28 January 2013

Stanley Karnow

With malice toward none, with crosswords toward all.
Photo by Catherine Karnow©

Stanley Karnow has died. I knew him for about three decades; for many of those years, he knew me as “Paul Jefferson — you know, Cathy, that boy you went to school with.” But over time, he learned to call me Bill, and we became friends. At one point I was supposed to be his research assistant for a book he never wrote, on Jewish vaudeville comedians, but he was a mentor just the same, particularly because so many of the things I’ve tried are things he’d done already, and excelled at: journalism, writing books, living in France. I sometimes had the feeling that he watched my fitful progress with an especially amused and always affectionate appreciation.

Whether I was Paul or Bill to him, I found it flattering enough to have made any impression on him at all, especially at first. Cathy introduced me to her parents with pleasure and anticipation of my good fortune, a build-up and a kind of drumroll, as one might introduce a school friend to prominent actors or heads of state: if there is one trait the Karnow children share beyond the family name, it is a perfect awareness of how remarkable Stanley and Annette have been.

They were not like other people; I’m pretty sure they never tried to be. Perhaps the trick was that they never tried not to be, either. They were who they were, and they were awfully good at it.

Father and daughter at the Vietnam Memorial.
Washington, July 2009.
Photo courtesy of Catherine Karnow.

We watched them this summer, in a series of film clips that Michael pieced together and in a slide show that Cathy presented, as part of a memorial celebration of Annette, who passed away in 2009. There they are, merrily trotting the globe together, and what struck me was how glamorous and fun they made even the most ordinary activity. Annette was still a beauty to the end, and yet it was almost startling to see her young again: she’s like a movie star whose name you can’t quite remember. And always at her side is Stanley, looking absolutely tickled to be with her.

When at last they settled in Maryland, and I came to know them, I felt that Stanley and Annette’s home was a household and that I was stepping into a kind of living novel, a great family saga peopled with fascinating characters. I’ve had this sense sometimes with other families, but always with the Karnows, and for Stanley of course narrative held a privileged place, not only in the prize-winning books he wrote but also in the stories he told over the table.

In recent years it seemed he was always in the middle of a story and constantly being interrupted by the kids, who remembered the past in their own way or who had heard the story many times already. “Will you just let me finish?” Stanley would holler, and sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes he’d interrupt himself with another story altogether.

Stanley explains it all for you. August 2012.
Photo by WVM.

He was, as you can imagine, the biggest character of them all. He thrived on good food and good wine and good books and better friends. People and politics were puzzles to be solved — but only after he’d finished his crossword in the morning. He had an appetite for argument, and a voice that was made for it, though he did prefer to win. He could tell a joke so slyly you were hardly aware he’d done it: when “People Power” toppled the Marcos government in the Philippines, he told me, “Things are shaping up very nicely for television treatment there.” (He’d already begun his book on the subject, which did in turn become a PBS series.)

He’d traveled from Brooklyn to Harvard to Paris to Algiers to Hong Kong and Saigon and Manila; he’d rubbed elbows with starlets and philosophers, potentates and peasants, because really, what else would you do with your life?

Thus it’s no surprise that the kids wound up doing exceptional things, too. Photographing victims of Agent Orange — not to mention Prince Charles. Creating television series. Deciding the law. After all, what else would they do?

And yet the achievement for which I’m most grateful to the Karnows is simply this: they shared their parents with me. I’m proud to be Paul Jefferson.

Extended family portrait, August 2012

In 2009, Stanley and I had a long talk about his career, his books, and the world as he’d lived in it. You can find the first part of that interview here; the second part is here. Stanley’s Amazon page — which at the time of this writing omits a few of his books — can be found here.


Anonymous said...

A nicely written post about an intriguing man.

-- Rick

cathy said...

What an amazing tribute, Bill! Wow and wow again! Thank you, and thank you for your great writing. My father would have LOVED to read this.

Nan said...

Thank you, Bill. You brought Stanley back to life for a moment. He was in the room with me, here in Brooklyn! A fitting tribute for a wonderful man. We miss you, Stanley.

Todd Rainer said...

I only recently found out about Mr. Karnow's passing. I had the privilege of speaking with him in a much too short phone interview one Saturday morning back in June of last year. I found him informative and intriguing.I'm envious of how well you knew the man.