Jacques Barzun, 1907-2012
With Light from a New Dawn, a profile painting of Jacques Barzun in 1959, by Eric Morse, 2005.
I first met Jacques Barzun in the autumn of 1974. I had just been named editor of The American Scholar, the quarterly magazine published by Phi Beta Kappa, and he had long been on its editorial board and was among its leading contributors. He seemed to embody the best of the magazine in its intellectual aspirations and cultural standard. He had earlier told me, by letter, that he was planning to leave the editorial board, and the prospect so alarmed me that I made a special trip from Chicago to New York to try to dissuade him from doing so.
We met at the Columbia Faculty Club. He was as I imagined him from author's photographs on his books, tall, with excellent posture, handsome, elegant in an understated way. He was born in France, to a family whose intellectual connections extended to friendships with the poet and art critic Guillame Appollinaire, the composer Edgar Varese, and the novelist and biographer Stefan Zweig. Jacques came to this country at age 13, had thoroughly Americanized himself, yet had never quite altogether lost the aura of a bred-in-the-bone superior old-world culture. He was cosmopolitan in an elegant way that intellectuals rarely are....
I never met him and only know him through his writings, yet I think it’s safe to say that at this time of his departure, he’d want us to also remember his dear friend and intellectual comrade Robert Henry Pitney, who was also born in 1907, but died in 1944, when he and Barzun were both 37. Since Barzun was blessed with an extraordinarily long life, it seems fitting that we remember his friend who had a short one.
More than eight years ago, I went to my mailbox in the newsroom of the San Antonio Express-News, found a letter addressed to me from Jacques Barzun and almost collapsed from the anticipated intellectual beat-down no doubt coming from this historic and iconic writer and thinker. Such was my self-confidence that I assumed I'd written something Barzun had dismantled point by point. To my surprise, it was a note praising me for a column I'd written on education.
I wrote back thanking Barzun for his generous note and telling him how much I admired him and his writing. This led to an invitation to visit him and his lovely wife, Marguerite, in their Oakwell Farms home and a friendship that was enriched, over the years, by an exchange of notes, cards, books and laughter.
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