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A Writer, a Miss America, Etc.

The journalist Murray Kempton (Al Ravenna / World Telegram & Sun / Library of Congress)

In my Impromptus today, I begin with the California recall election, which was way back on Tuesday — and may now seem a little old? The pace of news and attention is astonishing these days. We ended our pull-out of Afghanistan two and a half weeks ago. Many people, I understand, are ready to be “done.”

At any rate, time is a perpetually interesting subject, beyond the capacity of a blogpost (at least by me). In Impromptus today, I have a variety of subjects, for your perusal. Do you know of Bess Myerson? She was a household name in America. But today few would know her. I have revived this beautiful (and troubled) lady, to illustrate a point or two.

I don’t know if you saw this essay by George F. Will — it is gorgeous, interesting, and wise. He talks of his career as a writer. And he begins with a quotation from Ortega y Gasset: “In order to master the unruly torrent of life the learned man meditates, the poet quivers, and the political hero erects the fortress of his will.”

But, says Will,

a journalist, whose job is to chronicle and comment on the tor­rent, knows that this is not amenable to being mastered. That is what it means to be unruly. Besides, the enjoyment of life is inseparable from life’s surprises, and hence from its contingencies. Surprises and contingencies have propelled this columnist through a happy half-century of arriving at his office each morning impatient to get on with the pleasure of immersion in the torrent.

How about you and me? Are we pleased to be immersed in the torrent? Speaking for myself: It depends. Frankly, I like to be both in and out (the way some people speak of being “in the world but not of it”).

Waxing autobiographical — which Will is not prone to doing — Will says,

In September 1958, four months after my 17th birthday, I came out of the Illinois wilderness to matriculate at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Soon thereafter I did what a young man from central Illinois would naturally do: I took the train to New York City. Arriving in the splendor of Grand Central Terminal, I plunked down a nickel for a New York tabloid in order to see what was going on in Gotham. This purchase of a New York Post was a life-changing event because in it I found a column by Murray Kempton.

That must have been something, for a mind and spirit like George Will: to read a Kempton column for the first time.

I do not remember what his subject was that day, but his subjects generally were of secondary importance to his style, which reflected his refined mind and his penchant for understated passion, mordantly expressed.

That is what WFB always said: that Kempton’s subjects, and even his views, were of secondary importance to his style. Will says that Kempton exemplified “trenchant elegance.” So does he. Trenchant elegance was part of WFB’s repertoire, too. One of his modes.

As I think about it, I never heard WFB express greater admiration for a writer than he did for Murray Kempton — certainly in the field of journalism. (He thought Evelyn Waugh the “best prose stylist,” as I believe he put it, in the English language.) WFB published Kempton at every opportunity — no matter what Kempton wanted to say. This did not sit well with people of a more ideological orientation; but WFB was like that.

Murray Kempton, who was born in 1917, died in 1997. WFB wrote a long appreciation of him, which I’ve just read. I cannot find it online — perhaps better Googlers than I can.

WFB began with the reaction of the New York media world. The Times “observed his death on its front page with a photograph of the recognizable figure with his indispensable pipe.” Inside, the paper “gave its readers a brilliant and moving page-length obituary.” Newsday devoted its cover to Kempton: A Half-Century of Elegance and Truth. In the Daily News, Jim Dwyer called Kempton “the greatest newspaperman of the twentieth century.”

WFB ends his appreciation with these words: “He was a great artist, and a great friend.”

I never read Murray Kempton. So far as I know, he was not in the national media, only the New York City media. The only thing I knew was WFB’s enthusiasm for him — which naturally got your attention. And now I know that Kempton meant something to George Will, too.

Anyway, enough of my Memory Lane. I just like that an old name — Murray Kempton — has popped up again. Like Bess Myerson, in my column today. Was Kempton ever Miss America? No, but one can’t be everything.


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