Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Favorite Curmudgeons


(swirls Cutty Sark on the rocks in glass, listens attentively to melancholy Elgar piece on the radio, looks out the window gravely) Has there ever been an African-American curmudgeon? I mean, it's not as if taste is a matter exclusive to white men, or even metrosexuals purely, although historically that helps. Well, if there are not, put me down as the world's first African American curmudgeon because I am definitely interested in that gig. I have a lot of opinions on all things under the sun.

And in that good old list-y curmudgeonly fashion of categorizing the good from the useless, allow me to proffer up my list of the best *sips Cutty Sark* of them:

Paul Fussell is one of the funniest curmudgeons. He invented the term Class X, which refers to a class outside the scope of Upper, Middle, or Lower by virtue of wit, irony, learning and the fact that they pick jobs where they work for themselves. Fussell exemplifies Class X. He has said:

"I learned [to turn experience toward intellect and away from emotion through] my long immersion in Eighteenth-Century literature, where the urge is constantly outward from oneself; that is, not trying to undertake deep voyages into the self, but rather, to escape the self, look out at society, see what's going on, and then comment on it. Irony is a great help there, to protect oneself from the self-regarding emotion, which has always been an enemy of mine from the start."

Camille Paglia is regarded as a right-wing nut, but, in fact, she voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, and she is very smart. I think her shotgun delivery and occasional ranting makes her look somewhat less than what she is -- one of Harold Bloom's finest disciples. An aggressive, Nietzean aesthete. I dig her.

Kurt Anderson, the Elder Brother of the NY Media Corridor is a curmudgeon, to be sure. I interviewed with Kurt for a job at the late, great Inside.com -- didn't get it. Alas; no hard feelings. At the time I had been research editor at the the now defunct Silicon Alley Reporter, and immediately following that, had just been installed as Editor-in-Chief of a tiny consumer quarterly called, MacDirectory. Kurt started off the interview by asking, with only the faintest trace of irony, "so ... what's MacDirectory?" A smile played on his lips. Oh snap! I got dissed by the Elder Brother of the New York Media right out of the gate! Then again:How cool is that?

Before that, I had met Kurt briefly as the factckecker on New York Magazine's cyber 60 issue, back in '95 of thereabouts. There I saw Kurt, the editor, at, like, 11 pm on a Thursday night as I was trying to validate all this massive data for that issue which had to be done by the end of the evening; I was pretty frazzled as, by then, I was in my mid 20s and way into the whole party all night work all day thing (I was writing music and club reviews for Sonicnet.com in the evenings, which entailed drinking tremendous amounts of booze, and partying at clubs all night long with strange and sundry women "music web journalists," while factchecking at New York in the daylight hours). Kurt made me work like a Bonnie Fuller minion on that one. Ah, well, whatever does not kill one ... Nietzsche, and all that.

Anyhoo: Kurt has always about him the air of high seriousness, which makes it appear as if what he's doing at the moment is the most important thing in the world. No doubt Steven Brill, who eventually purchased Inside, was caught on to that. Kurts study of sociology at Harvard plays a great part in his social smartness.

Kurt is the Platonic eidos of media insider,with a cultivated aesthetic eye and, of course, everyone wants to work with him for precisely those reasons.

Another curmudgeon is Gore Vidal, whose book Burr I read earlier this year when I first posted this blog without additions. American History geek that I am, I could not put that shizit down and am now reading Lincoln. Burr is a beautiful look at the American Revolution with all the cynicism you can handle -- Vidal's thesis is that it was started by ambitious lawyers who saw an opportunity for social advancement. Actually, if you read Vidal's books everything -- everything -- is driven by the ambition of man. That's too cynical for me by a half, but it makes for interesting reading, the intersection of egos, as with Burr and Hamilton.

The Corsair had a brief phone encounter with this honorable man of letters. In 1995, while an intern at The Nation, Christopher Hitchens asked me to fax a story on Marty Peretz of the New Republic to Gore Vidal. Both hated Peretz, who is an ass. Gore Vidal's fax was busy do I called him up to tell him it was coming through. In the background I heard voices and music, apparently Gore Vidal was having a party at his palazzo. "Pronto!" he yelled into the phone, sounding a little sloshed. I told him what was coming, he politely turned on the fax, and that was it. My brush with Vidal.

At that moment my desire to be a writer in the manner of Vidal was strengthened one Being and Politics. It is unfortunate that Vidal has, of late, taken to employing such inflamatory rhetoric during this tense period in American history (note: his assertion that George Bush knew of the 9-11 attacks before hand ... say what?). The problem with Gore Vidal is that he was born rich and has lived his life where every utterance is taken as God's word, among idolizing students, attentive servants, Presidents (Kennedy, Hillary?), and socialites (Jackie O, Eleanor Roosevelt, even Joanne Woodward). That type of power, being the center of attention, being able to issue proclamations combined with being an autodidact means that he rarely reflects -- which he all but admits often. And without reflection, his arguments suffer. He is for all intensive purposes the eccentric Southern Patriarch straight out of William Faulkner. We should take him at his word on Art, but with a grain of salt on politics.

My third favorite curmudgeon is Christopher Hitchens. I worked as Hitchens' intern at The Nation in 1995, and, over the years, he has helped me immensely. Frankly, it pisses me off when former interns or collegues attack him for his perfectly principled -- though I disagree with him -- stance on eradicating dictators through pre-emptive action. The human rights side of the get-rid-of-dictators argument is perfectly liberal.

Hitchens can drink. I remember one event -- a tradition -- in which his intern is taken out to lunch. In a restaurant off of Grammercy Park, talking of classical literature and US defense spending, we drank prodigiously. Yes, The Corsair got his drink on with Hitchens and his old college buddy.
We also briefly discussed the country of my descent, Uganda, which was a British colony, and it's President, a family friend, Museveni, who, although not a "small d democrat," we all agreed was good for the emerging nation.

The drink bill was greater than the food bill. Afterwards, in the summer afternoon, I tried, weaving through traffic, to make my way home ("no intern has ever made it back to the office after a Hitch lunch, don't even try," said the Intern coordinator). It was harrowing. Several times The Corsair nearly lost his boozy life but I made it home and fondly remember my time working with Hitchens, a truly generous man. I remember my girlfriend wondering what the hell happened to me to be so drunk in the afternoon: did I get fired?

Next up is Taki Theodoropoulos whom I met at Elaine's when I was in my mid 20s. I won a contest for Top Drawer section of the NY Press, back when the NY Press was relevant. The contest was for Man of the Year and I nominated UN arms inspector Scott Ritter, who, alas, turned out to be an internet child predator. God, how fucking embarrasing!

At Elaine's Taki introduced me to Elaine Kaufman, the owner of that media joint, Chris Buckley, who's dad almost went to my alma mater, he told me, and the arrogant Michael Mailer , of whom nothing ought to be said.

Taki comes off very strongly in his columns as Eurosnobby and to the right of Pinochet, but, in real life, he is quite a character, very warm and fun loving. And, like The Corsair, he loves the ladies. And like Hitchens, he loves a drink.

Taki was terribly funny that day, making some very risque jokes about Bill Clinton, who, at the time, was going through Monica-gate. Taki is also deeply literate, with a working knowledge of Pindar as well as Aeschylus, and all manner of Ancient Greek literature, Word War II arcana, history, and choice tidbits of media gossip from the DC sector to Manhattan to the Euroroyals and international jet set over the last half century. And Taki is generous to a fault, having paid for the whole goddam party out of his own very deep Greek shipping-magnate pockets. I'm talking many many thousands kept the party boozed up and in good food and Elaine in the cut. Poor little Greek boy, indeed.

Next up is Dick Cavett, who I am sure you will be glad to know I have never met, but I wish I had. Cavett was liberal cool before liberal cool was even that -- and even now that it isn't. He is a Master Coversationalist, able to discuss the bicameral mind theory as well as mediate the literary feud of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer where Mailer headbutted Vidal. Pure 70s conversation: keep on truckin, Dick.

There is agreat line that Cavett is said to have made at a very pretty young African American woman who was waiting to attand a taping of his show. Cavett asked her her name. "Toi," said she; "is that your name," he deadpanned, cocking his eyebrow, "or your function?"

Fran Liebowitz is another formidable curmudgeon. Although she once remarked in Metropolitain Life that black men have a propensity to Strawberry Wine (who loves ya, Fran, who-loves-you?), she was very very funny in her day.

John Simon of New York Magazine is a curmudgeon who would have to be invented if he didn't indeed already exist. Once while at The Nation under an unbreakable deadline where I had to verify the spelling and history of an obscure filmmaker I was in dire straights. Who ya gonna call: John Simon! After flattering him on an article he wrote in some Scandanavian Literary Review that I had actually read (he replied, graciously, "thank you ... thank you ... you are probably the only one who has read it."), he helped me out -- gratis.

Most writers respond to such a request by saying, "well, what do I get out of it." *coughs* Fox News' Roger Friedman*coughs*" But not Simon, who rules Broadway with a nimble yet caustic pen that sports acid for ink.

And when he is not loving to hate something on Broadway in the pages of newly bought New York Magazine, he is writing -- prolifically -- on art, culture, literature, opera, books ... anything. And he does it well. Excedingly well. God bless John Simon, our forgotten gem.

Then there is Sandra Bernhard. She is strangely sexy and sad and acidic in her wit all at the same time. I saw her sachaying once across the way on Ludlow Street several years ago before Max Fish's lost its social cachet. There was something so touching ... so existential ... about her.

She was beautiful, wearing a sleek number on her body which was not unlike Olive Oyl, sardonic smirk evident, aristocratic street-toughness oozing out of every pore. God, she looked so fucking hot I was in awe.

Hollywood has not been kind to her, despite her gutsy performance in the King of New York, and neither has Madonna, but they have, it appears, made up for all intensive purposes. Why can't she get the jump off?






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