The Autocrat of the Three-Martini Lunch

Four years ago today I lost my dear friend Michael Mattis, who unexpectedly died in his sleep at the age of 49. We had met in our mid-twenties through a mutual intellectual and historical interest in style (specifically, the long literary history of dandyism). As we got older we both found our taste in clothing becoming (or rather returning) to traditional American, and Mattis was an avid reader of this site. A writer by trade, this piece he authored is one of Ivy Style’s first few posts, having originally run on September 12, 2008. It touches on Mattis’ favorite things in life: style, a stiff drink, and good camaraderie. — CC

* * *

Bon vivantism, if that is indeed a legitimate phrase, is a characteristic — or, if you prefer, a malady — particularly evident in great historians and men of letters. From Ben Franklin and Emile Zola to Winston Churchill and Bernard DeVoto — whose book “The Hour” is perhaps the most elegant paean to cocktail time ever written — men of letters have proved inveterate noontime party boys who like to live well and live big, indulging appetites in comestibles and potables, concepts and conversation with equal gusto. These are men who know how to linger over a glass but also over a thought, pulling the last drops of pleasure and enlightenment from both.

Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and author of some 20 books who died February 28, 2007, at the age of 89, was one such titan of the pen and the palate.

Invariably the obits describe Schlesinger as a liberal Democratic partisan, an apparatchik even, whose writings “The Age of Roosevelt” and “A Thousand Days” gave the foibles and follies of his patrons in Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations a free pass. Yet Schlesinger was also a steadfast anti-communist who condemned the callow radicals of the ’60s and the race-baiting zealots of identity politics in the ’70s with as much fervor as he did the McCarthyites of the 1950s. His book “The Vital Center” is an appeal for reason and balance in government.

Politics aside, Schlesinger was one of the great bon vivants in 20th-century American letters. If Schlesinger wasn’t very original sartorially, he was at least fastidious. Take for example, Schlesinger’s bow tie, which he sported almost daily throughout his long career. When asked about it, Schlesinger didn’t mince words. He wore a bow tie, he said, because Bogey did, and that was good enough for him. That was his romantic side. On the democratic side, he seldom wore a pocket square, perhaps feeling it a touch too effete for his New Deal but decidedly patrician politics.

Schlesinger shone brightly on many stages of public life, from the Oval Office of the Kennedy administration to his classroom at Harvard University, where he was the only professor to teach without an advanced degree. But he also shone on a much smaller, more private stage, such as at his table at The Century Club in Manhattan, where he often courted writers and thinkers of the day over lunches that stretched into the high hours of the afternoon. One day might find him trading good-natured barbs with William F. Buckley, Jr. On another he might be exploring the literary mysteries hidden behind the smog in Los Angeles with Joan Didion. Still another day might find him listening to the upper-crust New England drawl of George Plimpton.

EL Doctorow, Gore Vidal, Averell Harriman, Bernard DeVoto, Isaiah Berlin and Bobby Kennedy are just a few 20th-century intellects to enliven Schlesinger’s table.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Schlesinger friend Douglas Brinkley, author of the recent biography “Gerald Ford,” notes that “socializing over drinks, to Arthur, was the last way station of civilization… he had adopted the Hemingway ‘A Moveable Feast’ style of conviviality.

“Grace came naturally,” Brinkley continues. “His pace was always brisk, but he knew how to linger. Life, to Arthur, in fact, was a delicate combination of workaholism and semi-sabbatical. He harbored a self-discipline so fierce that he kept a regular diary, but had a constitution hearty enough for a martini intake to make Dean Martin blanch.”

Schlesinger knew the secret vital to every bon vivant: He knew how to make it look easy. — MICHAEL MATTIS

6 Comments on "The Autocrat of the Three-Martini Lunch"

  1. He, and his brand of patrician politics, are sorely missed. Thanks for the post.

  2. Thank you for this.

    For all the current (and ridiculous) fascination with single malts and haute Bourbons and other overpriced libations, it may be of interest (or not) that two of the WASPiest, Old Guard types I’ve ever known preferred inexpensive (Smirnoff) vodka-and-lemonade. “It’s 5:00 somewhere.”

  3. SE

    Booth’s Gin and tonic. Great any time of year but especially nice in the summer.



  4. Vern Trotter | March 2, 2018 at 3:19 pm |

    Nice piece. Arthur used to come into Neary’s @ 57th street and 1st avenue with his very tall wife and one of the Kennedy sisters. He began to wear the wider bow tie in his later years much like Daniel Day Lewis wears in the wonderful movie out now, Phantom Thread. Yes, he was one of Bill Buckley’s liberal friends along with John Galbreath, Norman Mailer, others.

    A joy to read a story like this and thanks for sharing the memory of your friend.

  5. Malvernlink | March 19, 2018 at 11:39 am |

    Good article.
    Broker’s Gin and Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water.


Comments are closed.