The Sad Story of the Boy Wonder
By the time I first met Robert Maynard Hutchins, in 1966, he was sixty-seven years old and, I now realize, intellectually quite dead. He carried around, however, a splendid corpse. “Presence” was the word then often applied to Hutchins. When he walked into a room—even a large, high-ceilinged, noisy room—everyone noticed; any room he sat in, he seemed to dominate. He was tall (nearly 6’3?), naturally slender, and had what used to be called a fine bearing. He wore clothes well, without seeming to care much about them. (In 1949, the American Tailors Guild, citing his “learned look,” voted him third on its list of best-dressed men.) His hair was full and wavy and white; the bones in his face were strong but refined. When I knew him, the feature that seemed primary was his mouth: it smiled rarely, and then usually wryly, and laughed almost never—a mouth that was a touch prim and slightly disapproving.
I was twenty-nine and very much in awe of Robert Hutchins, who had left the chancellorship of the University of Chicago in 1950, or five years before I came there as a student. But I always felt that the aspects of the university I most appreciated were owing to Hutchins’s twenty-one-year tenure as its head. When I was a student at Chicago, Hutchins was a name that could put an end to friendly parties or enliven dull ones—no one, on the subject of Robert Hutchins, was neutral. There were those who felt that his were years of divisiveness, distraction, and general decay. Lawrence A. Kimpton, who succeeded him as chancellor, remarked that nothing Hutchins did at the university “had any degree of permanence, except for the financial headaches, the neighborhood deterioration, and the faculty embitterment.” But then there were such men as Edward Levi, himself later president of the university, who not merely admired but loved Robert Hutchins for his high-mindedness and for his courage in acting always in consonance with his ideals.
About the Author
Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.