Twenty years ago I had no inkling of all that I would have to be thankful for in 2012. The thought of writing to my hero was daunting. The prospect of meeting Jacques Barzun seemed impossible. I have wondered since May whether to write about that culmination. I now choose to do so as a way of giving thanks.
Prior to the concert I stood up to take photographs of the Majestic Theatre’s interior and of the great man sitting across the way. I also may have been the first to rise in a standing ovation as Jacques came forward to say a few words in lieu of the planned video tribute. When the symphony’s performance concluded, the applause faded, and the audience started to file out, I stood by my seat and turned to savor the occasion. I saw two smiling women headed my way.
Mary Jane Howe and Diana Hamner wondered who this stand-up character might be, ‘a Berlioz expert’ perhaps? I told them of my enthusiasm for Barzun and touched on a few areas of his expertise, including the life and music of Berlioz. My Barzun train of associations might have become a runaway if not for the impending reception. I listened to the charming ladies describe San Antonio’s attractions, including other handsome theaters. Our delightful chat was cut short as an usher asked us to move to the lobby where Eric Morse waited patiently.
We met and walked up to the mezzanine’s Starlight Lounge. Thanks to Leo Wong’s surprising initiative and Marguerite Barzun’s kindness, we found our names on the guest list. Just inside we were offered champagne. I sipped from the flute and scanned the room. Our benefactor, Charles Butt, stood over in the middle section greeting appreciative guests. Not far from him more people gathered around the center of attention, a smiling Jacques Barzun. It looked to be a while before we might enjoy an audience.
Remaining on the periphery, Eric and I talked about the amazing reality of our presence there, our impressions of San Antonio, and the books I carried: the first volume of Berlioz and the Romantic Century and A Stroll with William James. The focus on conversation resulted in my losing track of the author’s living presence. Then “suddenly” he was rolling near and the gentlemen pushing his wheelchair said, “There’s someone here with books for you to sign.”
The question of how to address him could be put off no longer. How to express reverence and friendship at once? “Professor Barzun … Jacques,” came out as I managed to say, “I’m your amateur bibliographer, John Adams.” I made something like a bow to lower my eyes to the level of his own. “Oh, John …” he responded with warmth and surprise as he reached out for my hand. Having known for some time of the pain writing often caused him, I clasped his hand gently and found that his hands were as large as mine.
Taking a step or two back, I turned to my compatriot, “May I introduce your newest neighbor? This is Eric Robert Morse, direct descendant of Samuel F. B. Morse of telegraph fame, a painter like his ancestor and a published author with several books to his credit.” As Eric stepped forward I added that though a newcomer to San Antonio, he had already formed a reading group, the first Jacques Barzun Book Club.
There were hundreds of questions that I would like to have asked Barzun, most arising from an intimate knowledge of his works. Somehow I skipped them all and landed on an inconsequential detail, his portrait on the “Berlioz and Barzun” program. Lionel Trilling’s photograph of Jacques wearing a summer suit had first appeared on the dust jacket for God’s Country and Mine. Showing Barzun wearing a watch on his right wrist, I had wondered whether he was left-handed. During a rereading years later it occurred to me that the image had been reversed. Of all the foolish words that have passed my lips, the most ridiculous were those that informed my hero, “You never parted your hair on the right side.”
The gracious gentleman overlooked that blunder and our short conversation continued. I noticed Eric crouch so that he too would see eye-to-eye with Barzun. Recognizing his good sense, I gave up my stooped posture and took a knee. (If I had brought my sword I might have asked Jacques to knight me.) Soon thereafter he was answering a question when his throat began to catch. A few moments later his eyes started to water. He managed to collect himself, but the discomfort may have diminished his acuity.
I mentioned something from our letters and he asked, “Have we corresponded?” I could have reminded Jacques of my occasional missives from California, New York, and Alaska, or gifts ranging from smoked wild salmon to a James Agate book of theatre criticism that was new to him. Instead, sensing another admirer standing by to greet Jacques, I simply said, “Maybe a sample of my handwriting will remind you.” I reached into my coat and pulled out a card that I had written that afternoon, thinking that if he was too tired to attend the reception I might find someone who could deliver it to him later.
Barzun opened the envelope then and there. A last small tribute dropped into his lap – a 1921 silver dollar. The grandfather for whom I am named had given it to me on the day I was born – a birthday shared with my father and, as I learned just this year, Barzun’s father, too. Jacques arrived in America the year before the coin was minted. The Liberty head design reminded me of his arrival by steamer in New York harbor, under the welcoming gaze of that other gift from France. I mentioned those connections in my note.
Whether my handwriting jogged his memory I do not know, but he asked whether we might have met before, “perhaps without the beard?” Despite his love for William James, I had noticed over the years a half dozen or so disparagements of beards in Barzun’s writing. Replying to one of my infrequent letters (sent at a longer than usual interval after a move from Kodiak to Juneau), Jacques expressed relief that I hadn’t fallen into a crevasse. My humorous answer included the adjacent photo as proof of life and explained this Alaskan’s preference for facial insulation from the cold. Jacques wrote back: “Do not labor under the misapprehension that I have any objection to beards. Yours shows excellent topiary work. My distaste is only for paucity and straggle when flaunted.”
I assured Jacques that this was our first meeting – one that I had hoped for since at least as early as my first letter to him in 1993 – and expressed my gratitude viva voce and in the note: for the chance to meet him, for permission to work in his Papers at Columbia, and for all that his works have meant to me. I picked up the unsigned books, then Eric and I stepped aside. We moved toward the back of the room where we thanked Marguerite and talked with her briefly. She asked Jack Jackson to join us, made the introductions, and soon excused herself to go check on Jacques.
Jack delighted us by describing his informal conversations with Jacques. I thank him here again for sharing those experiences and his interest in family histories. It was Jack who urged me to write of the trip to San Antonio and include the ridiculous details of my pilgrimage.
This website’s 11-month beginning, my first public attempt to broadcast Barzun’s merits, has brought unexpected pleasures. I hope that there will be more exchanges like Bill Sweetland’s freewheeling appreciation of Jacques. (Thanks, Bill, for the encouragement to reveal more of myself.) I was glad to see an instance of the tags I provide helping someone to discover what Barzun said on a particular subject, in that case the orchestral poet Sebastien Voirol. The details can be found in the post “father and son” and in the comments below “What’s next?“
Sending a “Berlioz and Barzun” program to Leo Wong was the least I could do to show my gratitude for his support. It seems that the instant a gentle rereader post appears Leo has planted a link in the Jacques Barzun Fan Club on Facebook. I imagine that he was the one who added this site to the Jacques Barzun page on Wikipedia, as well. Best of all, his occasional comment (see after “Barzun’s women“) and frequent emails supply Barzun conversation that I have missed for much of my life. Thank you very much indeed, Leo, especially for the gift of how Jacques first greeted me. I would not have been present without your intercession.
John at Columbia, 1980
On liberty from Navy Officer Candidate School, with a haircut Jacques would approve.
John at Columbia, 2004, hirsute.
First visit to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.