Trow spent the last years of his life living the radical rootlessness he’d prophesied in “Within the Context of No Context”: “at home in many strange places.” He sold the house he had designed and built in Germantown, New York, and cut off almost everyone he knew. He drove his pickup truck to Alaska, Texas, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, where some friends of his came to get him after neighbors complained that he’d taken to going outside without any clothes on. They found him very thin, living on Scotch and sardines, and checked him into McLean Hospital, the famous psychiatric institution outside Boston. After Trow got out, he moved to Naples, Italy, popping up once in a while as a voice on the answering machine of an old friend, never leaving a number. Twice, he was visited by DeCourcy McIntosh, his best friend from Exeter, and told him that he was never coming back.
Trow’s body was discovered by the Italian police in his apartment in late November last year, days after his death.
In 1999, Trow wrote (again) about what he saw as the protective function culture had once served in people’s lives. “Well, we don’t have that,” said Trow. “People fall off the high wire invisibly. There is no net; they crash.”
“More than his words, it is his face I remember from Exeter,” Trow’s classmate John Irving wrote in a review of “Context” when it was republished in 1997. “I used to feel that there was something arrogant or smug in George’s smile.” In his yearbook photo, Trow looks “more than a little superior to the rest of us,” and, again, in the group photo of Exeter’s literary magazine, of which Trow was the president, Irving detects in Trow “a weary impatience.” But after contemplating the intensity of insight in “Context” many years later, Irving comes to a different conclusion: “What I mistook for smirking was instead something prescient in his smile; it was as if the unfathomable powers of precognition were already alive within him.”
“George and I used to roar over the fact that we were both called arrogant and supercilious at Exeter,” says DeCourcy McIntosh in his office on the top floor of the Knoedler gallery on East 70th Street. “We used to argue over who was more arrogant and supercilious.” (Sitting on McIntosh’s desk above two volumes of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is his brown fedora.) Upon graduation from Exeter, Trow and McIntosh and 59 of their classmates—about half the class—made it to the next destination on the road-more-traveled to success: Harvard. “We arrived en bloc in Harvard Yard,” says McIntosh. “I think the other students were aghast.”
“George was from the very preppy end of Exeter, in terms of how he conducted himself, how he dressed, how he spoke, and how he saw himself, how he was trying to pass,” says Jacob Brackman, who, after his own stint at The New Yorker, later became Trow’s friend and neighbor in the Hudson Valley, where they ran a theater together for a while with Tim Mayer. Mayer, who was in the class below them, was very involved with the theater and became a playwright after Harvard; he wrote the book for the Broadway production of Gershwin’s My One and Only, starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune. Mayer and Trow became close when they wrote the 1964 Hasty Pudding show together. But Trow’s real home at Harvard was the Lampoon, the magazine he wrote for throughout his Harvard years, and edited as a senior.
Though Trow fetishized the aristocracy and was fluent in their mores and markers, he was not actually quite one of them. He was half-Irish, and not from old or big money. “But he had paid a lot of attention to New York aristocracy, of which his parents were a poor relation,” says Hendrik Hertzberg, who lived in Pennypacker Hall with Trow freshman year. “He was pickled in it.”
Trow wasn’t attracted to the revolutionary spirit of his era the way his friends were. “George was hoping this whole episode in our cultural history would pass quickly,” Brackman says. Trow didn’t get involved with the War Resisters League as Hertzberg did, he didn’t campaign for Bobby Kennedy, or go down to Mississippi, or march on Washington. Trow was, in Brackman’s memory, striving to be part of the “10 percent of people at Harvard who wear tuxedos to their own little events in their own little buildings and you can see them out on their balconies with their tuxedos and their often very beautiful girls who are also similarly there from the Vanderbilts and the Astors.”
Harvard is funny. Only people who went to Harvard say things like, “Oh, he was famous at Harvard,” or “We were both famous undergrads,” just because they happened to write for their school newspaper. But then those articles in the Lampoon and the Crimson did get many members of Trow’s circle hired by Mr. Shawn (as writers, not interns) almost as soon as they graduated, and many of them actually did become famous in New York. Besides Shawn’s son Wally and Brackman (who, after writing for The New Yorker, wrote the screenplay for The King of Marvin Gardens and the lyrics for Carly Simon’s hits “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” and “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”), Trow was at Harvard with Alger Hiss’s son, Tony, who also wrote for The New Yorker upon graduation and lived on Waverly Place for a time with the New York City mayor’s son Bobby Wagner (an Exeter classmate of Trow’s) and Hendrik Hertzberg, whom Shawn hired in 1969. (For many years, Hertzberg was mad at Brackman for stealing his college girlfriend Faye Levine, the author of Splendor and Misery: A Novel of Harvard.) Dr. Andrew Weil was a classmate and wrote for the Crimson (where he helped to expose then-professor Timothy Leary’s experiments in psychedelia), as did Jonathan Schell, who joined The New Yorker in 1967, and was often discussed as a possible Shawn successor.