Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Quote of the Day (Richard Rovere, on a Roguish Prep School Friend)

“The two most expressive things about him [school friend Wallace Wentworth] were his mouth and the pockets of his jacket. By looking at his mouth, one could tell whether he was plotting evil or had recently accomplished it. If he was bent upon malevolence, his lips, were all puckered up, like those of a billiard player about to make a difficult shot. After the deed was done, the pucker was replaced by a delicate, unearthly smile. How a teacher who knew anything about boys could miss the fact that both expressions were masks of Satan I'm sure I don't know. Wallace's pockets were less interesting than his mouth, perhaps, but more spectacular in a way. The side pockets of his jacket bulged out over his pudgy haunches like burro hampers. They were filled with tools screwdrivers, pliers, files, wrenches, wire cutters, nail sets, and I don't know what else. In addition to all this, one pocket always contained a rolled-up copy of Popular Mechanics, while from the top of the other protruded Scientific American or some other such magazine. His breast pocket contained, besides a large collection of fountain pens and mechanical pencils, a picket fence of drill bits, gimlets, kitchen knives, and other pointed instruments. When he walked, he clinked and jangled and pealed.”—American journalist Richard Rovere (1913-1979), “Wallace,” in The New Yorker, Feb. 4, 1950

At least a few times in their careers, teachers are likely to come across the Wallace Wentworth type: a devil-may-care student who can lead friends astray. In Richard Rovere, a fellow student at Stony Brook School in the early 1930s, Wallace found a kindred spirit at the Long Island boarding school: a youngster with little use for studies. “Pretty low marks coming up in Chem. and Eng., folks,” Rovere warned his parents on his upcoming grades. “Also Bible and Fr. Ok with you if I bet this week’s allowance on athletics. I changed my underwear Wednesday.”

But in Rovere, teachers are likely to find another type with which they are familiar, one who leads them to think that their efforts are not completely lost: the proverbial “late bloomer” who, through curiosity and love of reading, exceeds what many initially expected of him. In the case of Rovere, he ended up acclaimed as the “Predominant Magazine Political Journalist of the 20th Century,” according to this article by historian/journalist Mark Weisenmiller.

As Washington political correspondent at The New Yorker for three decades, Rovere would write an early influential biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy; create an equally incisive study of The American Establishment; and land what may have given him the most street cred with other journalists of his generation: a place on the Nixon Administration’s “Enemies List.”

And Wentworth? I haven’t been able to come across more information on him, though maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. But I doubt if classmates like Rovere could ever forget some of his antics, such as pouring sugar into the fuel line of a coach’s car, leading it to stall on its way back home from a winter match, or dumping a bag of flour into the organ pipes of the school’s chapel, causing an extra loud burst of that mighty instrument. 

(The image accompanying this post, of Stony Brook faculty, staff and students in 1922—a few years before Rovere started classes—is from the school’s archives.)

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