The Reluctant WASP: George Will On William Zinsser

zinsser-portrait

In a column some years ago for the Washington Post, George Will discussed William Zinsser and the craft of writing, making a passing reference to J. Press and the formality observed by old-school WASPs such as Zinsser:

Tooting his own trumpet is not the style of this self-effacing and decorous WASP, who never leaves his Manhattan apartment or boards a plane or train without a jacket (J. Press, of course) and tie.

WASPiness, however, was always something Zinsser had trouble coming to terms with. His website includes the following excerpt from his essay “A Reluctant WASP” for Town & Country:

I was born into the Northeastern WASP establishment and have never quite stopped pretending that I wasn’t. My boyhood was spent in a big house on the north shore of Long Island that overlooked the water and had its own tennis court. But I always wanted to get beyond that narrow world. In the summer of 1936, when I was 13, my parents took my older sisters on a Grand Tour of Europe, leaving me with my grandmother. To keep me company they advertised for a ‘tutor.’

A suitable-sounding candidate was found—Harvard junior, all-around athlete, an editor of the Crimson—and was invited for Sunday dinner to be looked over. His name was Cleveland Amory. The name signified that he was a Boston Brahmin. Many years later it would become a familiar presence on the best-seller lists for his droll social histories like The Proper Bostonians.

My father explained to Amory that he would mainly be expected to play golf and tennis and go sailing with me—the usual WASP sports. His biggest problem, my father was sorry to say, would be to wrest me away from my obsessive interest in baseball. The tutor smiled the smile of a young man who has found the perfect summer job.

When summer arrived, my new friend tried at first to adhere to the conditions of his employment. But our hearts were elsewhere. Amory, it turned out, was a crazed Boston Red Sox fan, and our schedule began to tilt. We would put our golf clubs in the family Buick, head for the Piping Rock Club, and somehow wind up at Yankee Stadium.

Zinsser not only dressed properly before leaving the house, he also had himself immortalized in oil, as in the 2006 portrait by Thomas S. Buechner above, which is a lot more dignified than chronicling your quotidian happenings in iPhone selfies on Facebook. Zinsser died in 2015, two years after Will’s column— CC

26 Comments on "The Reluctant WASP: George Will On William Zinsser"

  1. Class acts, but doubtful that they have ever peed in the shower. Good post Christian and they are indeed the right kind.

  2. He’s a jazz pianist like our frater CC.

  3. P.S. Love the painting details. Buttonhole visible and role of the BD collar. Distinguished.

  4. Herringbone Tweed | March 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Reply

    Betcha he doesn’t wear Gucci loafers.

  5. There’s the unruly roll for which the older Brooks OCBDs were known. HTJ’s recent reflection is worthy of a look. The older Troy Guild OCBDs were equally untidy.

  6. @
    S.E.
    So glad that we don’t have to worry about that unruly roll anymore. It was clearly due to uneven shrinkage.

  7. I believe that the collar role looks uneven, due to wearing a four in hand, rather than a half windsor. Never cared for the later of the two, nor the full windsor.

  8. This brings back memories. I went to school with Mr. Zinsser’s children and now look forward to visiting his website.

  9. @Herringbone Tweed, you wouldn’t know a WASP if it stung you in the ass.

  10. Herringbone Tweed | March 16, 2013 at 10:03 am | Reply

    @Mr.

    Sir, I am, in fact, a New England WASP of indsiputable credentails and I can assure you that I would have been soundly thrashed by my father if I had dared to even contemplate wearing such shoes.

  11. Herringbone Tweed | March 16, 2013 at 10:04 am | Reply

    Sorry for the orthographical infelicity.

    indsiputable credentails = indisputable credentials

  12. Anyone who uses “orthographical infelicity” for “typo” needs to write a piece for the site! What’s on your mind? Did your father ever actually thrash you for something you wore, or threatened to wear?

  13. Herringbone Tweed | March 16, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply

    Christian,

    Thanks for the invitation, but I’m afraid that my poor typing would result in even more egregious errata.

    As far as thrashing goes, I was wise enough never to provide him with the opportunity

  14. HT,

    I wear Gucci loafers and I also have “indisputable credentials”

    Mayflower descendent (check)
    Leaders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (check)
    Family founded Dartmouth (check)
    Family founded several cities in New England (check)
    I could go on and on, but my point is this… Just because you and daddy didn’t like bit loafers, doesn’t mean those that do lack taste and pedigree.

  15. Half Windsor | March 16, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Reply

    @Mr.

    The have no place in a traditional gentleman’s wardrobe not because HT and his father didn’t like them, but because they are an Italian combination of a woman’s shoe and a bedroom slipper.

  16. A.E.W. Mason | March 16, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply

    @HT and Mr.

    Okay, we get it. You guys planned this, right? It’s a joke. Two guys arguing on an Ivy League Website about who’s more WASPY. I think you two gentlement are trying to remind us all that merely participating in such a forum diminishes our WASPOSITY quotient.

    But I can get into the spirit of the thing. I say, let’s let Muffy Aldrich, OBE, decide. Did you see her post wherein she pictured the letters from her friend who mocks her blog. Now, see, that chap’s a real WASP in spirit and in deed; well, probably. And, we now know Mrs. Aldrich has a sense of humor about this stuff, and herself, to boot. So, she should decide: Who is more WASPY, HT, or Mr.?

  17. You all make me wish I was a WASP!

  18. @Mr.

    Very astute observation, and one which would suggest she has a conflict of interest in judging the matter. On the other hand, one could argue Half Windor’s point to the effect that there is no conflict because she’s a woman and could still be objective as to whether or not it is WASPY for a male to wear bit loafers.

    Well, I’ll leave to you gentlemen. After all, we have bigger problems. Our host just revealed that Brooks Brothers has committed suicide.

  19. Man in the White Pinpoint | May 10, 2021 at 1:45 am | Reply

    More about the portrait:

    Then he (Tom)said, ‘Would you like me to do your portrait?’ I said, ‘Oh, no.’ WASPS are trained not to put people to any extra trouble.

    “But that night my wife said, ‘It would be nice to have a portrait by Tom.’ Of course she was right, so I called Tom back, and we agreed that I would come to Corning. the city in south-central New York where he has long lived, and spend two days sitting for him.

    “’I’ll be asking you a lot of questions,’ he said. That sounded ominous. I’ve always thought of portrait painters as unlicensed psychiatrists, using their eyes instead of their ears to read the human heart. I doubt if Rembrandt’s sitters had many secrets he didn’t know about. What would it be like to have my 80-year-old cousin reading my 83-year-old face and putting onto canvas what he saw written there?

  20. Marshall Baird | May 10, 2021 at 9:35 am | Reply

    Liked this!
    No football, no jazz, no pink pants, no mysticism.
    Thanks.

  21. Old School Tie | May 10, 2021 at 10:09 am | Reply

    Is it possible that Zinsser was more WSP than WASP? He was probably quite light on the A part of things.

  22. Marshall Baird | May 10, 2021 at 3:29 pm | Reply

    More about the portrait (and the Brooks Brothers OCBD collar roll):

    “Because it wasn’t a full-length portrait, Tom hadn’t been able to paint my signature sneakers. But he did have the next-best thing: my white button-down Oxford shirt and collar. That collar is one of the quirky affectations of the WASP oligarchy. It’s not designed to lie flat and to look starched, but, instead, to have a bulge and to look unstarched. By buying that shirt the wearer also declares himself to be unstarched. The shirt in Tom’s portrait is a perfect replication of the Brooks Brothers bulge and is the strongest identifying mark in his composition, along with the tie, which, I saw, was very slightly askew. Those two objects of clothing—shirt and tie—say as much about me as my sneakers.”

  23. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post and a titan of post war journalism,
    cut a very different style figure despite his impeccable WASP credentials. In fact,
    the “Saxon” in WASP was actually his Saxon progenitor Johann Caspar Crowinshield
    (anglicized) who emigrated to New England in the 17 th century from a town near
    Liepzig. Bradlee’s style seemed closer to Fred Astaire than the understated “cracked
    shoe crowd” identified by Tom Wolfe. Zinsser and Bradlee form bookends of
    the WASP style spectrum in their time

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Bradlee

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