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Due to an unlikely circumstance (I was editor of Forbes ASAP, which had just published it annual Big Issue and I wanted to celebrate with some of its contributors), I traveled East from Silicon Valley and hosted a dinner one night at Elaine’s, the legendary New York City watering hole for writers.
I ended up having Tom Wolfe sitting on one side of me and Stanley Crouch on the other (and George Plimpton stopped by the say hello). Sounds like one of those mythical Gotham literary scene stories, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. Wolfe nudged me and said, “I’ve always hated this place. And the food is horrible.” He stuck around for about an hour, then politely excused himself.
On the other hand, Stanley Crouch looked to be at home — and we spent most of the evening talking. He was short, stocky guy, with a head like a cannonball, bulging eyes behind glasses, and the swaggering manner of a prizefighter. And he was very, very bright. He was also very opinionated on everything — as one would expect from one of our greatest critics. And funny, punctuating his often savage remarks with a low chuckle.
Obviously, I was instantly taken by the man. Besides, he had called my magazine “the last refuge of the essay.” But I could also see how he could terrify his opponents and exhaust his friends. The man loved to talk. And while he might say one brilliant comment, analysis, or judgment after another — after a thousand of these comments, said in a rapid-fire style, your brain felt punched and you wanted to just lay your head down in Elaine’s terrible food and take a nap.
Did I mention he was charming? Even his most devastating remarks were always delivered with the look that said, “Hey, it’s all in fun. You know, it’s the game.” But I also knew that Stanley was a profoundly serious man. That’s why he held such high and unrelenting standards, why he destroyed false gods, phonies, and poseurs. He also had — as he wrote in his essay for me — an overpowering sense of the ultimately tragic nature of life. If Stanley seemed like a man in an endless hurry, who didn’t ever want to stop writing, talking, hanging out at night, it was no doubt because he knew that the race usually ends before we’re prepared for it to end — and there is little cheering at the finish line.
It was almost 2 a.m. by the time the dinner ended. Being on California time, I was utterly exhausted and ready to dive into my taxi cab to get back to The Algonquin (yeah, it was a very New York experience). Stanley Crouch, by comparison, was just getting going. He obviously could have talked all night — and likely intended to, with a different audience, in a different place, perhaps a jazz club.
We put on our coats, shook hands, and headed out into the night in different directions. In my mind, I don’t see him as gone, but just having moved his brilliant, endless conversation somewhere else. R.I.P. to a great critic and essayist. And a true one of a kind.Published in