Old Cary Grant Fine
I was leafing through an old paperback copy of Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down, when out popped a yellowed New York Times clipping. It was apparently on page B16 of the Times, but there is no date or byline or even a proper headline: just the rubric “NOTES ON Fashion.” As I scanned it, I remembered the piece well. It was an interview with Cary Grant, identified as 77 years old (thus answering the timeless question “HOW OLD CARY GRANT?”), and the objective correlative of its meaningfulness to me were the 37 separate pinholes at the top. In other words, I had tacked it to a whole lot of bulletin boards a whole lot of times.
If both Wikipedia and the article are to believed, the article appeared between January 18, 1981, and January 18, 1982. And sure enough, a search at nytimes.com reveals that it was published on March 31 of that year and was written by John Duka, whom I remember as a writer I admired and who was described this way by one of his editors: ”He was a remarkable writer, superb at seeing through everything. He understood people and situations instantly. This made him, frankly, a dangerous reporter.”
The occasion for that appreciation was a Times obituary for Duka. He died in 1989 and thus outlived Grant by just three years. His obit (by another familiar byline, Woody Hochswender) begins:
John Duka, a journalist who wrote with humor and grace about fashion, art and society, died Saturday morning at his Manhattan home. He was 39 years old.
His wife, Kezia Keeble Duka, said Mr. Duka died of complications stemming from major abdominal surgery in November. He was diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome a year ago, she said.
What I liked so much about Duka’s Cary Grant piece wasn’t so much any special understanding or vision it displayed, but rather the way it reads as a kind of dance, between an enormously gifted person who over decades had become a personage, and a skilled writer and listener who could artfully craft a ten-minute interview in a Manhattan boardroom into something that would stay fresh and moving thirty-two years later, even as the medium on which it was printed became brittle. Here’s how Duka started the piece:
THE week began with Cary Grant in a gray suit.
He was in town to quietly promote Faberge’s new fragrance, A Touch of Class, but he was really just passing through, on his way to a meeting at M-G-M, perhaps, or the Hollywood Park race track. He’s on the boards of both. ”When you’re 77, they’re very kind to you,” he said, winking. ”They make you director emeritus, but they don’t let you vote.”
What really earned the article its bulletin-board status were two long quotes. They’re what I mean by dance. Grant really knew what to say, in this boardroom and on this day, and Duka knew to take them down and reprduce them in full. The first:
He took a bite of a sandwich. ”I know I’m supposed to answer all those questions about my favorite leading lady and my style,” he continued. ”Well, Princess Grace is a great girl and all shirts should be white, and squared-off at the bottom, so you can wear them outside. But I don’t know that I’ve any style at all. I just patterned myself on a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we just met at some point. It’s a relationship.”
And the second, which ended the piece:
“I don’t ever wish to be young again, even though my vocabulary is slowly diminishing.” He stopped, laughed and was silent for a moment. ”If I could wish for one thing, it would be to be sexually younger. But I can console you with one fact. As you age, the desire remains, but it’s not as strong, but neither is the emotion that goes with it. So you’re free to do more useful things. You see, there’s one thing that can’t ever be ignored. There is so little time. I just try to do the best I can. It may not be great in other people’s eyes, but I think it’s pretty good.”
Now, as to how the article ended up in a Pauline Kael book, I have no idea.
The phrase of course has appeared in The New York Times 420,663 times since 1981, and 12,388 times this year alone. Below are 15 of the most recent iterations, all appearing between August 7 and 10, 2012.
“Of course, projecting rookies is a difficult task.” (The Fifth Down, football blog)
“Europe, of course, has also been through much this past year.” (“Letter from Europe” article about Russia)
“The seller doesn’t literally peddle his own life, of course, but his life-insurance policy.” (Magazine article about selling one’s life insurance)
“Of course, some fees can’t change.” (Business article about reducing closing costs)
“Women’s sports in the United States, of course, face plenty of challenges as well.” (Article about Japanese women’s soccer team)
“The problem, of course, is that criminal behavior, like the rest of human life, is rarely predictable enough to ensure that outcome.” (Review of French crime film)
“Fun is, of course, what made Daly famous, and infamous.” (Article about golfer John Daly)
“Some [Brooklyn authors], of course, are having babies and writing books for them.” (Review of some children’s books about New York)
“[Kevin] Durant confirmed his ability to score years ago, of course.” (Sports article)
“The Tea Party is once again giving Democrats a new lease on life. Not everywhere, of course.” (Gail Collins column)
“Of course, on top of a drenched shirt, pants, and jacket, the heat is going to make a woeful mess of your everyday white cotton handkerchief.” (Fashion article about bandannas)
“Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary.” (Magazine article about boys who dress in traditionally female clothing)
“Of course, if the defendants decided to convey over-the-top remorse (by falling to their knees, crying, etc.), then public opinion and even their legal fortunes would almost certainly turn.” (Op-Ed piece about Russian punk-rockers’ protest)
“Whether many wealthy residents will actually leave and companies will change their plans, of course, remains to be seen.” (Article about proposed higher taxes in France)
“The euphoria won’t last, of course.” (Op-Ed Column about Britain’s success in the Olympics)
Attention is Paid
What was that all about? The classic snail joke has often come to mind since a couple of weeks ago, when Cordelia Hebblethwaite’s BBC articlefeatured my Britishisms blog and drove something over 100,000 visitors to the site. The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Sun all weighed in. Then yesterday, the New York Times published Alex Williams’s very funny article “Americans Are Barmy Over Britishisms.” (Best line: “Have we all become Madonna?”) As I write, the piece is the number-one most e-mailed article over at the Times’ website; it has spurred coverage in the Atlantic Wire and, bringing things full circle, an upcoming interview with your truly by the BBC’s World Service.