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The Last Gentleman

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Trow, shortly after Shawn's firing.  

Trow took similar care of their colleague Ian Frazier, guiding the Midwesterner through the details and difficulties of Manhattan. When Frazier was looking for an apartment, it was Trow who handled the arrangements. “I wanted to get a loft; that was my vision of how I wanted to live here. I found this place and I told George about it, and he went down and talked to my landlord, who was this very recent immigrant, a Romanian Jew who’d escaped the Holocaust. George had a way … like if you’ve ever seen Angier Biddle Duke, who used to be the State Department director of protocol and was this totally unflappable, old-school white guy. George could take on that persona, become that guy. And people do what that guy says. ‘This is my young associate, and we’re going to be needing some space to do some projects; please tell me what you need in terms of a security deposit.’ ” The Romanian was dazzled. Frazier got a very good deal.

Trow lived on Grand Street for many years, and later in Hell’s Kitchen. As reclusive as he was in later years, in those days he was a blue-eyed social butterfly, dressing in a way that added to the powerful effect of his intellect. “George had really fabulous clothes that you couldn’t even believe because they were just so perfect,” says Frazier. “I remember he had a coat, some fabulous coat from somewhere, it was like a gray-and-black tweed herringbone, and I thought it was so cool that I went and got one. I called George from Brooks Brothers and said, ‘I just bought a herringbone coat.’ He said, ‘Oh, great!’ Then he paused. ‘Is it big herringbone?’ I said yes. George said, ‘Definitely not.’ ”

Trow delighted in the way Vreeland whitewashed the bottom of her shoes; he showed Frazier the silky insides of his jacket pockets. He was “aesthetic to the tips of his toes,” as Jonathan Schell puts it (although, Trow later wrote, “I was always very careful in my relationship with Diana Vreeland to distance myself from these men,” who were her walkers).

“He loved courts—like a king’s court,” says Schell. “The New Yorker had that aspect to it. I remember once being with him on Martha’s Vineyard at Kay Graham’s house, and he just loved a situation like that. It had to have something about it of distinction—intellectual distinction or distinction of style, where standards were formed and maintained and articulated.”

Authority was, of course, enormously interesting to Trow—where it came from, how it was exerted, the ways in which it was eroding. In 1978, Trow wrote an extraordinary profile of Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, in which he repeats the phrase “no reference to any authority that could be perceived as inhibiting” as a kind of refrain, to describe, variously, the décor in a room at the Carlyle hotel, popular music, the celebrity assemblage at a party. The piece is compelling because Trow recognizes in Ertegun (or projects onto him) something that was also fundamental to his own human project: that he “was made restless by the thought he had missed it, that authority had drained from the figures he most admired and from the aesthetics he most wanted to master.” It was also fascinating because as much as Trow was dissecting celebrity and the vulgarity of American culture, the piece—titled “Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse”—happens to include some pretty divine descriptions of limousine rides with the Rolling Stones, a party at the Café Russe for Bette Midler, Andy Warhol’s commentary at a Trammps concert, and the birthday party Halston gave for Bianca Jagger that culminated in her riding a horse with two naked people into “one of the new breed of discotheques,” Studio 54. Already, Trow was toying with the themes that animate his masterpiece, “Within the Context of No Context”: the decline of the intellectual elite, the rise of a fame-based hierarchy, the end of adulthood.

Reading that essay now is a little like driving through a really intense blizzard. Beautiful, scary, dizzying. Scary because you know that the conditions in which you are traveling may be terminal, but also because everything is so surreal you can’t be entirely sure you aren’t already dead.

Trow told us that we had “a third parent—television.” And that the function of television is “to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts.” Television is neutral, it is the referee, not distinguishing between the war against wrinkles and the war in Iraq. Over time, Trow suggested, this would scramble people’s brains and lead us to our current situation: “Of all Americans, only they”—celebrities—“are complete.”


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