Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the gardeners who make our souls blossom.
ull in the face of my one firm rule about charm, that if one thinks one is charming one probably isn’t, I wish to say I do believe I am charming: mildly charming, and, alas, resistibly, highly resistibly, so, but still somewhat charming. Mine is at best a secondary charm. (Charm, unlike pregnancy and the quality of uniqueness, admits of qualification and gradations.) I have never charmed exotic women into my bed or charmed my way into theirs. So far as I know, I have never gained a job or vast sums of money or advancement of any serious kind through such charm as I may possess. The best that my charm may have brought me is a few new friends—people who, after a brief while in my company, may have noted to themselves that I seem a person of possible interest, someone mildly amusing or clever, with no obvious side to him, and is, who knows, perhaps worth knowing a little better.
I cannot recall ever having been called charming. The only evidence I have of my charm are the smiles and the laughter of family and friends and acquaintances, when I have been able to evoke them. The closest I have come in recent years to having an open avowal of my charm was the claim made by a publisher who invited me to a very expensive dinner at a now-defunct Chicago restaurant called Charlie Trotter’s. The morning after our dinner, he sent me an email saying that he was miffed by the fact that our conversation was so enjoyable that he couldn’t remember any of the wonderful food he had eaten the night before. A charming compliment, this, and one that suggests, now that I think about it, the publisher may well be more charming than I.
Some people are content to be charmed; others among us feel we must impose our charm, such as it is. I write “us,” for I have most of my life been among those who feel it incumbent upon themselves to assert what they believe is their charm, however minor it might be, in however circumspect a manner. Why do I feel it incumbent at all? I was not a boy that girls found especially appealing. I was a respectable but less than terrific athlete. As a student, I may be said not to have existed, finishing just above the lower quarter of my high-school class. As a field of successful endeavor, that left charm, or what, in my high-school days, passed for charm.
I may have picked up the notion that I was under an obligation to charm from my father, who was a salesman. “You have to sell yourself,” my father used to say, and this must have been what he did in his successful career selling things he didn’t know all that much about: at first linens and handkerchiefs, later costume jewelry, novelties, athletic trophies.
I doubtless picked up from my father the notion that one should make the effort to sell oneself. This entailed demonstrating, never too aggressively, that one was one of the boys, without malice or meanness, in short, in the high accolade of my youth, a good guy. “No one expects you to be an angel,” my father instructed me. “That doesn’t give you a warrant to be an SOB.” In a further anti-SOB instruction, he said: “Never be an SOB, for you can never tell when you might need the help of someone lower down whom you passed on the way up.” My father wasn’t as calculating as I seem to be making him out to be here—he was a genuinely generous and good-hearted man—but I subconsciously took up his credo, that of being a bit of a salesman of oneself, one whose only product was charm.
Charm in the days of my adolescence took the form of being witty, good at repartee, having the ability to tell a story well. I think I passed with respectable grades at all these exercises. Perhaps the most charming thing I did as a boy, though, was listen to others. I was a sedulous listener, and genuine listening can of course contribute a good deal to the notion that one is charming. (“‘Tell me,’ Max Beerbohm declared, “are the two most beautiful words in the English language.”) I specialized in those days in insinuating myself with people, or at least those among them I thought worth exerting my charms upon. I wanted to be liked, I knew how to go about it, and I usually succeeded. I was, yes, a good guy.
Apart from adding a few layers of sophistication and a touch or two of learning into the mix, I am not sure but that such charm as I possess today is any way different than it was in my high-school days. Such arrows as I carry in my charm quiver include what I hope are interesting anecdotes; an ample fund of jokes; a certain ability to manipulate language for comic effect; occasional flashes of wit; and an amused outlook on life.
I am not the life of the party; never have been, nor yearned to be. I haven’t ever had the least wish to dominate socially. At its most ambitious, my charm goal has been to be one of the people who made the party a bit pleasanter by saying a few amusing things. “I met a nice man named Joe Epstein at Posey Fisher’s last night,” I imagine someone saying, “who did an uncanny imitation of Jackie Mason, recounted a touching story about T.S. Eliot, and told a good joke about a Soviet painter asked to do a portrait of Lenin in Warsaw.”
The older one gets, the greater one’s chance for exercising such charm as one possesses. Men of a certain age, of whom I have for a good while been one, are no longer on the front lines in the sex wars, and can therefore say things to young women that they never could when themselves young, lest they be taken for mashers. I find myself doing it with young female bank tellers, supermarket check-out women, waitresses, and others. “That new short haircut looks marvelous on you,” I might say. Or: “Very exotic, that nail polish you’re wearing.” Or: “Those company clothes the bank makes you wear—on you they look good.” Or: “Ah, if I were only 40 years younger, I should pursue you with all the savage cunning now at my command. Maybe I better make that 50 years younger.” I say these things not merely to be nice, or to be selling, but invariably because I mean them.
In my mild charm offensive, I tend to stay clear, at least in conversation, of politics. In a divisive time, to announce one’s politics is likely to alienate half the room, just about any room. When people want to talk, or especially to argue politics with me, I tell them that they should know that I have never lost a political argument, an astounding record that is diminished only by the fact that neither have I ever won one. This generally brings about a welcome change of subject. A small number of politicians may have been charming: Disraeli charmed Queen Victoria; Franklin Delano Roosevelt was said to be able to charm anyone he pleased, except for those who passionately hated him; Churchill, with wit his weapon, may have been most charming of all. But for those distinctly minor-league charmers among us, politics remains the great verboten subject.
Such charm as I possess is not regularly exercised on a wide social circle. I lunch with friends and sometimes meet others for afternoon coffee. I go to few dinner parties. Cocktail parties are my notion of punishment. I am not in the least shy, am undaunted by the rich, the famous, or the powerful, and in the company of strangers do not mind establishing my bona fides as a man of the world. One of the pleasures of encountering strangers is of course that they haven’t heard my stories and jokes before. On this score, my wife of more than 40 years, who has heard all of both doubtless too many times, easily qualifies as long-suffering.
In any social setting in which I find myself, I suppose I tend to do my share of the talking. Sometimes I walk away worried that I have done more than my share, have slipped over from being a contributor to the conversation to having orchestrated and conducted it. Being easily bored, I greatly fear boring others. I can bear to have my politics despised, my opinions refuted, my taste mocked, but being thought a bore would sting terribly.
We all know too many people who overestimate their charm. They remind one of the man who, when his wife asked on his return from a party how things went, answered: “If it weren’t for me, I’d have been bored to death.” They are certain of the fascination they feel they are exerting, of how compelling they are, of how absolutely indispensible to the festivities at hand, when in fact one feels that one has heard everything they have to say or would prefer never to have heard it in the first place. To be told that I am one of those people would be a serious, a withering, perhaps the greatest, insult.
Anyone who has been in the company of heavy-breathing professional charmers knows that it is possible to be too charming. These are the (mostly) men who have an anecdote for every subject that arises, a joke that covers every case, lumpish bits of gossip, heavy name-dropping to spice the conversational pudding when they (mis)judge that it’s needed. They are altogether too well equipped in the charm arsenal.
I wonder if my own charm, such as it is, doesn’t come across better on the page than in person. In person, one can overdo charm so easily by going on too long, by getting the punchline of a story slightly askew, by misconstruing the interest of the people to whom one is talking. But writing, owing to the blessed act of revision, permits nearly endless dress rehearsal, which allows at least the possibility of getting it right, the words, the timing, the length of one’s discourse. The spontaneity, which is often a substantial part of charm, may be missing, but in exchange one has the hope of achieving polish and getting nearer perfection.
Charmers can of course be manipulative, with motives and agendas of their own. Having searched my own conscience on this point, I find that my only motive as a would-be charmer is the simple—I leave it to you to judge if it is also pathetic—desire to be liked. As a writer, I’ve made my share of enemies, some of whom I’m proud to have as enemies, but I still prefer to think that when I wish I can make people I like like me. “Gad,” as the charming Charles Lamb wrote, “how we like to be liked.”