Bon vivantism, if that is indeed a legitimate phrase, is a characteristic — or, if you prefer, a malady — particularly evident in great historians and men of letters. From Ben Franklin and Emile Zola to Winston Churchill and Bernard DeVoto — whose book “The Hour” is perhaps the most elegant paean to cocktail time ever written — men of letters have proved inveterate noontime party boys who like to live well and live big, indulging appetites in comestibles and potables, concepts and conversation with equal gusto. These are men who know how to linger over a glass but also over a thought, pulling the last drops of pleasure and enlightenment from both.
Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and author of some 20 books who died February 28 at the age of 89, was one such titan of the pen and the palate.
Invariably the obits describe Schlesinger as a liberal Democratic partisan, an apparatchik even, whose writings “The Age of Roosevelt” and “A Thousand Days” gave the foibles and follies of his patrons in Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations a free pass. Yet Schlesinger was also a steadfast anti-communist who condemned the callow radicals of the ’60s and the race-baiting zealots of identity politics in the ’70s with as much fervor as he did the McCarthyites of the 1950s. His book “The Vital Center” is an appeal for reason and balance in government.
Politics aside, Schlesinger was one of the great bon vivants in 20th-century American letters, and one who displayed many dandyish traits. If Schlesinger wasn’t very original sartorially, he was at least fastidious. Take for example, Schlesinger’s bow tie, which he sported almost daily throughout his long career. When asked about it, Schlesinger didn’t mince words. He wore a bow tie, he said, because Bogey did, and that was good enough for him. That was his romantic side. On the democratic side, he seldom wore a pocket square, perhaps feeling it a touch too effete for his New Deal but decidedly patrician politics.
Schlesinger shone brightly on many stages of public life, from the Oval Office of the Kennedy administration to his classroom at Harvard University, where he was the only professor to teach without an advanced degree. But he also shone on a much smaller, more private stage, such as at his table at The Century Club in Manhattan, where he often courted writers and thinkers of the day over lunches that stretched into the high hours of the afternoon. One day might find him trading good-natured barbs with William F. Buckley, Jr. On another he might be exploring the literary mysteries hidden behind the smog in Los Angeles with Joan Didion. Still another day might find him listening to the upper-crust New England drawl of George Plimpton.
EL Doctorow, Gore Vidal, Averell Harriman, Bernard DeVoto, Isaiah Berlin and Bobby Kennedy are just a few 20th-century intellects to enliven Schlesinger’s table.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Schlesinger friend Douglas Brinkley, author of the recent biography “Gerald Ford,” notes that “socializing over drinks, to Arthur, was the last way station of civilization… he had adopted the Hemingway ‘A Moveable Feast’ style of conviviality.
“Grace came naturally,” Brinkley continues. “His pace was always brisk, but he knew how to linger. Life, to Arthur, in fact, was a delicate combination of workaholism and semi-sabbatical. He harbored a self-discipline so fierce that he kept a regular diary, but had a constitution hearty enough for a martini intake to make Dean Martin blanch.”
Schlesinger knew the secret vital to every bon vivant — and every dandy: He knew how to make it look easy.