Final chapter: Children fulfill dads dying wish with publication of his book

When Jordan Shlain was a teenager in the early 1980s, he spent hours transcribing onto his new Apple IIe the cassette tapes on which his father dictated his first book. Jordan’s younger sister, Tiffany, read the manuscript and offered notes, and older sister Kimberly, an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, edited what would become Leonard Shlain’s 1991 best-seller, “Art & Physics.”

Leonard Shlain, a surgeon at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, would go on to publish two more books during his lifetime that explored the connections between science, art and the human mind.

Now, his three children have once again come together for a final collaboration with their father.

On Oct. 21, Leonard Shlain’s fourth book, “Leonardo’s Brain,” which Shlain finished writing days before he died of a brain tumor on May 11, 2009 at the age of 71, was posthumously published by Lyons Press. It’s the culmination of a five-year effort by siblings Kimberly Brooks, Jordan Shlain and Tiffany Shlain to bring their father’s final work to public light.

Jordan Shlain with sisters Kimberly Brooks (center) and Tiffany Shlain at book launch of “Leonardo’s Brain” earlier this month in San Francisco photo/courtesy tiffany shlain

“Leonardo’s Brain,” which analyzes Leonardo da Vinci’s mind and his genius in both the arts and the sciences, brings together a lifetime of Shlain’s ideas, according to his children. When Leonard Shlain was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given nine months to live, he was determined to finish his final book before he died.

“He was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had operated on the brain and wrote a lot about the brain,” said Tiffany Shlain, a Mill Valley-based filmmaker who observes a weekly technology-free Shabbat with her family. “The irony was not lost on any of us that he was writing about Leonardo da Vinci and the brain.”

Leonard Shlain saw da Vinci’s innovative approach to art and science as a harbinger for how society, and even the human species, will evolve.

As a doctor, Shlain, an associate professor of surgery at UCSF Medical Center, had long thought about the human mind from a scientific as well as an artistic perspective. His children grew up having dinner-table conversations about the connections between art and physics at their Mill Valley home, according to Tiffany, whose 2011 documentary, “Connected,” explores the death of her father, among other issues.

She still recalls the time her father came to her fourth-grade class for a career day.

“My dad placed a white bucket on the table and proceeded to teach us all about the human brain,” she said. At the end of the lesson, he pulled the bucket away to reveal a real human brain floating in formaldehyde.

“He was a wonderful storyteller,” Tiffany said.

During the last nine months of Leonard Shlain’s life, Jordan, a doctor, would stop daily at his father’s Mill Valley home to draw blood and oversee his medical care. Jordan was largely able to keep his father out of the hospital so that he could write at home, where he was most comfortable.

Leonard Shlain finished writing “Leonardo’s Brain” eight days before his death.

“The night before he died, I was lying next to him and holding him, and I just promised him I was going to make it happen,” said Kimberly, an artist who lives in Los Angeles.

But it wasn’t initially clear how best to bring the book from manuscript to publication.

Leonard Shlain had always been intimately involved in the editing process for his books, and his children wondered if it was right to edit the book without his participation. They considered publishing the nearly 500-page manuscript as written.

Eventually, they connected with book agent Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley and San Francisco, and hired editor Ann Patty to help cut the book down to a final 198 pages. Brooks said she and her sister, who were most actively involved in the editing, had to invoke their father’s voice and advocate for his ideas in the editing process.

“He was always in a tug-of-war with his editors,” Brooks said. “We had to almost conjure him.”

The siblings still plan to publish some of the chapters that were cut from the book.

The published book contains an author’s note written by Leonard Shlain the month before he died. Speaking to the reader, he describes his diagnosis and the symptoms that led up to it, and says he is “determined to finish this book.” The book is dedicated to his wife, Ina Gyemant.

Now his children are on a book tour to promote their father’s final work. After a launch party at Fort Mason in San Francisco on Oct. 12, they headed to New York for a celebration at the Strand Book Store on Oct. 20. On Nov. 2, they will hold their final book party at Diesel bookstore in Los Angeles.

“It’s been a very uniting project,” Tiffany said. “We were just all in the same hotel in New York. We may go to Vinci, where da Vinci lived. Nothing would have made my father happier that we would go outside of our daily lives and spend time together.”

“Leonardo’s Brain” by Leonard Shlain (198 pages, Lyons Press, $25.95)

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.