“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.”
“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 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.”
“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.”
From this remarkable profile by Ariel Levy in New York magazine.
Previous post about Trow (for context,) here.