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The Death of a Yale Man

Remembering Denny

by Calvin Trillin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 209 pp., $19.00

1.

It should be said at the outset that Calvin Trillin and I have been friends for over thirty years. It should further be said that I once dedicated a book to him and his wife, Alice, and that he, somewhat more problematically, dedicated a book to me. Or to be more precise, included in his novel Floater—loosely based on our days together at Time—what he called a “Claimer” (as opposed to “Disclaimer”): “The character of Andy Wolferman is based on John Gregory Dunne, though it tends to flatter.” When I asked Mr. Trillin how his portrait of the pathological gossip Wolferman might in any way have been flattering, he said, “I made you Jewish.”

Since he left Time in 1963 to write, at the invitation of The New Yorker’s late editor William Shawn, about the integration of the University of Georgia (a three-part article that became his first book, An Education in Georgia), Mr. Trillin has been the quintessential New Yorker writer, the author of approximately three hundred bylined pieces, casuals, and stories, so many that neither he nor the magazine is able to come up with an exact count. For fifteen years, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, he reported every three weeks on some aspect of the American scene, traveling to most of the country’s major cities and to rural venues and crossroads as diverse as Gees Bend, Alabama, New Glarus, Wisconsin, Mamou, Louisiana, Locke, California, Lander, Wyoming, and Biddeford, Maine.

Human interest has never been his game. “I wasn’t interested in doing what is sometimes called Americana—stories about people like the last fellow in Jasper County, Georgia, who can whittle worth a damn,” he wrote in the introduction to Killings,1 titled appropriately after sixteen murders he had written about over the years. “I didn’t want to do stories about typical or representative Americans…. I didn’t do stories that could be called ‘Boston at Three Hundred’ or ‘Is The New South Really New?”’

What did interest Mr. Trillin was what Edith Wharton called the underside of the social tapestry where the threads are knotted and the loose ends hang. His America is informed more by Sherwood Anderson than by Garrison Keillor; he is attracted to stories about people who behave if not exactly badly then certainly not well, with the result that many of his pieces, especially when they are read one after another (as in Killings), appear to be drawn from a deeply conservative reserve that seems at times almost melancholic. The prose is spare and unadorned, like a tree in late autumn stripped of its leaves; it is without ego—in his reporting the pronoun “I” almost never appears—and without tricks. Of course making it seem without tricks is the biggest trick of all.

His curiosity, like his wanderlust, is prodigious. Picking a jury in Brooklyn. A General Motors stockholders meeting in Detroit. A Yale-educated former philosophy professor turned private detective in California. A homosexual Methodist minister in Colorado. An American Legionnarie and his hippie daughter in Kansas. A one-shot antelope hunt in Wyoming. The way Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were done out of their share of a hit single called “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” this last a dazzling tale of chicanery, villainy, criminality, and venality by an assortment of thieves, liars, crooks, and racists who make the similarly predatory Flatbush brothers, the music promoters in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, seem like benign humanists.

The pertinent detail in the social weave rarely escapes him. “It’s a matter of honor with an Italian hit man not to touch anything,” he quotes a homicide detective saying on the subject of murder. “Cubans rob the guy as part of the deal—the price plus what he’s carrying.” His tone is usually conversational, at times seeming to come almost from an oral tradition. He begins a piece in his collection American Stories2 about a Louisiana woman’s fight with a lawyer in a state agency over whether her parents should have been identified as “white” or “colored” on her birth certificate in this deceptively simple way: “Susie Guillory Phipps thinks this all started in 1977, when she wanted to apply for a passport. Jack Westholtz thinks it started long before that.”

Like Murray Kempton, Mr. Trillin tries to find something good to say, however recherché, even about those who have violated every clause of the human contract. “Even people who assume all criminal lawyers to be part fixer,” he wrote of a high-flying, seven-times-married Miami Beach criminal attorney found shot to death in his car, “refer to Harvey St. Jean as a gentleman.” And of a lupine music promoter: “Morris Levy was a seventh-grade dropout from the Bronx who eventually became one of the most powerful figures in the record industry…. He was a friend, and occasionally a business partner, of mobsters; he was also the Man of the Year at United Jewish Appeal dinners, and a planter of forests in Israel.” The ludicrous holds particular appeal. The late Harvey St. Jean, he wrote, had lived at a private club “where the average age of the residents was forty,” and then added the local computation of that average: “…a sixty-year-old guy and a twenty-year-old broad.”

Calvin Trillin’s renown, however, resides less with the range and the acuity of his reportage than with the public perception of him as a humorist, one who appeared thirty-three times on The Johnny Carson Show. It was true that he always appeared on the final segment, known in the trade as the author’s ghetto, after Robin Williams or Cher had departed, except on one occasion when, he claims, he was followed by a harpist. Still it was thirty-three times, meaning he was asked back not just to hawk a book but because Carson thought he was funny. He has a humor column that is syndicated in seventy-five newspapers (the columns have been collected in four books), and every issue of The Nation carries a piece of his political doggerel, as in his adieu to George Bush:

Farewell to you, George Herbert Walker.
Though never treasured as a talker
Your predicates were often prone
To wander, nounless, off alone
You did your best in your own way,
The way of Greenwich Country Day.
We wish you well. Just take your ease,
And never order Japanese.
May your repose remain un- blighted
Unless, of course, you get indicted.3

Although he has lived most of his adult life in New York, Mr. Trillin’s humor has little of the city’s sharp Jewish edge; it is less ethnic, even deracinated (in public if not in private), more gentle and ironic, reflective of his Midwestern roots. Food is a continuing preoccupation, less classic cooking than egalitarian regional food, the food of catfish festivals and pizza kings and crab boils. He seems to have visited every fast food and barbecue restaurant in America, and collected his impressions in three books, American Fried, Third Helpings, and Alice, Let’s Eat, the titles speaking volumes about the kind of cuisine he favors. Along the way he has also found the time to write three short novels; he once told me he only wrote novels at his summer house in Nova Scotia, making it sound as if fiction was a summer work project, something so unimportant it could only be done in Canada.

2.

One February morning in 1991, Calvin Trillin tells us, he spotted a headline on The New York Time’s obituary page: ROGER D. HANSEN, 55, PROFESSOR AND AUTHOR. Roger Hansen, known to Mr. Trillin as Denny, had been a friend and classmate at Yale. His obituary was short, without a photograph. “Roger D. Hansen, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advance International Relations in Washington, was found dead at the home of a friend in Rehoboth Beach, Del…. Dr. Hansen took his life by inhaling carbon monoxide, the police in Rehoboth Beach said. Colleagues at Johns Hopkins…said he had a severe back ailment that had required major operations.”

There is nothing like the unexpected death of a friend to make one aware of one’s own mortality, and to call absolutes into question. Denny Hansen was one of those college golden boys on whom life’s honors were meant, as if by predestination, to be lavished. Denny Hansen was a scholar—magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Denny Hansen was an athlete—a varsity swimmer. Denny Hansen was a BMOC—a member of DKE, the Elizabethan Club, the senior society Scroll and Key, a Rhodes Scholar. Life magazine and its star photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt had covered Denny Hansen’s Yale graduation under the headline, “A Farewell to Bright College Years.” A year after his Yale graduation, Life did a follow-up of Denny Hansen, the Rhodes Scholar: “Man of Eli at Oxford.” It was an article of faith among Denny Hansen’s friends in the Yale class of 1957 that Denny Hansen would one day be elected president of the United States. A future president was not meant to be found lying on the floor of a locked garage in Rehoboth Beach, with the ignition of his Honda turned on and the gas pedal held down by a book and a frying pan. A future president was not meant to kill himself because of a bad back. A future president was meant to have more than a three-sentence obit listing no known survivors.

Remembering Denny is a contemplation on the nature of friendship, and a contemplation as well on Calvin Trillin’s own life and attitudes, and on the attitudes of his—and my—generation. That it is so unexpectedly personal is what helps make Remembering Denny so sad and so moving. Mr. Trillin is the most private of men, and for as long as I have known him he has regarded the public self-examination practiced by so many writers (including my wife, Joan Didion, and myself), the filtering of facts through a personal prism, as an indulgence not to be countenanced. His considerable wit has always acted as a baffle against introspection; since Yale, as he admits in this book, he has also deliberately crafted himself as someone who never takes anything seriously, thus giving himself a means of deflecting the inquiry of others.

Denny Hansen’s death caught Mr. Trillin at a fallow moment in his relations with The New Yorker. He belonged to the era of William Shawn, and while he maintained a civil discourse with Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb, he remained a Shawn man (to this day he refers to him as “Mr. Shawn”). He was only sporadically represented in the magazine and increasingly he played the humorist’s rather than the reporter’s card. He conceived two limited-run, off-Broadway solo shows, Calvin Trillin’s Uncle Sam in 1988, and two years later Words, No Music, both deadpan free-association monologues about the state of the nation, and its foibles. “Mary had a little lamb,” he remembered as the jingle of a restaurant he once visited in Owensboro, Kentucky. “Why don’t you have some, too?” Both a trustee of The New York Public Library and a member of the Yale Corporation, he worked indefatigably on behalf of each institution, appearing as master of ceremonies or after dinner speaker at countless fundraising events, his timing honed on Carson and on stage, his routines as smooth and polished as old stones (the tuxedo he bought at J. Press as a Yale student and was still wearing into the late 1980s is one I heard on more than one public occasion).

  1. 1

    Ticknor and Fields, 1984.

  2. 2

    Ticknor and Fields, 1991.

  3. 3

    The Nation, January 25, 1993.

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