In the late afternoon in the late forties, young George William Swift Trow Jr. would stand in front of the window of his parents’ living room in Cos Cob, Connecticut, watching and waiting. He did not watch television, of course, he watched the street, until he saw the form of his father, crowned by a fedora. They would wave at each other, and then his father, a city editor of the New York Post, would come in, put down his stack of newspapers, hug his wife, and put his fedora on his son’s head. Everyone knew who was an adult and who was a child in this kingdom; everyone knew the rituals. Another: From the time Trow was 7 years old, his father made sure that he read (at least) the Herald Tribune and “knew how to follow the story over from page 1 to page 32, folding the newspaper while existing in a small confined space,” as in the subway that Trow would one day take to his own job in New York City.
And in fact Trow did wear a fedora for a while—to the great amusement of his colleagues—when he was a young writer at William Shawn’s New Yorker. “This is the sixties, so to wear a fedora is some kind of a big statement,” says Jonathan Schell, who, like Trow, graduated from Harvard in 1965 and was swiftly hired by Shawn. “Since Kennedy didn’t wear one, it was like a high wind blew through the country and took off all the hats. For George, the hat had something to do with being an adult, but some kind of mockery of being an adult. The fedora was like a flag of our fathers: No one else wore a fedora except William Shawn.”
There was much of Trow in that hat: his Shawn worship, his interest in considered and dapper self-presentation (something he shared with his friend Diana Vreeland), the fact that his father and his father’s world and, most important, the loss of his father’s world were never far from Trow’s mind. “I know he was sort of engaged in a conversation with his dad in his thoughts, and that he was very, very influenced by his dad’s view of the world—either to argue for it or against it,” says Ian Frazier, Trow’s New Yorker colleague and close friend for many years.
Nothing was ever just what it was to Trow. “He was always thinking behind his own back,” Alison Rose wrote in her memoir, Better Than Sane (the title is taken from a comment Trow made to Rose when they were New Yorker colleagues in the eighties and formed a little club he called “Insane Anonymous”). Trow made a life out of deconstructing “Mainstream American Cultural Artifacts,” as he put it, searching for meaning in Eisenhower’s Rolodex, the layout of Life magazine, his own hat. “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned—not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me,” Trow wrote in his famous essay “Within the Context of No Context,” first published in its entirety in The New Yorker in 1980 and later republished as a book. “It turns out that while I am at home in many strange places, I am not free even to visit the territory I was expected to inhabit effortlessly. To wear a fedora, I must first torture it out of shape.”
“Within the Context of No Context” is a tale of the fall. It divided the world into a time when the world was whole, made sense, and after, when life was still possible but the culture had been ruined. Many factors were to blame, but perhaps the most poisonous force was television—certainly the most representative of all that had brought the kingdom of history and learning and liberal arts and newspapers and fedoras to its knees. The book made sense of people’s sense of loss, especially that of well-educated young people who by other measures might be said to have lost nothing. Stylistically, it was remarkable, a hypnotic procession of aphorisms that was probably the most extreme work of nonfiction The New Yorker has ever published; some readers questioned the sanity of a man who could produce such a shriek.
Trow’s colleagues took note of his increasing eccentricity, but The New Yorker in that period forgave, even rewarded, a temperament like Trow’s. It was a safe place—for Trow, possibly the last one. Shawn was fired in 1987. With Tina Brown’s arrival in 1992, the barbarians had sacked the castle.
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.
And then, a few classes behind Trow, was one of his best friends and fellow geniuses, Doug Kenney. Kenney (along with Henry Beard, class of ’67) became enormously successful spinning off the Harvard Lampoon to create the magazine National Lampoon, to which Trow was a frequent contributor. Kenney ultimately moved to Hollywood, where he wrote Caddyshack and Animal House, which brought in more money than any comedy had before it and helped fuel both his cocaine habit and his friendship with John Belushi. “They were a triumvirate; they were the three Harvard guys,” says Kathryn Walker of Kenney and Trow and Tim Mayer. Walker, an actress, was Kenney’s girlfriend, and later married James Taylor. (Trow wrote a “Talk of the Town” piece called “Kathryn and James” when they were courting: “James Taylor appeared at Radio City without an opening act. This, we feel, is the opening act: Kathryn Walker in front of a gold mirror.”) “George was the one who called Doug ‘the Marilyn Monroe of humor,’ because he was fetching,” Walker says. “George had great taste for what he called ‘natural aristocrats.’ I mean, he was obsessed with genealogies and all that sort of thing, but also taste and style.”
Though Kenney was Irish and used to say that at the Lampoon, the Catholics were “taking comedy back from the Jews,” Tim Mayer once told a reporter that when he first met Kenney at Harvard “I thought he was the most perfect Wasp I had ever encountered. He was flawless.” Like Trow, Kenney was fascinated by his fantasy of a clubby old world of crisp haircuts and close shaves that was rapidly succumbing to a culturewide toga party. They were both a little in love with the idea of a society being sunk, the romance of what falls away. And neither was ever entirely sure what he wanted to do more: go back in time or explode what little authority remained.
Trow was not the only member of the triumvirate to die early or mysteriously. In 1980, at 33, Kenney was found dead at the bottom of Hanapepe cliff in Hawaii after a vacation with Walker and Chevy Chase. (Kenney left a note in his hotel room that read, “These are the happiest days I’ve ever ignored.”) Mayer, who had first battled lung cancer at Harvard, died from it after years of hard drinking, smoking, and coke-snorting in 1988. After Mayer died, Trow essentially adopted his live-in girlfriend; they were roommates for about a year. Brackman describes her as a “lower-class hash slinger … It was strange enough that Tim was with her, but when George took up with her?”
But then Trow had always had a soft spot for the troubled and the criminal—the flip side of his attraction to the top of the heap was his interest in the bottom of the barrel. Though many of his closest friends never met a lover or boyfriend of Trow’s, the one several recall was a man named Gerald who was in and out of Rikers Island. “He delighted in trying to shock me with stories about this outlaw boyfriend, this almost thug of a black guy,” says Ken Kleinpeter, who met Trow upstate shortly after Mayer died, when Kleinpeter had just left a career as a musician in Manhattan to become a farmer.
“George didn’t like guys who were like him; he liked rough trade,” says Brackman. “He had a completely other life, which was his homosexual life, which was the Anvil and Rikers Island characters that he never brought around. When we were at Harvard, nobody was out of the closet. George, even twenty years out of Harvard, still wasn’t talking about it.”
T row was in the Coast Guard after Harvard, but in many ways his adult life began when he was hired at The New Yorker. Trow started out writing “casuals” and “Talk of the Town” pieces, and in doing so he met—and charmed—some of the most interesting people of his era. Once he was at a party at Katharine Graham’s house and she said, “Go ask Jackie to dance. No one ever does.” Trow danced with Jacqueline Kennedy, and they remained friends until her death.
“It was such fun, I can’t tell you,” says Jamaica Kincaid of her early days in New York City, when Trow was her mentor and social guide. Trow would take her to the parties and events he covered in “Talk of the Town,” and he found Kincaid so amusing he decided that she too should write for The New Yorker. “George took me to lunch with Mr. Shawn at the Algonquin. I was always hungry, I had no job, and I didn’t know when I would eat again, so I ordered the most wonderful, expensive thing on the menu. Mr. Shawn ordered a slice of toasted pound cake and I thought, Oh, gosh, I’ve spent all his money; I’ve reduced him to toasted pound cake,” she says. “I went to the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn and I made some notes and gave them to George, and I thought he would rewrite them and make them into something proper. George gave them to Mr. Shawn and he printed it just as it was written.”
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.”
He’s extremely persuasive, partly because he’s right, and partly because his writing is utterly unique: arch but trippy. Every few paragraphs of “Context” get a title like “The Adolescent Orthodoxy” or “The Authority of No-Authority” or “The Cold Child” or “Defacement.” Some of them make perfect sense. Some seem nuts.
It’s possible, of course, to think that all Trow’s elegant ranting amounted to cultural elitism. That of course he mourned the end of Wasp hegemony with its wisdom and history and moral clarity and—by the way—ethnic and economic exclusivity: He was its embodiment. Though not the son of a Vanderbilt or an Astor, he was still the great-great-grandson of a prominent New York City printer named John Fowler Trow (who invented a kind of early version of the phone book, the Trow City Directory). He still went to Exeter and Harvard, where he wrote his thesis about Edith Wharton and her treatment of social hierarchy. And he is now, as they say, a Dead White Male.
But as much as a certain kind of contemporary academic likes to try, it’s silly to dismiss Trow as a nostalgic snob. It misses the point. Trow’s rather amazing accomplishment was to make a whine about decline thrilling instead of boring, shocking instead of predictable. And while the intensity and singularity of Trow’s work had everything to do with his talent, it was also inseparable from another truth: that George Trow was slowly going crazy.
Up in Hudson, with his long gray hair and his rainbow crocheted hat, Jacob Brackman makes the following observation: “ ‘Within the Context of No Context’ is like a half-mad piece already. There’s a New Yorker tradition of that, of half-mad New Yorker writers who Mr. Shawn nurses along and knows when they have to go to the hospital and rest up, maybe not worry about what they’re writing for a while.” “Context” is partly a meditation on the conditions of a world gone wrong, a world that will make you crazy if you think about it too much, and partly the record of a mind starting to unravel from doing just that.
There were always things about George Trow that were unusual. He had always been a bit manic and extravagant in his gestures; there was that famous laugh. “It was high and piercing, much too loud and alarming, and it became a way of punctuating his conversation,” says Kathryn Walker. “It was high style, à la Vreeland.” He had always been very sensitive, and not so much easy to antagonize as peculiar in what would infuriate him.
Trow liked to go on road trips with Ian Frazier. Once, after they hiked through Glacier National Park, Frazier drove them down the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which goes along a precipice over the Continental Divide. As Frazier drove his van, clutching the wheel, buzzing with anxiety, Trow attempted to remember the lyrics to a Noël Coward song, reciting, over and over again, “I’ve been to a marvelous party, with Nounou and Nada and Nell … ”
“He was driving me crazy,” says Frazier. “When we got down to the bottom I was just shot; I was just totally in pieces. So I bought a six-pack and drank four in one shot and George got very angry. He thought I shouldn’t have drank those beers.”
Often, when they traveled, Trow would ask Frazier to take photographs of him to send to his sister, Ellen, who was mentally handicapped and spent much of her life in an institution. “He always had the same pose, a very sweet pose,” says Frazier. “When I took my first dust-jacket photo I tried to do that pose.” Ellen died in her early forties.
“George had a real tenderness for her and loved her dearly, in a way,” says Ken Kleinpeter, who saw Trow at least once a week for about ten years. “I helped him build a woodshed; that was the kind of stuff he loved to do with me. I was like his country buddy, you know what I mean? And if I were going to be absolutely honest, I think he had a crush on me and at first he was really trying to seduce me in a way. I often felt like a good-looking woman must feel sometimes when a guy is giving her attention: I’m thinking, Why is this guy trying to be friends with me? He can go and have dinner with Jackie Onassis. Why is he calling me to go to some little dive?” Trow propositioned Kleinpeter rather boldly one Fourth of July as part of a disquisition on independence.
Trow seems never to have quite made peace with his own sexuality. “I think that he had an old-fashioned discomfort with the subject and with the application to himself,” says McIntosh. “In many ways, George longed to be absolutely normal.” He had been taught certain rules, certain rituals with which to pursue happiness—the folding of the newspaper, success in the world of letters—and they were failing him.
“These straight guys, like Kenny the sheep farmer—George, with a couple of drinks, would try to horse around with them,” says Brackman. “I could name six guys like that. They’d had some alcohol, and it was always this very adolescent kind of locker-room snap-the-towel-at-the-butts kind of horsing around: so unsmooth, so juvenile, so jocky—which George was not in the least.”
In Trow’s last book, My Pilgrim’s Progress, he wrote, “My father had, let us call it, a tendency toward schizophrenia. If all the fragments he claimed made up a Perfect Whole did not make a Perfect Whole in me, then he was going to have to look at some things he did not want to look at.”
“He both desperately needed his father’s love and attention but also despised him in some way,” says Kleinpeter. “I don’t think George ever felt he got his due from his father; he felt that it was just not enough.”
For all of Trow’s fascination with his father’s world, it wasn’t one he could inhabit. “George’s father was kind of a pressroom guy,” says Frazier. “I just remember him coming up to me and saying, ‘So what the hell’s the matter with those Mets!’ and thinking, That’s not what I would’ve expected from Mr. Trow.” Once, Alison Rose asked the elder Trow what he made of his son’s genius: “ ‘Oh,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘I could never get anywhere near it.’ ” George Trow the first and George Trow the second were destined to remain mysterious to one another.
“I knew George’s father as a very nice, funny man,” says Jamaica Kincaid. “I remember us making lunch for his parents in the house in Germantown. George found him difficult; he thought that he had disappointed his dad, probably because he hadn’t married and had children. There was tension about his sexuality.”
Unlike so many others, Kincaid never felt abandoned by her former mentor Trow. “We remained very close friends for a long time, but then, as everybody knows, after Mr. Shawn was fired from The New Yorker he grew estranged from many of us.”
Many friends say that the departure of Shawn was the fundamental trauma of Trow’s adulthood. It was not unusual for Shawn’s writers to be enormously attached to him—he coddled them, made them feel they were engaged in something noble and profound—but Trow had important things in common with his legendary editor besides talent. Like Trow, Shawn had a mentally handicapped member of his immediate family, his autistic daughter, Mary, who has spent the majority of her life in an institution. And like Trow, Shawn had, if not something to hide, then an aspect of otherness that he was not comfortable with. “He seemed to distance himself from people who loudly proclaimed their Jewishness,” writes Shawn’s son Allen in his memoir Wish I Could Be There. William Shawn “seemed to shrink from identifying himself in any open way with a group that had been despised,” and it is little wonder. If a person imagines there is safety and sanctity in the world of traditional literary New York (or any traditional sphere), it simply wouldn’t do to focus too finely on being Jewish or gay.
Perhaps most significant, Shawn and Trow shared a sense of their magazine as a haven, a promontory of moral and intellectual value. Shawn was Trow’s perfect father, supportive, sensitive, seeing the same thing when he looked out at the world. Trow did not leave The New Yorker immediately after Shawn’s dismissal, as some of his colleagues did. He continued to write under editor Robert Gottlieb, whom he thanked extravagantly in the acknowledgments of My Pilgrim’s Progress. It wasn’t until Tina Brown was brought in from Vanity Fair that Trow really gave up. In the same way that the coming of Diana Spencer represented the passing of an old order to Elizabeth in The Queen, the coming of Tina represented that to George Trow. When she enlisted Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue, for instance, Trow was aghast: It was the infiltration of the emptiness and inanity of America into his own temple.
Trow saw Brown seeking to steal the tacky glow of fame (buzz!) from celebrities, and, according to DeCourcy McIntosh, Trow believed Brown was also attempting to use him as a liaison to the gilded world of old New York. Trow wrote Brown a furious letter of resignation, likening her to someone selling her soul “to get close to the Hapsburgs—1913.” “He felt she was trying to exploit him,” says McIntosh. “And in terms of the Hapsburg comparison, I think he was saying, ‘Not only are you selling your soul, but your timing is bad. Not only are you immoral, you’re incorrect.’ ”
Brown notoriously replied, “I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.”
Trow moved up to his weekend house in Germantown full time, and eventually sold it and had a rather strange new place built to his specifications. Whereas the first house sits up on a hill looking out at pastures spread at the base of the Catskills, the second house Trow built is tucked into a hillside, its view obscured by trees, half-underground. Essentially, it is a bunker.
During this period, Trow began severing contacts with many of his old friends without explanation. “George stopped speaking to me eighteen years ago,” says Ian Frazier. “I don’t know why. I assumed I would find out.”
This was very common. “I think he left a bitter taste in a lot of people’s mouths when he ended relationships,” says Kathryn Walker. “I haven’t talked to George for years. But one does wish George had been sane and could have talked for another twenty years. His issues had become chronic and dangerous.”
These were his Insane Anonymous years. In 1992, Trow got some money from a producer to write a script about a fire in a chicken-processing plant in North Carolina, and he took Alison Rose along on a road trip through the South. “I can’t think of when I had more fun with any living person than I did with George driving around,” she writes. But it was on that trip that Trow made the following complaint about life: “The ongoingness of it is, frankly, a real problem.” By the time they got to Memphis, Trow was finished with Rose. “After the trip there were changes. He began referring to himself as Coldy Woldy. When he’d call and say, ‘Darling, it’s Coldy Woldy—get it?,’ the irony was so high it was almost unreachable … He said Coldy Woldy had replaced George, and he wasn’t kidding.”
Quite near to Trow’s houses and the one Tim Mayer used to occupy and the great rambling one where Jacob Brackman still resides is the home of Bim Chanler, someone who Trow thought “had it all figured out,” as Brackman puts it. Before Trow left on his wanderings, he had been coming over regularly for many years to visit Chanler and his wife, Evie, in their house with its glorious views of the Hudson and the Catskills and the many paintings of Venice Chanler’s mother collected. “George naturally felt comfortable being around; he was very sort of cozy with my Wasp background, because he sort of grew up with it himself,” says Chanler. “Sort of.”
Chanler has a speech pattern you don’t often hear outside of a movie theater. “Jawdge was a college roommate of my cousin Winty Aldrich, and so natchrahlly he brawt him round to Rokeby,” the Aldrich family estate just a few miles up the road. In the front foyer of Chanler’s house there are two maps of the way the Hudson Valley used to be organized: estate after estate, Chanler, Astor, Delano, Chanler … “George was part of a social scene out here, which is nowadays pretty thin. It used to be much livelier when all of these houses were full of interesting people,” says Chanler, sitting on a white sofa in front of a black-and-white photograph of his grandmother and her family with a Scottish nobleman, the Earl of Moray. “These houses have been sold off, in some cases turned into institutions, and in other cases sold off to rich financiers, people like that who didn’t have anything to do with the old social Wasp community. But it used to be very important out here in the time of the Livingstons and the Astors and all those people; it was a very swell place. Anyway, as I say, the society around here got pretty thin and we all sort of clung to each other.”
Like the Chanlers, Trow went to the church of St. John the Evangelist in Barrytown, and he became close to the rector there; he used to tape-record every sermon. For a time, Trow sought in church what he would later seek on the road. “I have a son who when he was about 18 or 19 became mentally ill, and we had a terrible time before we could get him squared away with medication, and there were hospital stays and all that,” says Chanler. “George, more than anybody, took an interest, you know, in trying to help him. He may have always had some suspicion he was on a slippery slope himself, so he had great sympathy with really badly troubled people.”
“He disappeared!” says Evie Chanler. “He didn’t want us to know where he was.”
“He was obviously looking for something that he hadn’t found,” says her husband. “Then he finally ended up in Naples! Naples was always considered a rather louche city—he may have been somewhat drawn to that side of it, I’m sure I don’t know. I mean, we all knew that when Shawn left The New Yorker he kind of collapsed. Poor George.”
Brackman talked to him occasionally during his last months in Naples. “The last conversation I had with George, he said things like, ‘Right at this moment my cock is in the mouth of a beautiful boat boy,’” says Brackman. “It’s the sort of thing he never in a zillion years would have said ten years earlier. It was part of his madness, his mania.”
According to the American Embassy in Naples, on Trow’s death certificate the cause of death is “acute vascular episode.” All other information about the case is being kept confidential at the request of Trow’s next of kin, his 88-year-old mother, Anne, who still lives in Connecticut.
“You know, I was a small writer in a short way myself before I was married and had a son named George William Swift Trow,” she says. “I remember going out and interviewing Lillian Hellman; she had a very husky voice, and I went to the door at Hardscrabble farm and she said, ‘You know, I’m very hard to interview.’ I’ve always been proud of George. I’m just getting over the shock. I walk from room to room and he’s with me every minute. I had a little girl, and she died too, you know. For every victory there is a downside.”