All posts filed under: Obituary

Remembering My Friend Peter Beard

Peter Beard, internationally renowned photographer, author, railroad-fortune heir, and socialite, died last month. Or possibly in March. Beard (b. 1938) had been ill, and suffering from dementia. He wandered off into the forest near his home on Long Island. He was 82. His body was found in a nearby national park, which is grimly fitting, for wildlife and parks were some of his abiding passions. The unconventional manner of his death also matched the way he lived. And if he were going to pick a way to go out, this might have been it. Having gotten to know him reasonably well when we both lived in Kenya, I suspect he would have preferred not to have been found, however, as he was a consummate trickster. He might well have preferred an obit that said, “Mr. Beard disappeared from his home in Montauk sometime in the spring of 2020. His whereabouts are unknown.” Peter was a gifted photographer, an engaging diarist, a gracious and generous host, a non-stop raconteur, universally described (truthfully) with that cliché, “one …

Death of an Old-Fashioned Clown

When I recently discovered that Fred Willard had appeared as the ghost of Trump’s father in a skit on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show, I must admit my heart sank. Not that there’s anything wrong with political satire, of course—traditionally, the comic has played the vital role of a jester whose job it is to send up pomposity and hypocrisy wherever they occur. But in the era of Donald Trump, a distressing number have preferred to simply become mouthpieces for progressive talking points and platitudes. Would Willard fall into this trap? I braced myself for disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. The laugh lines were predictable and the material was as charmlessly partisan as I’d expected, but Willard’s characterisation of Trump senior as a cheerful-but-damned sort of American soul in a Frank Capra three-piece suit effortlessly drained the sketch of whatever spite had animated its conception. But the Kimmel skits notwithstanding—he also appeared as Trump’s party planner and nickname-maker—Willard rarely concerned himself with fashionable politics. Few things are more dispiriting than much-loved entertainers contorting themselves to …

So Here’s to You, Buck Henry

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I did not know who Buck Henry was. On the evening of his death on January 8, 2020, I had to Google his name (which sounds vaguely like the musky fragrance of an aging leather briefcase discolored by cigarette ash). According to his many admirers, Henry was the first writer to fashionize wearing a floppy baseball hat over round tortoiseshell spectacles. This is probably not true, but the residue of his mythology appears in the uniform of every New Yorker who writes about comedy; from David Letterman’s casual streetwear to the SNL writer taking their dog for a morning stroll in Central Park. You can still see this look in urban coffeehouses, where writers in colorful New Balance sneakers scribble jokes into moleskin notebooks. It’s almost certain that these twenty-something Buck Henry facsimiles associate the name with a woodsy-scented organic soap or fashionable strain of weed, or a dead Negro League ball player. I am not making fun of them. I am one of them. And they, like …

Remembering Roger Scruton, Defender of Reason in a World of Postmodern Jackals

I received the news that Sir Roger Scruton had died with a pang in my heart. I did not know him personally, although our paths crossed once. And I am not the sort of fan who says things like “I felt like I knew him,” for I am not a sentimentalist. But he was a thinker and writer I admired extravagantly, and he was a beacon of reason in an age that is dominated by irrationality. It does seem to me that a bright star in my personal firmament has been extinguished. The path-crossing I mention took place in Ottawa in 2006. He was the keynote speaker at a symposium, sponsored by an outfit called the Centre for Cultural Renewal, which attracts an audience of citizens, many of them older, bewildered at the lightning social changes they are living through, and a little frightened, too, about where it is all going to end. The topic was “Public morality? Community Standards and the Limits of Harm.” Scruton told his listeners what they wanted to hear—namely that …

The Million-Petalled Flower

Who wrote this? “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But you guessed straight away: George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope-widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between “lies” and “truthful” leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of “murder” and “respectable,” the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming poise and compact drive of it, a worldview compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath—it’s the Orwell style. But you can’t call it Orwellian, because that means Big Brother, Newspeak, the Ministry of Love, Room 101, the Lubyanka, Vorkuta, the NKVD, the MVD, the KGB, KZ Dachau, KZ Buchenwald, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, Gestapo HQ in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Arbeit macht frei, Giovinezza, Je suis partout, the compound at Drancy, the …

On the Passing of Oberlin Plaintiff David Gibson

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood. ~Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio As a journalist, I am just passing through the lives of others, and usually not at their best moments. This is particularly true of defamation cases, when reporters, lawyers, and angry litigants are forced to intermingle at a time when each party to a dispute is accusing the other of being lousy human beings. Courts provide a regulated arena for culturally approved warfare, the purpose of which is to decide who deserves humiliation, possible ruin, and sometimes even jail. For the rest of us, this all provides voyeuristic risk-free entertainment. Typically, observers and note-takers in the galleries don’t get to know the main players well, so it’s a bit …