The opening page of Death Be Not Proud prints ##John Donne's# poem, Divine Meditation 10, which begins with the words "Death, be not proud." The famous poem, written when Donne himself was sick with smallpox, describes the various ways in which death is a less powerful enemy than normally thought, and it ends with "Death, thou shalt die!"
John Gunther (hereafter referred to as Gunther) writes that this memoir is about death and what his son Johnny courageously endured, in an effort to provide hope to others who have to deal with similar pain.
Johnny was born in Paris on Nov. 4, 1929, and he lived with his family in Vienna and London until he was six years old, when they moved back to the U.S. He attended public school and then his beloved Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and he died at age of seventeen on June 30, 1947, after a fifteen-month bout with his illness. He would have entered Harvard the previous fall.
Gunther describes Johnny as tall, still adolescent looking, and with beautiful hands. He mentions Johnny's wit, affability, and above all his selflessness, illustrated with an anecdote about Johnny's anxiety about breaking the news that he had a tumor to his parents.
Johnny's early interests were in art, music, water sports, chess, and other hobbies. He had an extremely high IQ, but he was sometimes an inconsistent student, introspectively daydreaming and showing up late. Still, he generally excelled in his academics, especially in theoretical science—he wanted to be either a physicist or a chemist—and he kept a science laboratory at home, where he happily performed experiments.
Johnny was also very close with his parents, especially his mother, Frances, from whom Gunther is divorced. Johnny split time between them, and from Frances especially he inherited his combination of maturity, both intellectual and personal. Gunther also remarks on Johnny's exceptional willpower, his ability to provide diligent self-criticism, but mostly how his keen intelligence never got in the way of his gentle nature, summed up in his childhood desire to "do some good for the world."