A Class Act

Murray Kempton
Murray Kempton; drawing by David Levine

My late friend Charles Ives, a conservative columnist for the Baltimore Sun, was so modest that he signed his writings “C.P. Ives,” lest anyone think he presumed relationship with the composer, whom he revered. His modesty made him reluctant to boast that he had received a letter of profuse thanks from Murray Kempton, whose journalism he also revered. Ives had met, at some Baltimore function, Kempton’s mother, a stalwart of that “shabby genteel” class Kempton has described, in various places, with rueful semi-affection. When Ives said it was an honor to meet Kempton’s mother, she responded with surprise. How could a good fellow-conservative like Ives admire her raffish and radical son’s work? Kempton was soon writing to Ives a heartfelt letter expressing gratitude for indicating to his mother that he was not entirely a traitor to his class.

One of the things that informs Kempton’s journalism—the most perceptive of our time—is his uncomfortable awareness of class issues and differences. People like Barbara Ehrenreich periodically rediscover the reality of class in our “classless” society. Kempton never lost or forgot it. The real truth about FDR, in Kempton’s eyes, was that he was regrettably far from becoming a traitor to his class:

It seems odd that their chance should have come to a pair [Franklin and Eleanor] who were so close to obsolescence even sixty years ago. That chance was owed to the Depression, which did their country the signal service of transiently diminishing its veneration for the newly rich. By 1933 every climber was pretty much tumbling in the heap with the poor souls he had climbed over; and the old, slightly shabby, aristocratic elegance had its time of authority once more.

Kempton, the descendant of Episcopal bishops and Confederate officers, is withering in his scorn for such descendants’ airs:

All doubt that the true aristocrat defines himself by his arrival at being the entire democrat has been resolved for anyone who has had the luck to observe the egalitarian fraternity with which Joseph Alsop reminds the waiter that their shared duty to the standards they are sworn to preserve requires that the hollandaise sauce be carried back and thrust under the cook’s nose.

Trust Kempton to elicit from FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, this excuse for the New Deal’s failings with regard to black Americans: “After all, we had always had white servants.” (It was Kempton, too, who observed Robert Kennedy asking what blacks want without any apparent awareness that black waiters were serving him as he talked.)

Much of Kempton’s humor is based on the comedy of manners in a society that denies its class basis. A short apparently flippant column about the trial of a woman who hired a man to kill her husband turns on the shopping habits of the rich and would-be rich. Middle-class housewives now look for hit men as matrons once…

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