The Kings of Cool
In the Fifties, Jack Kerouac lit a torch to the old playbook of American literature just as Marlon Brando revolutionized the nature of movie acting. A year after On the Road (1957) was published, Kerouac explained the philosophy of the Beat Generation to Esquire readers as a vision “of a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.”
Kerouac, whose uncollected writings are packaged in a nifty new Library of America anthology, published just two more pieces for Esky: “Ronnie on the Mound,” about a baseball game of all things, and “The Great Western Ride,” a chronicle of a bus trip that put Kerouac on the road again. But a couple of stories about him—Jack McClintock’s bleak 1970 profile (our free story of the week) which paints a dispiriting portrait of Kerouac at the end of his life, and Ken Kesey’s smart 1983 consideration of Kerouac’s body of writing—give us a clearer sense of Kerouac the man and artist, and why he was among the most influential writers of the century.
Beautiful in an ugly graceful new way is an apt description of Rudolf Nureyev’s dancing when he broke out on the scene in the early ‘60s. “He was Mick Jagger before Mick Jagger,” remembers Elizabeth Kaye, who specialized in writing in-depth profiles of men in power for Esquire in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Kaye spent a full year with the famously volatile dancer, who unbeknownst to the public was dying of AIDS. She delivered the masterful feature, “Nureyev Dancing in His Own Shadow.” Kaye joins host David Brancaccio on the Esquire Classic Podcast to discuss the defiance Nureyev showed at the end of a glorious career, and the sadness she found behind his unceasing charm and bravado.
Sticking with iconic figures, let’s turn to Albert Camus, whose legendary novella The Stranger is the subject of a fascinating new book by Alice Kaplan. In “The Growing Stone,” Camus’s 1958 short story—our fiction pick of the week—the protagonist D’Arrast befriends a Brazilian sailor who’s promised to haul a large stone through his village. Soon D’Arrast is lugging it instead. At the conclusion of the piece, Camus writes, “Standing in the darkness, D’Arrast listened without seeing anything, and the sound of the waters filled him with a riotous happiness. With eyes closed, he joyfully acclaimed his own strength.”
The absurd premise of a man volunteering to carry someone else’s hundred-pound rock is quintessential Camus. “The Growing Stone” is about being a perennial outsider, a foreigner watching other people's ceremonies and celebrations, but it’s also about recognizing little moments of beauty. We’re all hopelessly separate, he seems to be saying, but let’s join in together anyway.
A sense of connection is what compels Bruce Springsteen as a live performer. The Boss, who was scrutinized without mercy in John Lombardi’s 1988 profile, and appreciated without reservation by Richard Ford a few years prior, told Cal Fussman in 2005 that after a performance, “I feel a sense of communication and connectedness and a reason to get up in the morning. I’ve spoken to the people, and they’ve spoken to me.” For more, do yourself a favor and pick up Born to Run, Springsteen’s terrific new memoir.
Speaking of legends, Arnold Palmer, who, with apologies to Jones, Nicklaus, and Woods, is the most famous golfer of all time, passed away on Sunday at the age of 87. (Even Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan didn’t have drinks named after them.) With the help of his business manager, Mark McCormick, he also set the stage for the modern athlete as pitchman extraordinaire, as detailed in David Pearson’s 1972 profile on Arnie, Inc., “The Midas Swing.”
Another sports death came as a shock when the Miami Marlins young star pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident last weekend. It brings to mind the 1979 passing of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson in a plane crash, which was beautifully memorialized twenty years later in Michael Paterniti’s stirring tribute, “The House That Thurman Built.”
Finally, Wendell Jamieson has an excellent piece on Elvis Costello’s long love affair with New York City in the Times this week. Ever funny, soulful, and sensible, Costello reminded us back in 2003, “It’s very important to allow yourself the ability to have a second thought. Because if you put everything into breaking down the door, what are you going to say when you get in there?”
Amen to that, brother. Autumn is here. Cozy up and happy reading.
The Esquire Classic Team
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