Sunday, May 12, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt six)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

I suspect he had said what a lot of Denny’s contemporaries were thinking—that Denny had been brought down by failure to satisfy what one of our professors always called (quoting William James) “the bitch goddess Success.” At Yale in the fifties, there were not only winners and losers but also strong indications that such categories would be an important part of our lives forever. In his speech to the matriculation assembly of our class, in 1953, Richard B. Sewall, an English professor best known at Yale for his popular course on tragedy, referred without enthusiasm to a view of Yale as “a stepping-stone to what we Americans fondly call ‘success’—success in general terms, what Time magazine had in mind a few months ago when it said, ‘As every Yale man knows, Yale is more than a great university; it is also a school for success.’” The greater the success at Yale, of course, the greater the success anticipated in life—which meant that Denny had to lug around a knapsack full of promise heavier than anyone’s. A lot of people in the room, I think, would have agreed with Pudge’s assumption that Denny avoided him because he reminded Denny of the glorious days at Yale that had not turned out to be an indication of the future.

A couple of other people spoke about losing contact with Denny by means that were remarkably similar—the postponed dinner the agreement to get together that was never quite taken up, the invitation that drew no response. Carol Austin spoke up to say that we shouldn’t take it personally. She said that he had such high standards for himself that he couldn’t really be with people unless he could work himself up into “being this sort of superstar,” and sometimes, given his moods or his physical ailments, he just wasn’t up to it. She talked about a sort of early-warning system on the telephone he had worked out even in the early seventies, with people assigned different codes, presumably according to how urgent Denny thought it was to talk to them: one or two or three rings, then hang up, then dial again. I could actually remember an incident as far back as 1964, when I was in Washington to write speeches for the person I always described afterward as the last successful Democratic peace candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson. I had arranged to have dinner with Denny, and he simply didn’t appear. The next day, I finally tracked him down on the telephone, and I said, “You are the only absolutely square person I know who is also unreliable. Most square people at least can be counted on to show up.” He did have a pretty good excuse. He had been in a job he hated, something at the NBA bureau in Washington, and on the evening we were supposed to have dinner together he had either been fired or walked out—I was never clear which. I do remember what he told me later about how he came to get the job. Denny said the reason he had been hired was that his boss had read in some business self-improvement book that an executive was someone who had at least four people reporting to him, and this man had only three. So he hired Denny.

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