IN SEARCH OF CURMUDGEONS

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When Kingsley Amis died the other day The New York Times' obit described Sir Kingsley variously as "clubman, curmudgeon, anti-trendy, Tory, misogynist, blimp" as well as "increasingly grumpy." It was said that his 1991 memoir "contrived to offend more people than the letters of Evelyn Waugh and [poet] Philip Larkin put together."

I have long collected English curmudgeons and am sad to see Amis go (although immensely cheered by the fact that his going will stimulate other great obituaries in other journals which I can then read and be happy).

Not everyone was an Amis fan. Of of his most recent book the London Daily Mail wrote that it was "banal, boring and extremely silly.*.*. packed with ster eotypical caricatures, convoluted dialogue, ludicrously dated class attitudes and the sort of puerile snobbishness that exists only among the dyspeptic old bores who hang out at Dickensian gentlemen's clubs."

Phew!

There's a novel ("The Biographer's Mustache") I want to read.

Of an earlier book, his memoir, Ian Hamilton wrote of Amis, "He was not so fastidious when it came to unveiling the secrets of his friends-but those secrets were small secrets, he would say, and anyway, most of his friends were dead."

James Wolcott, writing in The New Yorker, recalled that one of Amis' several wives, fed up with his philandering, wrote in lipstick on his back (presumably while he dozed on the beach), the legend, "One fat Englishman. I bleep anything," which Sir Kingsley unknowing walked about showing, to considerable tittering.

As for the bottle, Wolcott quotes a chum, "Breakfast with the papers was punctually at 9 a.m., even if Kingsley had fallen dead drunk into bed at 4 a.m." Asked about his sleeping habits, Sir Kingsley replied, "I pill myself up. Very relaxing, pills and Scotch. I sleep very well. It's partly drugged sleep, of course. But better drugged sleep than no sleep." At the time of his death Amis was sharing a London house with his first wife and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock, which Wolcott calls, with admirable restraint, "an odd living arrangement."

Totally unconnected from this, about the time of Sir Kingsley's death, a friend sent along to me the copy of a 1985 letter from Art Buchwald to Bryce Harlow, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California, regarding a scholarship Art was setting up out of his own dough. I have no idea how my pal got hold of this 10-year-old letter but I don't think I am invading Art's privacy at all, or at least very much, in quoting it in part.

"The scholarship, as I see it," Buchwald wrote, "would go to a student who, in the judgment of the journalism faculty, shows the most promise as a humorist and satirist. The guidelines for the selection would be as follows: The student should be anti-establishment and contemptuous of the scholarship he or she is receiving. That is to say, he or she should be willing to bite the hand that feeds him. If the person is on probation for something he or she wrote, that should be considered a plus."

Art winds up, in true curmudgeon fashion, "Finally, I'm not responsible for the student getting a job, getting published, or even for talking to him if I don't want to."

I saw Art a couple of weeks ago having lunch in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons here in New York and after lunch it seemed to take him about 45 minutes to handshake and chat his way out of the room. There are New York city aldermen who the week before Election Day shake fewer hands. But that's always been Art, an amiable, cordial sort. I am quite pleased to discern in his letter to USC this note of "grumpiness," to borrow an adjective from the Amis obituary, his disinclination "even for talking to him if I don't want to."

We don't do curmudgeons as well as the Brits, not generally, though if we had a national grouch it might well have been Henry Mencken who hated just about everything but Baltimore and beer. And he's been dead since 1956.

The late Henry Morgan had his moments, as did Oscar Levant and about half of the Algonquin Roundtable. Can a woman be a curmudgeon? If so, put down the name of Dorothy Parker. Don Imus, the morning radio wit, shows enormous promise and I am busily compiling a list of things Imus hates and people he can do without (which is most of us). A couple of years ago when Imus bought a house in Southport, Conn., he was barely in the door when he launched a rip-roaring feud against several of his neighbors and against the local yacht club which had the temerity of leaving a single 40-watt bulb burning at night above the door of a small outbuilding, a light which so disturbed Imus he threatened to shoot it out with an AK47. As for the neighbors, he and his cast of radio mimes swiftly reduced them to caricatured on-air voices babbling nonsense.

The one fly in the Imus ointment which could effectively keep him from achieving true grouch status is a second, and apparently quite happy marriage. Those of us who revere the curmudgeon in Imus keep hoping for something to happen. But it hasn't yet.

Which brings us back to Evelyn Waugh, who may truly have been the noblest curmudgeon of all. By the time the war came Waugh and wife had contrived to have a great number of children, just how many I can't recall, and off went Evelyn to join the commandos, a middle-aged warrior apparently grateful to Hitler for getting him (Waugh) out of the house. And on his leaves instead of traveling out to the country to hearth, home, wife and moppets, Waugh would check into his London club from which he would write Mrs. Waugh, assuring her of his undying love for her and suggesting she come up to town for a few days to be with him.

Without the children, of course, for as Waugh makes clear in letters, though he considered them quite dear, he couldn't stand the little nippers.

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