People of Courage” and “The World I Leave You.”
“Life Beyond Measure” was a grueling task for Poitier, who had to dig into his earliest memories, his relations with his parents and his sometimes wayward youth.
“I’m going to quit writing,” he vowed, somewhat unconvincingly. “I was working eight to 10 hours a day on the book. I’m going to relax, find something else to do.” Still, he talked about three more books he wants to write.
Poitier sat down for an interview in his comfortably cluttered house a few blocks from the Beverly Hills Hotel. “My wife collects knickknacks,” he explained.
He and Joanna Poitier live alone. Gone are the girls: Gina, Pamela, Beverly and Sheri from his marriage to Juanita Poitier, as well as Sydney and Anika, from the marriage to actress Joanna Shimkus.
At 81, Sidney Poitier seems little changed from his movie years. His hair is a bit thinner, and he has been forced to abandon tennis and golf because of a bad back. But he still stands tall, and his face is smooth.
“I retired from acting a long time ago,” he remarked (his last film was “The Jackal” in 1997). “I had spent all that I had to spend in terms of creativeness.
“The work was organic, and I tried to make it organic for a long time. By the end of 56 movies ... I found that I had spent it as honestly as I could, and I was obliged to myself to quit.”
He still gets offers for films, but he’s not interested in working. He said he’s playing the grandfather and the great-grandfather in his real life. He now has two great-granddaughters.
Poitier spent his early life in the Caribbean, but he was born in the United States. His father and his six-and-half-month pregnant wife had gone to Miami to sell their tomato crop. Their mission over, they prepared for the trip back home. But Sidney was born, all three pounds of him. Survival seemed doubtful, and his father found a shoe box for the burial. But Sidney, the youngest of nine children, did survive, and he was taken home to Cat Island in the Bahamas.
“The island is the same size as Manhattan,” he remarked, “but it had only 2,500 population.”
Poitier spent his first 10 and a half years on the quiet island with no school to attend.
“I have always been a learner because I knew nothing,” he observed. “I didn’t have an education, and I couldn’t read very well. I couldn’t spell. I could barely count to a hundred. But I did have a curiosity. I looked at insects. I looked at birds and crickets. I looked at fish on the edge of the sea.”
When Florida banned the import of tomatoes from the Bahamas, the family moved to Nassau where his father found other work. But there was a much larger world beyond island life. Sidney and his mother arrived at the busy Nassau harbor, and he saw something that resembled a giant beetle. “What is that?” he asked his mother. “That,” his mother replied, “is a car.”
Poitier writes of an incident in his early teens. He fell in with a group of adventurous boys, and they robbed a corn field one night. They were roasting their loot a half-mile from the corn field when the farmer saw the fire and called the police. The other boys’ fathers raised the $8 bail money; Sidney’s father didn’t have the cash, and his son spent a night in jail.
Poitier quotes his father: “You need a stronger hand. You were born in America. The time has come for your mother and me to send you back.” At 15, Sidney was sent to live with his brother Cyril in Miami. He didn’t see his parents for another eight years.
Miami was totally different from Cat Island and Nassau. Poitier writes of “the searing shock of racism, segregation and the mistreatment of people on the basis of color alone.”
Poitier was 16 when he got off the bus in New York City and headed for Harlem. On the way, he spotted a sign in a restaurant’s window: “Dishwasher Wanted.” He got the job and spent his evenings washing dishes at $4 plus change and his days looking for better jobs.
After a brief stint in the Army, he returned to job hunting and answered an ad: “Actors Wanted — American Negro Theater.” He was briskly sent away, but returned and got a job. He had found his lifetime work.
Poitier is an omnivorous reader and especially likes scientific works.
“I’m impressed by science,” he remarked. “I don’t very often read novels. I stay with what I see, what I’ve learned, what I try to understand.”
In his letters to Ayele, Poitier expresses his concern for the planet.
“We all are obliged to do something for the universe,” he said. “The universe is where we live; it’s our home base. I believe that our greatest obligation is not to abuse it.
“My friends think I’m nuts. But this is the way I feel.”