Boston Globe
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Springfield Republican
NYU Physician Magazine
UMass Amherst Magazine
Mount Holyoke College
OnWisconsin (UW Alumni Magazine)
Amherst College
Smith College
Tufts University
Tulane University
Wesleyan University
University of Texas
Other Publications
Magazine Articles
At Home Features
Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Boston Globe Home Section

March 14, 2002

By 1979, Ken Burns, then living in Manhattan, had spent two years shooting his first documentary film. It became clear to him that unless he left his cramped apartment, not much would come of it.

"I knew that if I put the footage of `Brooklyn Bridge' on top of the refrigerator . . . it would still be there," he recalled. He knew he needed more space so it wouldn't languish there, forgotten, for years.

So he went to New Hampshire to scout out accommodations suitable for the life of a filmmaker. He found an 1820 farmhouse in Walpole, in which he still lives and works.

"It had more closet space than I had floor space in New York, and it was less rent," Burns said recently, during an interview in his barn-turned-office overlooking the courtyard at the center of the horseshoe formed by his compound.

By 1981, he finished "Brooklyn Bridge." The next year, it was nominated for an Academy Award, and one of the most prolific and celebrated careers in the annals of documentary filmmaking was underway.

Though he spends about half his time on the road either making or promoting his films, this house has been an anchor of Burns's existence. He moved often as a child and in his early career, and this place has been his home almost three times as long as any other place has been.

He still sleeps in the bed his daughters Sarah, 19, and Lilly, 15, were born in. They are at college and boarding school, respectively, both in Connecticut. "They are my two most important productions," said Burns, 48. He and their mother, Amy Stechler, divorced nine years ago, but she lives two miles away, and they remain friends, sharing child-raising responsibilities. Burns lives with a pair of golden retrievers, Tickle and Jackson.

As the scale and number of Burns's projects increased, he bought a second house in the center of this picture-postcard New England town. At the height of the production cycle, up to 30 editors, producers, and interns may be working full time to hone hundreds of hours of footage into a documentary chronicling such things as the history of jazz, baseball, the American West, Congress, or the Civil War.

Burns's most recent film on Mark Twain, which aired on PBS in January, capped a series of biographies of seminal Americans including Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Jefferson.

"I've made the same film over and over," Burns said. The overriding question is always, "Who are we [as Americans]?"

His office is filled with mementos such as buckets full of baseballs autographed by the likes of Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Babe Ruth; a bust of Abraham Lincoln wearing a "Jazz"-inspired T-shirt; a tiny Shaker chair; and a piece of cable from the Brooklyn Bridge. There is something from every film he has made, he said, and "there's just not enough room to display all the loot." The Emmy and Grammy awards are out of sight.

One of his favorite keepsakes is a cartoon of a terrified couple watching TV with the message, "Coming soon to PBS: OJ, a 2,575-hour documentary." They say to each other, "Ken Burns has got to be stopped."

Outside, on a hill in an apple orchard he planted almost 10 years ago, is an exact replica of Thomas Jefferson's garden pavilion. There are no doors, just a triple-hung window on each side of the diminutive square structure. He uses it three seasons of the year as a place to meditate and write.

"It's my folly, the neighbors think I'm insane," Burns said.

He is now working on films about the national parks, World War II, boxer Jack Johnson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and an account of the first transcontinental automobile trip in 1903 called "Horatio's Drive."

He sees himself as a filmmaker first and an historian second. "I practice in history," said Burns, "like a painter who does still life as opposed to landscapes."

Last year was not the easiest for Burns. His younger daughter went off to boarding school and in October, his father, an anthropology professor, died. (His mother died of cancer shortly before Burns's 12th birthday.)

Then there was Sept. 11. "My country flows in my bloodstream," said Burns, "and it hurt."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 -