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