It should be said at the outset that Calvin Trillin and I have been friends for over thirty years. It should further be said that I once dedicated a book to him and his wife, Alice, and that he, somewhat more problematically, dedicated a book to me. Or to be more precise, included in his novel Floater—loosely based on our days together at Time—what he called a “Claimer” (as opposed to “Disclaimer”): “The character of Andy Wolferman is based on John Gregory Dunne, though it tends to flatter.” When I asked Mr. Trillin how his portrait of the pathological gossip Wolferman might in any way have been flattering, he said, “I made you Jewish.”
Since he left Time in 1963 to write, at the invitation of The New Yorker’s late editor William Shawn, about the integration of the University of Georgia (a three-part article that became his first book, An Education in Georgia), Mr. Trillin has been the quintessential New Yorker writer, the author of approximately three hundred bylined pieces, casuals, and stories, so many that neither he nor the magazine is able to come up with an exact count. For fifteen years, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, he reported every three weeks on some aspect of the American scene, traveling to most of the country’s major cities and to rural venues and crossroads as diverse as Gees Bend, Alabama, New Glarus, Wisconsin, Mamou, Louisiana, Locke, California, Lander, Wyoming, and Biddeford, Maine.
Human interest has never been his game. “I wasn’t interested in doing what is sometimes called Americana—stories about people like the last fellow in Jasper County, Georgia, who can whittle worth a damn,” he wrote in the introduction to Killings,1 titled appropriately after sixteen murders he had written about over the years. “I didn’t want to do stories about typical or representative Americans…. I didn’t do stories that could be called ‘Boston at Three Hundred’ or ‘Is The New South Really New?”‘
What did interest Mr. Trillin was what Edith Wharton called the underside of the social tapestry where the threads are knotted and the loose ends hang. His America is informed more by Sherwood Anderson than by Garrison Keillor; he is attracted to stories about people who behave if not exactly badly then certainly not well, with the result that many of his pieces, especially when they are read one after another (as in Killings), appear to be drawn from a deeply conservative reserve that seems at times almost melancholic. The prose is spare and unadorned, like a tree in late autumn stripped of its leaves; it is without ego—in his reporting the pronoun “I” almost never appears—and without tricks. Of course making it seem without tricks is the biggest trick of all.
His curiosity, like his wanderlust, is prodigious. Picking a jury in Brooklyn. A General Motors stockholders meeting in Detroit. A Yale-educated former philosophy professor turned private detective in California. A homosexual Methodist minister in Colorado. An American Legionnarie and his hippie daughter in Kansas. A one-shot antelope hunt in Wyoming. The way Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were done out of their share of a hit single called “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” this last a dazzling tale of chicanery, villainy, criminality, and venality by an assortment of thieves, liars, crooks, and racists who make the similarly predatory Flatbush brothers, the music promoters in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, seem like benign humanists.
The pertinent detail in the social weave rarely escapes him. “It’s a matter of honor with an Italian hit man not to touch anything,” he quotes a homicide detective saying on the subject of murder. “Cubans rob the guy as part of the deal—the price plus what he’s carrying.” His tone is usually conversational, at times seeming to come almost from an oral tradition. He begins a piece in his collection American Stories2 about a Louisiana woman’s fight with a lawyer in a state agency over whether her parents should have been identified as “white” or “colored” on her birth certificate in this deceptively simple way: “Susie Guillory Phipps thinks this all started in 1977, when she wanted to apply for a passport. Jack Westholtz thinks it started long before that.”
Like Murray Kempton, Mr. Trillin tries to find something good to say, however recherché, even about those who have violated every clause of the human contract. “Even people who assume all criminal lawyers to be part fixer,” he wrote of a high-flying, seven-times-married Miami Beach criminal attorney found shot to death in his car, “refer to Harvey St. Jean as a gentleman.” And of a lupine music promoter: “Morris Levy was a seventh-grade dropout from the Bronx who eventually became one of the most powerful figures in the record industry…. He was a friend, and occasionally a business partner, of mobsters; he was also the Man of the Year at United Jewish Appeal dinners, and a planter of forests in Israel.” The ludicrous holds particular appeal. The late Harvey St. Jean, he wrote, had lived at a private club “where the average age of the residents was forty,” and then added the local computation of that average: “…a sixty-year-old guy and a twenty-year-old broad.”
Calvin Trillin’s renown, however, resides less with the range and the acuity of his reportage than with the public perception of him as a humorist, one who appeared thirty-three times on The Johnny Carson Show. It was true that he always appeared on the final segment, known in the trade as the author’s ghetto, after Robin Williams or Cher had departed, except on one occasion when, he claims, he was followed by a harpist. Still it was thirty-three times, meaning he was asked back not just to hawk a book but because Carson thought he was funny. He has a humor column that is syndicated in seventy-five newspapers (the columns have been collected in four books), and every issue of The Nation carries a piece of his political doggerel, as in his adieu to George Bush:
Farewell to you, George Herbert Walker.
Though never treasured as a talker—
Your predicates were often prone
To wander, nounless, off alone—
You did your best in your own way,
The way of Greenwich Country Day.
We wish you well. Just take your ease,
And never order Japanese.
May your repose remain un- blighted—
Unless, of course, you get indicted.3
Although he has lived most of his adult life in New York, Mr. Trillin’s humor has little of the city’s sharp Jewish edge; it is less ethnic, even deracinated (in public if not in private), more gentle and ironic, reflective of his Midwestern roots. Food is a continuing preoccupation, less classic cooking than egalitarian regional food, the food of catfish festivals and pizza kings and crab boils. He seems to have visited every fast food and barbecue restaurant in America, and collected his impressions in three books, American Fried, Third Helpings, and Alice, Let’s Eat, the titles speaking volumes about the kind of cuisine he favors. Along the way he has also found the time to write three short novels; he once told me he only wrote novels at his summer house in Nova Scotia, making it sound as if fiction was a summer work project, something so unimportant it could only be done in Canada.
One February morning in 1991, Calvin Trillin tells us, he spotted a headline on The New York Time’s obituary page: ROGER D. HANSEN, 55, PROFESSOR AND AUTHOR. Roger Hansen, known to Mr. Trillin as Denny, had been a friend and classmate at Yale. His obituary was short, without a photograph. “Roger D. Hansen, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advance International Relations in Washington, was found dead at the home of a friend in Rehoboth Beach, Del…. Dr. Hansen took his life by inhaling carbon monoxide, the police in Rehoboth Beach said. Colleagues at Johns Hopkins…said he had a severe back ailment that had required major operations.”
There is nothing like the unexpected death of a friend to make one aware of one’s own mortality, and to call absolutes into question. Denny Hansen was one of those college golden boys on whom life’s honors were meant, as if by predestination, to be lavished. Denny Hansen was a scholar—magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Denny Hansen was an athlete—a varsity swimmer. Denny Hansen was a BMOC—a member of DKE, the Elizabethan Club, the senior society Scroll and Key, a Rhodes Scholar. Life magazine and its star photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt had covered Denny Hansen’s Yale graduation under the headline, “A Farewell to Bright College Years.” A year after his Yale graduation, Life did a follow-up of Denny Hansen, the Rhodes Scholar: “Man of Eli at Oxford.” It was an article of faith among Denny Hansen’s friends in the Yale class of 1957 that Denny Hansen would one day be elected president of the United States. A future president was not meant to be found lying on the floor of a locked garage in Rehoboth Beach, with the ignition of his Honda turned on and the gas pedal held down by a book and a frying pan. A future president was not meant to kill himself because of a bad back. A future president was meant to have more than a three-sentence obit listing no known survivors.
Remembering Denny is a contemplation on the nature of friendship, and a contemplation as well on Calvin Trillin’s own life and attitudes, and on the attitudes of his—and my—generation. That it is so unexpectedly personal is what helps make Remembering Denny so sad and so moving. Mr. Trillin is the most private of men, and for as long as I have known him he has regarded the public self-examination practiced by so many writers (including my wife, Joan Didion, and myself), the filtering of facts through a personal prism, as an indulgence not to be countenanced. His considerable wit has always acted as a baffle against introspection; since Yale, as he admits in this book, he has also deliberately crafted himself as someone who never takes anything seriously, thus giving himself a means of deflecting the inquiry of others.
Denny Hansen’s death caught Mr. Trillin at a fallow moment in his relations with The New Yorker. He belonged to the era of William Shawn, and while he maintained a civil discourse with Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb, he remained a Shawn man (to this day he refers to him as “Mr. Shawn”). He was only sporadically represented in the magazine and increasingly he played the humorist’s rather than the reporter’s card. He conceived two limited-run, off-Broadway solo shows, Calvin Trillin’s Uncle Sam in 1988, and two years later Words, No Music, both deadpan free-association monologues about the state of the nation, and its foibles. “Mary had a little lamb,” he remembered as the jingle of a restaurant he once visited in Owensboro, Kentucky. “Why don’t you have some, too?” Both a trustee of The New York Public Library and a member of the Yale Corporation, he worked indefatigably on behalf of each institution, appearing as master of ceremonies or after dinner speaker at countless fundraising events, his timing honed on Carson and on stage, his routines as smooth and polished as old stones (the tuxedo he bought at J. Press as a Yale student and was still wearing into the late 1980s is one I heard on more than one public occasion).
It was fun, but it was not reporting, and Mr. Trillin was too good a writer not to know, however ignoble the urge, that in the suicide of Denny Hansen there was writer’s gold. “I wanted to know more about Denny,” he writes.
Poking around other people’s lives is nothing new for me, of course—I’ve done that for a living for a number of years—but ordinarily the people in question are strangers…. I suppose I had begun to wonder whether back in the fifties, when we had been under the impression that we were more or less in control of our futures, we might have made up a life for Denny to live.
A life that already in death suggested parallels with that of Christian Darling, the burnt-out case in Irwin Shaw’s “The Eighty Yard Run,” whose only psychic capital was the shining moment in a college football game now only dimly remembered, an account he had long since overdrawn.
The memorial service was held in Washington, and it was as if Denny Hansen’s Yale classmates and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies were talking about two people who were hardly even nodding acquaintances. To the surprise of his classmates, the Yale “Denny” had become in his professional life “Roger.” The Yale eulogist remembered that Denny Hansen’s “years at Yale were unambiguously happy times, and [that] he seemed to personify the mythical Yalies of fiction, the Dink Stovers, the Frank Merriwells”; it was as if he was trying to guide the mourners past the unpleasant fact of suicide, and past their failure to register any hint of turmoil in the Denny Hansen they knew. The Hopkins speakers were more measured, recalling a Roger Hansen who, while the brilliance of his foreign policy analyses was never in question, was not “…always…easy and pleasant…to deal with…Roger could be and often was a prickly and indeed difficult colleague….”
To Denny’s classmates, the Hopkins speakers were remarkably ungracious, and they thought it was “pissant” for one of them to mention that his last book, on American foreign policy in the 1970s, had failed to find a publisher. After the service, the Yale contingent gathered to drink and brood and to talk about why he had chosen to be alone and cut off from friends who still claimed to revere him; most of his Yale classmates had not seen him in years, and when they did make a date Denny Hansen usually canceled at the last minute or stood them up. Nor was he in touch with his family; the papers he left at his death indicated that he did not even know if his mother in California was alive or dead. Finally they reluctantly considered the subtext they had all decrypted in the bleak Times obituary. “Until the day Denny died,” Mr. Trillin writes, “it had never occurred to me that he might be gay…. For me, Denny was in a compartment in my mind that had to do with Yale in the fifties, and there simply weren’t any gay people in the compartment.”
Like Denny, a.k.a. Roger Hansen, Calvin Trillin was a member in good standing of what became known as The Silent Generation, those of us born in the years between Franklin Roosevelt’s first election and the end of World War II, too young to remember the indelible first-hand experiences our parents had of the Depression and the economic dislocations of the 1930s, too young as well to serve in, and be shaped by the war, but too old to have to make the decisions forced on the following generation by the social dislocations of the Sixties, decisions on race and Vietnam and gender and sexual identification. “We were white males,” Mr. Trillin writes, who “came of age at a time when the privileged position of white males was so deeply embedded in the structure of the society that we didn’t even think much about it.” To go along, we went along. (To my eternal shame, I wrote on my entrance essay to Princeton that I wished to go there to meet “contacts” who might help me in later life.) It was naturally expected that our generation would one day produce a president (if not Denny Hansen, then someone else); it is entirely fitting that the only presidential candidate from that emotionally and socially constipated silent generation was Michael Dukakis.
Both Denny Hansen and Calvin Trillin were beneficiaries of the transition begun at Yale before World War II to change the university gradually from what its former president Kingman Brewster labeled “a finishing school on Long Island Sound” into a place that better reflected the demographic and regional composition of the country at large. This transition, Mr. Trillin writes, was “a sort of apertura to the yahoos,” middle-class white high-school boys from the Midwest and West. With perhaps less enthusiasm, the outreach even included Jews, although until the late 1960s Yale had the lowest percentage of Jews in the Ivy League, a figure, Mr. Trillin notes, that “remained suspiciously consistent from year to year.”
Where Denny Hansen had traveled to New Haven from Sequoia Union High School in Redwood City, California, Mr. Trillin came from South-west High School in Kansas City, the son of a grocer, ultimately a well-to-do grocer, who at age two, and named Avrom Trilinski, had arrived with his parents in Galveston from near Kiev. Trilinski became Trillin, Avrom became Abe, and the family settled in St. Joseph, Missouri. In a household where he spoke Yiddish with his parents, and learned English with a Missouri twang, Abe Trillin somehow found a copy of Frank Johnson’s Stover at Yale, and it so impressed him that although he never went to college himself, and was not yet married, he vowed one day to send a son there. That son (after a first daughter) he named Calvin, “because he believed…that it would be an appropriate name for someone at Yale.” In fact, neither Abe nor Edyth Trillin could ever bring themselves to call him Calvin, and to this day he is called “Bud” by everyone he knows, save out of sheer perversity by my wife and myself.
Abe Trillin is a spectacular character, “a shy man, who was particularly uncomfortable talking about personal matters, and to the best of my knowledge, we never actually had a long heart-to-heart about anything.” This reticence is shared by his son, who in the book never mentions either Abe’s given or Americanized first and last names, referring to him only as “my father.” The money for Yale Abe Trillin saved from a rebate paid by a bread company for prompt payment of its bills and the prominent display of its products. There was, of course, no corresponding bread fund to send his daughter Sukie to Wellesley or Radcliffe; in Abe Trillin’s Jewish ethic, as in my family’s Irish Catholic one, daughters were meant to marry, the sooner the better, and an Ivy League education would be wasted on wives and mothers.
For his father, Mr. Trillin says, “the most important reason for Yale’s existence” was “to turn the likes of us into the likes of them…. He wanted us to have the same opportunities.” Abe Trillin was not unaware of the probable cost of this transformation. “In the fifties,” his son writes,
it was common for a young man like Denny or like me—someone whose grandparents had been immigrants and whose family hadn’t been to college—to be sent away to places like Yale by parents who realized that they were putting a distance between themselves and their son forever…. I know that my father was aware of this from the start, because after he died my mother told me so, not without a touch of resentment.
Mr. Trillin claims he arrived at New Haven never having heard of Dostoevsky or Greenwich, a bit of hyperbole I tend to doubt, but if it is true then his father must have approved at how quickly his son learned, and became one of “them.” He was a reporter on, and as a junior was elected chairman of, the Yale Daily News, he was an addition to stag lines at eastern comingout parties, he was celebrated as a campus wit and college personage who was tapped, as were Denny Hansen and thirteen other class wheels (although it would have been bad form for them to think of themselves as such), by Scroll and Key. The idea of entitlement went unchallenged. “Weenie” was the cruel Yale term of opprobrium for those classmates who did not buy into or catch onto the undergraduate meritocracy. A chemistry major was seen as the definition of a weenie, someone “beyond the pale,” someone who worked too hard, who played in the band rather than heeling for the News, who did not attend Tap Day because he knew the senior societies would overlook him.
Among those who were tapped, it was agreed that the senior societies such as Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key were models of democracy, because each mixed fifteen seniors, one of whom might be a star lacrosse player, another the alto in the Whiffenpoofs, a third the editor of a humor magazine, without reference to whether they “got to Yale by family tradition or bread-company rebate…. It also meant that absolutely everyone was being judged.” By the standards of the entitled tappees, of course.
The subject of Ivy League undergraduate entitlement is one Mr. Trillin and I have argued fiercely about. Like his father, he had bought into the idea of a Yale diploma as a passport into the larger world of “them,” the world of affairs and decision-making. For the entitled, the idea of failure was not supposed to exist, which is why the death of Denny Hansen was so confusing to him. Only weenies were supposed to settle into a life of mediocrity and oblivion. In our arguments, I always mention two of my Princeton contemporaries, both of whom were considered the New Jersey equivalent of weenies (as indeed was I); one became a rapacious corporate raider preying mercilessly on those who so judged him, another a scholar with an international reputation. In the Yale construct, however, a weenie would always be a weenie, one of life’s eternal chemistry majors; little allowance was made for a separate path after college. The intangible called leadership asserted itself then or never. “There was also an assumption,” Mr. Trillin writes, “that the society was ours to lead and that preparing what amounted to a leadership class made good sense.”
What a leadership class is prepared to do, of course, is maintain its own power by preserving the status quo. At Yale, in those years, the biggest potential threat to the status quo was the possibility of the college admitting women. As chairman of the Yale Daily News, Mr. Trillin stood foursquare with the leadership class in opposition. “Oh save us!” he wrote in a fiery editorial. “Oh save us from the giggling crowds, the domestic lecture, the home economic classes of a female infiltration…. In the changing of an institution’s traditions, where is the line between what is justifiable and what is so extreme that by its exaction the institution no longer exists?… We who shudder at the thought of the type of women Yale would admit—we must stand guard together.”4 Time, however, worked its changes; both his daughters, Class of ’90 and Class of ’93, turned out to be the type of women Yale would admit.
“Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly once said, “they first call promising.” It was as if the gods had Denny Hansen in mind. He defined promise, although no one in Yale ’57 could exactly explain why, except to mention what Abe Trillin had called “his million dollar smile,” as if the smile was a bankable commodity, and not—Connolly again—an enemy of promise. His friends, for obscure and largely unexamined reasons, had made up not so much a life as an exaggerated fantasy for him to lead, and wittingly or unwittingly he was a co-conspirator in their plan. In this context, it seemed entirely appropriate for Life to cover Denny Hansen’s graduation weekend. How Life happened to choose him, however, could be construed as a parable of the charade that was Denny Hansen’s post-college life.
The idea had initially been floated at Life by someone from Amherst, Mr. Trillin discovered as he rummaged through Denny Hansen’s past, but the magazine, either because it forgot the source or because it thought Yale had more glamour, asked Yale’s publicity department rather than Amherst’s to submit some names. The Yale administrator who made the selections was an old grad and Scroll and Key man with the Wodehousian nickname “Totty.” Loyal to Keys, Totty naturally wanted a Keys man as the representative of the new broad-based democratic Yale, and in Denny Hansen thought he had the perfect candidate, a scholar athlete and Rhodes nominee from a western high school.
In what passed as fair play, Totty also sent along to Life a second possibility, a football player out of Skull and Bones named Ackerman. It is suggested that Totty only picked Ackerman because his name sounded Jewish (he was, in fact, Dutch), and that Life would therefore shy away from him. Several years before, the magazine had done a feature on a Wellesley weekend, and in it had run a photo of a father and daughter named Goldstein, the upshot being that on the eastern college grapevine Wellesley was said to have been cast as a “Jewish school.” Denny Hansen was thus anointed by default, perhaps colored by a touch of anti-Semitism. And his bright college years became a burden that he might have escaped had he only been a weenie, and not the repository of so many unredeemed hopes.
His was not a bad life, just marked-down from the expectations of his million-dollar smile. The day he left New Haven, he moved into a world where there were people as smart or even smarter than he, tougher and more sophisticated, people who knew that a spread in Life on a college senior was not an accolade but just another disposable story in a magazine with pages to fill every week. His star did not shine at Oxford nor did it later at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where a professor said he seemed to want to “start at the top.” Denny became Roger; Roger’s ambition was to enter the foreign service, but he was turned down, “a serious setback,” Mr. Trillin says, “when he seemed to have lost the momentum of his youth.” The reason he initially gave was a chronic and painful back problem; in a subsequent version he cited a difficult psychoanalysis. Even later he would claim that the prominent father of an American friend at Oxford had written the State Department and accused him of being a homosexual, a charge he called preposterous. The accusation, Mr. Trillin writes, “confirmed his secret fears that the life of limitless possibilities supposedly open to him could never really be.”
Roger worked as a Senate aide and for a planning council, but he seemed to be running in place as friends and classmates were getting assigned to important embassies, or becoming partners in good law firms, or bureau chiefs and editors for major newspapers and magazines. Trying journalism, he struck out at NBC News both in Washington (he was fired after he called his boss “a horse’s ass”) and in Cleveland (the best a Cleveland contemporary who subsequently made it to the network could say about him was that he was “better educated than anyone else in the newsroom”). Not ten years out of Yale, he was already assessing himself and his future with a cold eye; he told his analyst that he could not deal with authority, that his expectations were unreasonably high, and that he was afraid of becoming a homosexual.
Only once did he have a real chance at the brass ring. During the Carter administration, he was appointed to the White House National Security Council; it seemed an opportunity to make up for his rejection by the foreign service, but he lasted only seven months. “His strength…was talking about policy,” Mr. Trillin quotes a friend as saying, “and then he had a chance to make policy and he just couldn’t.” His field was the third world, not exactly a front-burner subject at the height of the cold war, one which a colleague said only “interested ex-hippies and women who are worried about babies with diarrhea.” The brief experience in the White House was another blow to an already battered self-confidence. At Yale reunions (which he did not attend), none of his classmates talked any more about his being president; many could not even remember who he was.
At forty-one, Roger Hansen accepted a professorship at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, but with only one book published—The Politics of Mexican Development, highly praised and little read except by professionals in the field—his most productive years of scholarship seemed in the past. He was unable to get along with many of his Hopkins colleagues, Mr. Trillin was told, no longer saw old friends, and was so overly punctilious and judgmental that to disagree with him was to risk being dismissed as corrupt, or the object of “sudden explosions and vituperative letters.” While some foreign policy professionals generously saw him as “neurotic but no more than most people,” his superior on a project sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations was unequivocal: “He was impossible to work with.” His views on what was moral or immoral, principled or unprincipled, were rigid—but also subject to sudden change. “Denny may have in the last few years of his life,” Mr. Trillin notes sadly, “got to the point at which people winced when they saw him approaching.” Bitterness became the norm. “They wanted at a minimum Henry Kissinger,” he said of the people who had endowed his chair at Hopkins, “and they got me.”
So far as Mr. Trillin was able to find out the only person who became close to him was a woman Trillin calls Carol Austin, with whom Roger Hansen seems to have had a platonic, “agonizingly chaste” relationship lasting ten years. If Carol Austin was in one way Roger Hansen’s “cover,” she was more importantly his only human contact, a one-woman surrogate family replacing the one in Redwood City he had so deliberately cast aside, as if family and past were stains to be rubbed out. “He was not a compromising personality,” Carol Austin recalled for Mr. Trillin. “He couldn’t seem to learn that people may be good people even though you disagree with them on this or that.” Finally, to Roger Hansen’s distress, she broke off the relationship, and to his further distress later married. “I suppose,” Mr. Trillin writes, “that Denny hung on to the possibility of marrying Carol Austin as his chance to live what we had all been brought up to think of as a normal life.”
Pain was now his constant companion. “Three rounds of back surgery…have resulted in a lost decade, and a mental state bordering on clinical depression,” he wrote to a friend early in 1990. “Also temporarily lost in the process has been the capacity to write—the concentration has just not come back.” This incapacity doomed the book he had more or less abandoned anyway, on Nixon’s foreign policy. Nor could his doctors adjust the levels of his pain-killing and anti-depressant medications. To his psychiatrist, he would talk about the constant pain, about the rages he could not seem to channel, about his homosexuality.
According to The Blade, a gay Washington paper which to the chagrin of his Yale friends printed an obituary, Roger Hansen “enjoyed dancing” at local clubs. Intermittently he lived with a young man who after a couple of years moved to California. Another younger gay friend told Mr. Trillin that he had tried to teach Roger “how to act, how to dress. ‘Don’t wear those pants. Don’t worry if you’re in a bad mood and you went to the bar and nothing happened.”‘ But for those in The Silent Generation, “the theology of heterosexuality,” as Andrew Kopkind has written, “offered the only hope of earthly salvation.” However Roger Hansen might have wished to distance himself from this faith, he never learned to operate effectively, according to the friend who had been his mentor, in “what amounted to a subculture with its own customs and rules and hierarchies.”
Increasingly he was alone, isolated, both a prisoner and a casualty of artificial expectations. Faced, with still another operation that would place him in a body cast for months, apparently uncomfortable with his inability to come out except selectively, his level of accomplishment less than that to which he aspired, and to which he might have thought, at least in the beginning, he was entitled, Roger Hansen began to consider the ultimate alternative. Months before the end, with a chilling attention to detail, he began to compose the suicide note he left to be found after he died. “I’m in a lot of pain and will not consider further back surgery,” he wrote. “The probabilities of any surgical relief are too marginal for me to hang on and suffer any more. When the pain becomes unbearable, I will take my own life. I will do so with regret, and with the feeling that there are no other viable options.” On New Year’s Day, 1991, he took an overdose of pills but succeeded only in becoming semicomatose for a few days. A month or so later, he borrowed the weekend house a gay friend kept in Rehoboth Beach.
The more Mr. Trillin investigated Denny/Roger Hansen’s life and death, the less certain he became of the verities he had accepted since Yale. He finds it hard to explain why he and the meritocracy of Yale ’57 invested so much in Denny Hansen as a symbol, when his most obvious attraction seemed to be that he was not a weenie, but was visibly clubbable, a perfect fit for their rather primitive idea of public acceptance. As he probed both into Denny Hansen’s life and his own, Mr. Trillin began at last to question the odious concept of weenie. “Are we fairly represented by the person who told me in 1970 that if the undergraduates had no word for weenie they were all weenies?” he writes. “Some of us have changed, of course, but speaking as someone who takes it for granted that some of the people whose company he most enjoys must have been weenies in college, I know that those distinctions we made as adolescents will never quite leave us.”
Doubt was now factored into the entitlement equation. “The common feeling about people my age,” Mr. Trillin notes, “is that somehow the rules got changed in the middle of the game.” Talking to Andrew Kopkind, a friend of thirty-five years, he became painfully aware of how the casual smart remark about homosexuality could have created distance between them. “When we called somebody a fairy,” he recalls with almost palpable regret, “we just wanted to say something mean.” They remain friends, but he understands why Kopkind and the man with whom he has lived for the past twenty years “spend most of their time with people they met post-Stonewall—people whose friendship was not embedded in a different era, before the rules changed.”
The rules did change, the ground did shift, and it is in this shift that Mr. Trillin has found his most profound subject. He allows at the end of this book that he does not know why Denny Hansen killed himself. He allows that after years of looking into other people’s lives he has concluded that even the oldest friends are unknowable. He describes visiting a young man who had lived briefly with Denny Hansen in the 1980s, and referring to himself as an old friend. “Roger would have said that you didn’t know him at all,” the young man said. “I couldn’t agree with you more,” Calvin Trillin said.
It would seem that no one really knew Roger Hansen. His estate was valued at more than three quarters of a million dollars. He left his Hopkins pension to Carol Austin, who except for one chance meeting he had not seen in ten years, and the balance to Yale University.
April 22, 1993