Friendly, vulgar and nice

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

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New York

The founder of the Dorothy Parker society, Kevin Fitzpatrick, recently wrote to the F. Scott Fitzgerald society inviting its members to an Algonquin hotel cocktail party, a gracious gesture worthy of old Scott himself. The Fitzgerald types did not even bother to answer. Back in his day, that would have constituted a casus belli, but things ain’t what they used to be. Fitzgerald was known to be rude at times, but only when drunk and unhappy over Zelda. The trouble with the society that bears his name is not alcohol, but academics. It is comprised largely of eggheads, something that must have Scott rolling in his grave. He was, after all, the exact opposite. I get all this info from my favourite Big Bagel paper, the Sun, or the Sharon, as I call it, because of the line it follows where Israel is concerned.

Middle East politics aside, the Sun is the best read in town where culture is concerned. Gary Shapiro on literary matters, Jay Nordlinger on classical music, the only one missing is Dorothy Parker herself. Mind you, her society did not take no for an answer. In a jiffy it invited the Robert Benchley Society for drinks at the Algonquin, leaving the Fitz types to contemplate onanism in their quads.

Benchley, like Parker, was a founding member of the Algonquin round table, and was known to have spilled more booze than F. Scott ever downed. Unlike the latter, he could hold it. Emerging once from the Waldorf Astoria, he commanded a doorman to get him a taxi. ‘How dare you, Sir,’ came the answer. ‘I am a United States admiral.’ ‘Well, in that case,’ said the well-oiled Benchley, ‘get me a battleship.’

I was on my way to the cocktail party, and was actually looking forward to meeting the type of people who join such societies, when I stopped over for a friend’s birthday somewhere on Fifth Avenue. My friend is the numero uno Greek shipowner, but doesn’t like to see his name in the papers, unlike most billionaires nowadays. And his place was full of them. I counted at least six, and some unlucky souls who were just shy of the magic number of nine zeros. Needless to say, the wine that was served was so good that I decided to give Dorothy and Robert a miss, something both, plus F. Scott, would surely have understood.

But back to matters intellectual. Again, I’m quoting from the Sun: ‘American arts journalists rarely leave their own towns, and when they do, they go as tourists.’ This from a panel discussion titled ‘The Transatlantic Trap’. The speaker was the director of Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program, Andras Szanto. Well, er...yes, one does not exactly go glassy-eyed over, say, the latest Greek arts coverage in the New York Post. Or in the Times, for that matter. Culture, according to one panellist, has a different weight and position in Europe and South America. ‘Cab drivers in Buenos Aires read the cultural supplement...’ to which an audience member wittily commented that this may be due more to unemployment than to love of culture. Be that as it may, coverage of the arts may not be what it should be in the land of the free, but it sure is superior to that in the land of the other Sun, that of Rupert Murdoch. Celebrity culture is to the British media what shoes are to Imelda Marcos, and the smiling wallet-lifters who form public opinion in Blairland are laughing all the way to the bank.

Over on this side, there is still a search for cultivation and refinement, at least where some serious magazines are concerned. Take, for example, the stroke of genius of the Atlantic Monthly, which commissioned the brilliant gadfly and pop French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy to repeat Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey through America 170 years after the French aristocrat’s travels. BHL, as the Frenchman is referred to by his countrymen, is a hell of a fellow. He has a beautiful actress wife, matinée idol looks and brains to match.

I have not read his book, which is coming out sometime next year, but press reports have it that he was delighted by what he discovered. His accounts apparently have no condescending references to the kitsch or to materialism, which so many of us Europeans refer to every time we write about or mention America. That’s because he went to places like Cooperstown, New York, where the baseball hall of fame museum is located, or to Pennsylvania, among the Amish. (Not much materialism among that lot, that’s for sure.) And a poignant moment, when he is accosted by a Michigan policeman and told to stop loitering and to keep moving — BHL is relieving himself in a field — and he informs the cop that he’s a Frenchman and that he’s following Tocqueville’s footsteps, which results in a pleasant conversation.

Yes, Americans are nice people who want to be nice and do not understand why the Europeans hate them so. Our own Paul Johnson explained it all some weeks ago when he said that, if he were younger, he’d move to the land of plenty. Sure, manners are not an American strong point, nor is its taste for music and movies. But the natives are friendly, vulgar and nice, which is a lot more than I can say for some of us from the old continent.