Dashing Overachiever

When I was 18, I decided I wanted to be a renaissance man. It was the late ’80s, and I must have learned the term from the magazines GQ or M, The Civilized Man. It wasn’t exactly a concept knocked about in my particular California suburb, nor passed down from my father. I was already interested tailored clothing, and my first semester in college took electives in piano, fencing and archery, in addition to five solids.

Since then, I’ve continued to nurture my natural tendencies as a generalist (aka Sagittarius) who’s high in Trait Openness (curiosity) and a fast learner, and have managed to develop superficial mastery in a number of things. But even this jack-of-all-trades was humbled by the current issue of The Rake, which features a profile of Gardner McKay, of whom I’d never heard. Not only was he multitalented, he was disgustingly handsome, too. He caps off our run of posts on ’50s-era heart-throbs and dreamboats, for in 1959 he appeared in a tennis sweater on the cover of LIFE Magazine with the headline, “How About Him, Girls?”

What made McKay such a catch, enough to snag a LIFE cover? I’ll leave you to discover that by reading the fascinating profile, but here’s a teaser:

The great-grandson of the shipbuilder Donald McKay, McKay was born George Cadogan Gardner McKay into a wealthy Episcopalian family in New York City, but brought up between there and Paris (between the ages of four and 17 he crossed the Atlantic eight times and stayed in 13 different boarding schools). 

He worked briefly as a sculptor during his studies at Cornell University, and also worked as a movie-critic for the Cornell Daily Sun and the campus magazine The Widow, plus various articles for yacht magazines. Moving back to New York, he took up sculpture (he had one piece displayed in the Museum of Modern Art) while living in modest bliss in Greenwich Village and enhancing his credentials as a polymath by doing extra work as a designer, artist, record covers illustrator and painter. 

This “dashing overachiever” might just inspire you to take up a new skill. And what better time than a summer weekend. — CC

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24 Comments on "Dashing Overachiever"

  1. Good God. Yeah, my new skill will be ignoring the envy I feel when gazing upon such a perfect visage of manliness.

  2. Richard E. Press | July 13, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Reply

    Mr. McKay in the 1950s was an occasional J.Press customer and even briefly dated Carol (forget her last name), Irving Press’s attractive tall blond secretary who was pictured in a J.Press brochure modeling a women’s Fair Isle Shaggy Dog sweater.

  3. Charlottesville | July 13, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Reply

    I remember him from a TV series called Adventures in Paradise, which was shown in reruns in the 60s. It caught my imagination somewhere between my early infatuation with TV westerns and the later I Spy/Man From Uncle era. I believe he was an author/playwright as well. Quite the renaissance man indeed. Brains, talent, looks and great clothes worn with natural ease. I’m quite jealous.

  4. Christian, putting together this gentleman’s portfolio must have been like looking a mirror. Except he doesn’t have a great beard. 🙂

    As always Mr. Press weighs in with an interesting connection. Is there ANYBODY of substance who didn’t cross paths with the J.Press business or clan in the 1950s-60s? I recall, with awe, the great photo of recent-graduate Richard having lunch with – at least in the presence of – Ernest Hemingway in Spain.

  5. This has definitely been Dreamboat Heartthrob week at Ivy Style. I cannot wait to see who Christian comes up with next.

  6. Johnny Bravo | July 13, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Reply

    How about George Peppard, Jr. in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
    Now there’s a dreamboat!

  7. Never could figure out where people like this found the time. Just read an obituary today that took up 15 column inches, guy was on like ten different boards of one thing and another, sailed, wrote, traveled, raised five kids, etc. I always felt real proud if I got two errands run after work, and the bills in on time.

  8. Vern Trotter | July 14, 2018 at 1:33 am | Reply

    He was only 69 when he died from prostate cancer. Very preventable if you have routine check ups. Something men never used to do. I am 18 years out from catching it in time and having the operation. A reminder to all the guys reading this to get checked.

  9. Richard Meyer | July 14, 2018 at 6:02 am | Reply

    @Vern: Ditto-I am 10 years out

  10. Who is the girl in the second to last photo, Pamela Tiffin?

    A real dish back then, in her bikini, teasing Paul Newman, in Harper.

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Robert Wagner, as Paul referred to as Beauty.

  11. Lake-centered sporting clubs (fishing, trap and skeet, lake sailing) clubs litter the way-way-out woods of the East Coast. (a few in northwestern New Jersey and eastern PA come to mind). Humble, sometimes decrepit cabins line the edge of the lake. No motor boats. Too many dogs to count. Invariably there’s a groundsman who’s lived there for thirty years. The real estate and fees are modest and old Jeeps, trucks, and bicycles abound. Gravel roads and lots of forest. Small “lodge” in the center of it all. Prepare for an early rising every morning: the sound of 20 gauge’s and 410’s being fired at ascending clay targets. Rowboat fishing–bass, lake trout, and the dreaded pickerel. “Dressing up” for evening drinks–old tweed, khakis, Gokey (or similar) shoes.

    The membership committees remain throwbacks to another time and place: references galore and priority is given to the “well rounded” type — with emphasis upon personality and manners. And, whether anybody likes it or not, a certain sort of nappy, rustic, ramshackle elegance. Money doesn’t matter. (This isn’t an Orvis or similar club, after all). Nothing forced and much skepticism about anything too polished. Or polished at all. So long as these old, market-resistant clubs survive, we’ll have at least a few philosopher kings–“dashing overachievers” to count on. Good to be less than a two-hour drive away, since they are made for the Friday afternoon disappearing act.

  12. …Also reassuring to know there are still communities that cater to these sorts of values. So even the richest of CEOs, most accomplished of bankers, most skillful of surgeons, and most prominent of politicians (we wouldn’t besmirch the phrase “public servant”) can be rejected for anything ranging from arrogance to greed to “difficult” (you know when you see/hear it) temperament. Overachieve all day, but God’s sake make it seem effortless and even fun.

  13. @NCJack, I feel the same way as you. How did all of these dashing men have ’tis time to be involved in so many high-falutin’ groups and clubs, and get, y’know, the laundry done and food in the table? Even my grandparents seemed to be involved in so many organizations and charitable endeavors. I’m just happy if I can get a small creative drawing finished once every two weeks.

  14. Remember that miniseries about John Adams on HBO? In the show he said that to do meaningful things you must work more hours than there are in a day and more days than there are in a week. Some people just work. All the time. And I suspect it’s more of a joy than a bother.

  15. NCJack,
    Same. My parents tell me about a time with no email, no cellphones, and work took place between 8-5. It sounds amazing.

  16. @OCBD
    That was “work” when I started (a few more hours, but still…). I guess I could have done more, but I like to sit down and relax, schmooze, and read. I have known people who just could…NOT…do that!! While I admired some of them I didn’t want to emulate them. Biggest turn off for me was fighting the damned traffic getting from here to there, then there, then there ad nauseum

  17. Grey Flannels | July 15, 2018 at 1:42 am | Reply

    @Oxford Cloth Button Down:
    It wasn’t just amazing, it was paradise. Lots of free time and privacy.

  18. I recall a story a tax client related to me years ago. My client was a member of a Waspy church committee for a spaghetti dinner fundraiser. She and other ladies were busy working, cooking, serving, and bussing tables. The reverend was reviewing all the hub bub, and walked up to Mrs. Gotrocks, chairlady of the affair, praising her for her wonderful work and effort. Mrs. Gotrocks never took off her white gloves.

    I fear a lot of the 15 column people, involved in many activities, actually got credit for very little effort, due to their exalted social position.

    I take these overachievers with a grain of salt, and skepticism.

  19. I, commenter | July 15, 2018 at 9:09 am | Reply

    those interested in productivity should read Cal Newport’s blog – he’s a young professor at Georgetown who, while getting a doctorate, ran a successful blog (on productivity!) wrote two books and his wife had a baby.
    He only works 9-5 and that includes a break.
    I do think success breeds success -when you read about someone also running their own successful this or that business or clothing line – you have the ability to delegate and tap into expertise and partnership.

    http://calnewport.com/blog/

  20. To @OCBD’s point about office hours being constrained to actual time spent in the office, I think the ability of people in the past to be involved in a plethora of activities, clubs, societies, and other volunteer organizations depended heavily on two things: 1.) The fact that they were only “working” when they were actually in the office (because we didn’t possess the technology to keep people looped into the office 24/7), and 2.) The fact that their kids usually were only involved in one or two “extra curricular” activities, and therefore didn’t demand nearly as much of their parents’ time and resources to drive them everywhere under the sun and watch/participate in their activities. As our society shifted from adult-centered to child-centered in the 1980s and 90s, freedom and time to do the things talked about above simply disappeared for most people. Today, most parents spend the vast majority of their free time being involved with their kids’ education, activities, etc. The ones who have the freedom to do other things are typically those who are rich and powerful enough to dictate their own schedules.

  21. Henry Contestwinner | July 17, 2018 at 1:00 pm | Reply

    Wriggles, that’s an interesting story. However, I wonder if Mrs. Gotrocks, despite her white gloves, wasn’t actually really busy. More than once, I have organized an international conference with scores of presenters and hundreds of attendees, and I can attest to the fact that organizing things is a lot more work than cooking and serving food for hundreds of people (which I’ve also done).

    Just an observation.

    RWK, you’re absolutely right. I try to emulate that formula as much as possible: work time is for work, but once I leave for the day, I forget about all that stuff and concentrate on my life. I also limit my children’s activities. Besides, they need unstructured time, too.

  22. Vern Trotter | July 17, 2018 at 8:24 pm | Reply

    After reading this, I ordered Gardner’s autobiography, Journey Without A Map. It is amazing non-serious reading. 475 pages written in the last year of his life from a lifetime of keeping journals. From Paris before WW2, Confederate ancestors in Kentucky, boarding schools, studying under Vladimir Nabokov at Cornel to living/working on sailboats as a young man.

  23. As soon as I saw Gardner in the yachting photo, something clicked in my mind that I saw this person before. It was The Adventures in Paradise TV show in black and white reference that Charlottesville mentioned. It was great escape TV for a young teen. It began my fascination with sailing on Long Island’s Sound back in the late ’60s.

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