Saturday, September 22, 2018

“It had to be you”. The gift of duende, the most elusive and special quality on Earth. You either have it… or you most assuredly don’t.

December 3, 2013 by  


Author’s program note. This article was inspired by not one but two recent restaurant  closings in my neighborhood, two places packed with memories of every kind.  I couldn’t, just couldn’t, let them go without a fond embrace, some auld lang syne. After  all, they were both in their time important to me… not least because in one of them I  almost died… whilst the other was the very epicenter of my rip-snorting youth… To neglect  them, either of them, would be to slight myself and my youthful jaunts and jollities, and that  would never do. But first the tune…

“It Had to Be You”.

In 1924, if you had any pretensions to style and class, you were prepared to dance a  broom around the kitchen if you could croon this sultry number of aching wistfulness.  Isham Jones composed the music, Gus Kahn wrote the lyrics. Almost a dozen top  artists recorded it that year and you loved them all. “It Had to Be You.”  And because  you were sure, absolutely positive your deflating younger brother wasn’t anywhere near,  you could bend and gyrate in ways you were sure no one on this spinning rock had ever  duplicated or even imagined; you let fly with all that goofy adolescent magic, high  octane charm and killer smile… at this moment, perhaps only for an instant, you were  closer to duende than you had ever been before, or might ever be again..

And it only got closer still when flipping through the ads for the latest automobiles you  saw the one that was put on this planet just for you. It was the latest Stutz Bearcat (a  steal at $65,000) and your heart leaped because you and that baby were born for each  other. It had to be yours….

No one had to tell you what to do, what to wear (white ducks never out of fashion),  the right speed (fast enough to lose the hicks, slow enough so they couldn’t miss a single  feature of your dazzling progress)… or the perfect, totally aloof demeanor, hundekissen for naughty countesses with time on their manicured and caressing hands and Long Island  heiresses like Daisy Buchanan, who smelled like money and were just too alluring to  miss whatever the consequences. You just cannot help yourself. And that is duende…

Duende, an attempted definition.

Duende is the thing you know when you see it; the quai in the je ne c’est… the words  with which you try to describe charisma (but cannot)… try to explain chic to the person  who calls it “chick” and not “shiek”. Duende is the compilation, the expression, the knock  ‘em on the derriere quality that contains spirit, silk, raw animal magnetism. It is more  appealing than sex appeal, something you might see on the silver screen… or as close  as that girl behind the check out counter. Oh, mama, those eyes… And they, too,  are duende. For you see duende can occur anywhere and under any circumstances.

You might go through a lifetime struggling for a single magic moment… while the  little leaguer next door age just 12, already has the knack and proved it when he  struck out, leaving the bases loaded in the last game of the series. The crowd first  jeered and laughed. Then when he doffed his cap and bowed, graceful, smile wide  and all inclusive, exhibiting a riot of golden curls, they changed their tune and started  to cheer and shout; the boy bowed again…  and the crowd roared. He was one  of them, one of the people who tried hard and muffed it; practised hard, then failed  the test.

They were celebrating their often awkward and confused lives and they were grateful  to their new young member for helping them see it clearly and in perspective.  He had known failure…. but with a smile and completely graceful nonchalance he had  risen above it, a bad patch that became a glorious moment. We might lose, we might  stumble, but we could never be defeated.

That moment of duende put the boy on the front page of the New York Times.  The captain of the winning team got a nice trophy. That wonderful lad who struck out  got immortality and a stamp in his honor. Duende’s like that.

George Frazier.

The man who knew duende better than anyone was George Frazier. “For nobody else,  gave me a thrill with all your faults, I love you still.”

It is now time for you to meet the man who spent a lifetime determining which people,  experiences and events had it and which didn’t. His name was George Frazier (1911- 1974)  and while you may never have heard his name or read a single limpid word or  trenchant line he ever wrote, the journalists you respect, particularly the commentators  and columnists, surely have, over and over again. You see, Frazier is a journalist’s  journalist, the place these writers go when they want to read a man who was  consumed by words, their artful manipulations, their arcane mysteries.

Frazier looked the part. He was spare of figure, lived (or rather killed himself  by inches) wreathed in blue smoke, always a clever phrase of sarcasm and wit poised  and ready for launching; the hint of liquor on his breath (but only the best brews) and  the lingering scent of some lady of quality, her monogrammed handkerchief in his pocket.

We can picture that woman clearly and the look she gave him. It was how Ingrid  Bergman looked when before leaving Casablanca she turned to look at Rick for the last  time. It was a moment of duende in a film of duende, and we are not surprised to learn  the actors had no script when they filmed; that the script only was made after the filming  was completed. It was duende, completely duende, duende at the highest level… and when  we saw it, we knew it was magic and would probably never happen again. And it never has.

Frazier went to Harvard, graduating in 1932. Harvard got the better deal. They needed  Frazier and his incomparably sharp observations. He didn’t need Harvard… or Yale… or  Princeton. They were predictable and prosaic. He was anything but… as Boston came  to know when he decided to stay and give her the pleasure of his unequaled company;  acid, chalk on a blackboard, the sound and smell that comes when a car turns the  corner too fast and dangerous.

Frazier peddled his unique mixture of honesty, integrity and lyrical torture to all of  Boston’s then flourishing newspapers, finally at the Boston Globe, which in proper  Puritan pukka considered itself the acme of words. Thanks to Frazier they probably  were. “It looks like snow, he said, and it was all there, all the sadness and all the  silveryness in a single sentence.” Frazier earned his place on the Nixon enemies  list and wore it like a boutonniere, flagrant, proud, in your face and I’ll be damned if  I will.

Andy Frazier.

It was during his time at the Boston Globe that I should have met George Frazier.  It would have been ridiculously easy. My bartender of choice, Andy, was  Frazier’s  nephew and Andy liked me… Andy was born to tend bar (though he had the usual  high flying aspirations people brag about when they are never going to achieve  anything). He made the bar at the Hasty Pudding, older than the Great Republic  itself, next door to where I lived on Holyoke Street, a Cambridge venue of choice. I  was a member, but only because the club needed the extra revenues. As far as I  recall I was the only graduate student allowed.

I went most every day at 4 p.m. or so. Drinks were a quarter apiece, but more  often than not Andy “lost” my initialled chits or possibly assigned them through  his unique bookkeeping “system” to the sons of rich alumni, which I was not.

Thus, the club empty but for Andy and me, I sat day after day in a comfortable,  boy-battered leathered corner, the best English novels in hand, the best daiquiris  available on Earth, presented on a silver platter. It was plate, of course, but Andy  delivered it with the panache of a royal footman. And then the stories would begin…  of people we knew in common, about the Irish in Boston, about the Kennedys,  dissimulating cardinals, frisky priests, ladies no better than they should be… about  who was sleeping with whom; who wanted that fact known… and who didn’t. Marvelous  stories… stories that missed truth by a mile; stories that you hoped weren’t true but  you knew were vouched for by God.

All that was missing was Uncle George and his surgical knife edge. I should have  accepted Andy’s frequent invitations to meet him, but like all the young I thought I  had forever to conjure with. I was wrong. We all were wrong. I figured that out  soon enough on my own; like I also figured out there was some kind of estrangement  between Uncle George and his nephew. You see, George  Frazier was a snob;  jealously protective of his growing fame. Andy was that most embarrassing of pot  boilers, the shabby, disreputable relative. Andy loved talking about the man whose  columns on duende were read at the White House and the Harvard Faculty Club…  but introducing me to the man was never in the cards. Andy’s recommendations  were probably suspect from the start.

Dinner at the Pudding.

In due course, I’d read enough, drunk enough, munched enough. It was time to find  a dinner companion. He’d be bright (no problem there; the best and the brightest  were readily at hand), merciless, funny as all get out, and just as ready to use you,  as you were to use him. With any luck he’d be keeping a journal of his life at Harvard,  and we’d mention en passant that we could compare passages a half century from  now when we were both famous, petted, spoiled, the toast of a dozen great cities  and their fastidious elites, completely blase’. The parameters of the search went like  this:

“Some others I’ve seen, might never be mean/ Might never be cross, or try to be boss/  But they wouldn’t do… It had to be you, wonderful you.” And so the evening passed away  comme il faut for every Harvard student had two sets of manners: 1) for people not of the  university, who needed to be treated just well enough but no better and always put  and kept in their places and 2) Harvard students who would be subtle but thorough in their  review of you and your future worthiness… whilst you, of course, were doing the  same to them. No duende here, just the necessary and serious business of networking  and getting ahead; that being the reason for going to the world’s greatest university  in the first place.

It had to be me. Chez Henri, Shepard Street.

It was a daiquiri, pale green like the goddess of envy, so sweet, so tart it set my  teeth on edge, one sip fuel enough to swagger and posture like a grandee of Spain.  I was dining with my niece Chelsea Victoria. It was the first time this new prep  school graduate and I had ever been alone together.  I lifted my frosted glass,  gave her a grandiloquent and hearty toast, and quaffed. “Chelsea,” I said, “I need to  get some air.” I turned towards the door and then I felt myself flying into an exalted  pyramid of cocktail glasses, hundreds of them stacked neatly so, ready for my  Olympic stunt.

I woke up on the floor, piles of shards sparkling in the soft light, one gentleman  holding my left hand; one holding my right; Chelsea looking on like a ghost. I was  a tad groggy but my comments were spot on, “But, gentlemen, I hardly know you.”  And so as these two doctors dining in the restaurant checked my vital signs I still  had pluck enough to know this was my moment of duende and behave accordingly,  for no one in history was ever dressed so well, cut so little, and so artfully displayed  amongst the shower of slivers and luminescent chunks on the floor. And if that isn’t  duende I’d like to know what is.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is the author of over a dozen printed publications, several ebooks, and over one thousand online articles. See more articles like this at

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