This is an excerpt of “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, written in 1855.
“The past and present wilt — I have filled them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill the next fold of my future.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
My name is Andrew Butters, and I thought I’d talk to you — the gathered friends, family, and colleagues of Mark Kaplanoff– about what it was like to know Mark through the eyes of a young person, of a student of his, and of an American. All of which I am or at one point was.
The first time I talked to Mark was over the telephone. The most noticeable thing about his voice was his accent, which, like everything else about the man, was weird and wonderful. To my American ear, it was unplaceable. It wasn’t quite Boston Brahmin or Long Island Lockjaw. It wasn’t wannabe British. And, dude, it certainly wasn’t how they teach you to talk in California. It was a deliberate accent, and a playful voice, and it was inviting me to San Francisco.
This was the spring of 1999. I wanted to study at Cambridge, and I had called from New York to ask Dr. Kaplanoff to be my supervisor. He, quite understandably, wanted to see me in person before doing anything he might regret.
But first he had some questions for me: “Now, Andrew, how good of a houseguest are you? Can you mix a good martini? Can you lose gracefully at tennis?”
Sitting waiting for Mark in the San Francisco airport, I was half expecting to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald in white flannels carrying a wooden racquet and a cocktail shaker. Then Mark pulls up in his Toyota Camry and maroon jumper, and let’s face it, I couldn’t help thinking that his days on the Yale tennis team were several years and several large meals behind him.
But very quickly I leaned, as we all here have learned, to appreciate Mark’s improbable glamour. Mark seemed to envision his household in Pacific Heights as a set piece out of a P.G. Wodehouse play, a Blandings Castle through which outrageous characters came and went at will, and over which he presided in salutary neglect — the Lord Emsworth of Jackson Street. Mark was an inspired and idiosyncratic collector of people, from all ages, professions, and avocations, from struggling writers to gentleman vintners. There was his staff — his devoted housekeeper, Patrick, a self-proclaimed gay pagan who had fled Rhode Island with a Benedictine monk in the late 1960′s. His handy man, Steve, who owned an arthritic dog on acupuncture treatment, confessed to me that although he fixed houses by day, he was really a movie producer, and had a film opening that year at Cannes.
And on that trip Mark taught me several useful tips about how to survive in San Francisco. Mark taught me about the filling joys of Moo Shoo Pork first thing in the morning, of New Cuisine at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and of Italian bakeries in North Beach. Mark demonstrated that Bloody Marys improve your serve but wreak havoc on your groundstrokes. Mark showed me how hiking in the hills above the Golden Gate is a lot more fun if you have a graduate student sherpa to carry the sushi and cold beer. And most of all, Mark made it clear, Toto, that we weren’t in Kansas any more.
Now, standing here in front of you, remembering Mark’s life, it’s not without sadness that I look back on even the best moments of my time knowing him. It’s hard to tell these tales of food and drink and fabulousness, without acknowledging that the food and drink very likely shortened the time we had to share Mark’s fabulousnesses. And in the same way, it’s hard to rejoice in the memory of Mark’s well-known reputation as a winer and diner of young men on two continents, knowing that he never found a permanent dinner companion.
But I take comfort from the knowledge that the high-life Mark led wasn’t a form of a distraction from a life of could-haves or should-haves. These things were part of a vision he had for himself, a part of a deliberate process of self-creation, that included not just books, archives, computers and the other accoutrements of an academic, but also Saturday lunch at the Ivy with good friends and good conversation. He wasn’t here just to blow the dust off of old books; he was here to blow the dust off of us.
Mark liked to joke about his being a gentleman of leisure. Of course, that was a bit of snobbery, since he belonged to an honorable and hard-working profession. But in a way Mark was right, since he wasn’t quite a professional. History wasn’t his stock in trade, civilization was. Mark taught us, his friends and students, the joys and surprises of our culture, certain aspects of which, like a favorite restaurant, he colonized more frequently than others.
What made Mark so appealing and so mysterious was that this wasn’t necessarily a life to which he had been born. I’m not sure when Mark first launched himself into the world of his own making, whether it was at as a teenager at Exeter, where Mark discovered the pleasures of a first rate mind, or as a foreign student at Trinity where Mark discovered a the pleasures of genteel English living, but the odd thing was that for a man who spent so much of his life living abroad, Mark was a striver in the best of American senses. He made himself up. His vision of a life of learning and café culture companionship was an American vision, in all its improvisation and elusiveness. He was an American original.