Zinsser By the Subway

Cleveland Amory, William Zinsser (right) and a young cousin prepare to set sail on Manhasset Bay in the summer of 1936. Amory, who would become a famous author, was hired as a “tutor” by Zinsser’s parents while they took his older sisters on a European tour

“I was born into the Northeastern WASP establishment and have never quite stopped pretending that I wasn’t. My boyhood was spent in a big house on the north shore of Long Island that overlooked the water and had its own tennis court. But I always wanted to get beyond that narrow world. In the summer of 1936, when I was 13, my parents took my older sisters on a Grand Tour of Europe, leaving me with my grandmother. To keep me company they advertised for a ‘tutor.’

“A suitable-sounding candidate was found—Harvard junior, all-around athlete, an editor of the Crimson—and was invited for Sunday dinner to be looked over. His name was Cleveland Amory. The name signified that he was a Boston Brahmin. Many years later it would become a familiar presence on the best-seller lists for his droll social histories like The Proper Bostonians.

“My father explained to Amory that he would mainly be expected to play golf and tennis and go sailing with me—the usual WASP sports. His biggest problem, my father was sorry to say, would be to wrest me away from my obsessive interest in baseball. The tutor smiled the smile of a young man who has found the perfect summer job.

“When summer arrived, my new friend tried at first to adhere to the conditions of his employment. But our hearts were elsewhere. Amory, it turned out, was a crazed Boston Red Sox fan, and our schedule began to tilt. We would put our golf clubs in the family Buick, head for the Piping Rock Club, and somehow wind up at Yankee Stadium."

—from “A Reluctant WASP,” Town & Country, August 2004

Zinsser By the Subway

Sergeant William Zinsser in Florence in 1945 after the end of World War II. The historic Ponte Vecchio was the only one of the city’s bridges over the Arno River still standing; the rest had been blown up by the retreating Nazi troops.

“That summer the army established a college in Florence to ease the boredom of its newly idle soldiers. Our campus was an aeronautical academy that Mussolini had built just outside the city. I knew nothing about art, so I signed up for art history courses. In the mornings I would hear lectures and see slides of the great works of the Renaissance, and in the afternoons, which we had off, I would see the great works themselves. The Florentines had just begun to bring out of hiding the art treasures they had concealed from the Nazis, and sometimes I would see those works being hauled through the streets and put back in place. I looked Cellini’s Perseus in the eye as he was hoisted onto his pedestal. It was a re-Renaissance; art belonged to the people again, as it had in the time of the Medicis. In September the college sent me back to my unit and I was given six certificates listing the courses I had taken and the grades I received. But only I knew how much they certified.” 

—from “Writing About Your Life”

Zinsser By the Subway

William Zinsser working in his New York appartment on the Underwood typewriter that was the inseparable friend of his years as a free-lance writer. From 1968 to 1972 he mainly wrote for Life. This photograph accompanied an editor’s column in Life introducing him to its readers.

“The social revolutions of the Sixties became my main subject in 1968, when Ralph Graves, managing editor of Life, signed me to write regular pieces of serious humor—pieces that would use the mechanisms of humor, such as parody and satire and lampoon, to make a serious point. Week after week I tried to hold the galloping Sixties still for 15 minutes—long enough for readers to laugh or cry over the latest cultural or military-industrial lunacy. In those days the outlandish became routine overnight, and only the humorists were pointing out that it was still outlandish. They were a mixed bag of night-club comics (Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce), cartoonists (Herblock, Jules Feiffer) and newspapermen (Art Buchwald), and all of them were dead serious. I continued to send columns to Life until one day when my editor called and said. ‘Whatever you’ve got in your typewriter, send it to someone else.’ Mighty Life had folded, its glorious 36-year reign ingloriously over.”

—From “Writing Places”

Zinsser By the Subway

William Zinsser, master of Branford College at Yale University in the 1970s, gives a newly minted Yale graduate his diploma.

“Caroline and I and Amy and John settled into our new home in Branford College and adjusted to its quirks, including a 44-bell carillon in Harkness Tower, which rose almost directly over the master’s house. Probably I had heard the carillon from a distance and thought of it as mere perfume in the academic air. But that was from a distance. Now, overhead, the giant bells were less euphonious, their tone cloudy and not quite musical. They were also very loud. Nor was there much of a repertory for those bells. Occasionally a student carilloneur, striving for relevance, would play a Beatles song, but I don’t think John Lennon would have taken it as a favor.

“All four of us were caught up in the domestic rhythms of the 400 young people living in our midst, never surprised by a knock on the door at some odd hour. Many knocks could be expected just before the students went home for Christmas vacation. They came bearing their houseplants for us to keep warm and watered, often accompanied by a note specifying the care and feeding that their plant absolutely couldn’t live without. Caroline put all the plants on the tile floor of one of our unused bathrooms, which began to look like a miniature rain forest. During the three-week vacation she watered them on a schedule of her own, ignoring the sacred instructions, and they all thrived. One year a student left a small plant that was a smaller specimen of one that she herself had raised to a larger size. When the student came back she couldn’t resist giving him the bigger one, pointing out how well it had done. He was amazed and only slowly figured out what growth hormone had been at work.”

—From “Writing Places”

The shed in Niantic, Connecticut, where William Zinsser wrote “On Writing Well” in the summer of 1974

The shed in Niantic, Connecticut, where William Zinsser wrote “On Writing Well” in the summer of 1974

“You should write a book about how to write,” Caroline said in June of 1974 when I was complaining to her, as I often did, that I had run out of things to write about. At that time our family lived at Yale. When the academic year ended we would move to our summer house in Niantic, Connecticut, and there I would hole up for three months doing writing projects of my own. I worked in a crude shed at the rear of the property, next to some woods, my Underwood typewriter perched on a green metal typing table under a light bulb suspended from the ceiling.

“Caroline’s suggestion came from out of nowhere—I had never thought of writing a textbook—but it felt right. By then I had been teaching my course at Yale for four years, and I liked the idea of trying to capture it in a book.”

—From “Writing Places”

Zinsser By the Subway

William Zinsser with the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach, Ray Miller, at the team's spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida, in 1989. Zinsser's book about the Bucs, "Spring Training," had just been published.

“One afternoon, when the Pirates were playing the Blue Jays, I was told that it had been arranged for me to throw out the first ball. Me? Throw out the first ball? Over the years I've had some minor dreams of glory—I've been in a Blondie comic strip and a Woody Allen movie and a lot of double-crostic puzzles. But what American boy doesn't want to throw out the first ball?

"My thoughts went back to the final chapter of my book, which describes the opening day ceremonies of the Pirates' 1988 season in Three Rivers Stadium—the moment when spring training finally ends. Fred Rogers, a native Pittsburgh son, whose Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was then in its 20th year, was there to throw out the first ball. Rogers made a terrible pitch that didn't reach home plate and had to be blocked in the dirt by the catcher, and I remember thinking, 'What a wimp! Anybody can throw a ball that far.'

"Now I was the one being handed a new National League baseball. Suddenly the pitcher's box looked a long way off. As I walked through the gate I felt an arm around my shoulder and heard a voice saying, 'Let me show you how to do this.' It was Ray Miller, the Pirates pitching coach. 'What you do,' he said, 'is you don't go all the way out to the mound. You walk down the first-base line, and when you get halfway there you turn around and throw to the catcher.'

"I headed down the first-base line and heard my name and my book being announced over the public address system. Halfway to first base I turned and saw the Pirate catcher, Junior Ortiz, standing expectantly at the plate, caparisoned in his protective gear and mask, his mitt outstretched. He looked as if he could handle anything I threw at him.

"I wound up and pitched the ball toward Ortiz's mitt. I don't remember whether my pitch was high or low or wide, but I do remember that it reached him and didn't bounce in the dirt. Ray Miller had wanted to spare me that possible humiliation."

—from “Spring Training”

Zinsser By the Subway

William Zinsser with the pianist Dwike Mitchell on the Great Wall of China in June, 1981. He had gone to Shanghai to write about a concert given by Mitchell and the bassist amd French-horn player Willie Ruff at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, introducing live jazz to China for the first time. Ruff learned Mandarin so that he could tell the students and professors at China’s oldest conservatory the story of the music of his people. His listeners had no concept of—and no word for—improvisation. Ruff defined it as “something created during the process of delivery.”

“The next number was one I didn't recognize. At the end, Ruff said. 'That's called Shanghai Blues. We just made it up.' The audience buzzed with amazement and pleasure. An old professor stood up. 'When you played Shanghai Blues just now,' he said, 'Did you have a form for it, or a logical plan?'

"'I just started tapping my foot,' Ruff said, 'and then I started to play the first thought that came into my mind with the horn. And Mitchell heard it. And he answered. And after that we heard and answered, heard and answered, heard and answered.'

"'But how can you ever play it again?' the old professor asked.

"'We never can,' Ruff replied.

"'That is beyond our imagination. Our students play a piece 100 times, or 200 times, to get it exactly right. You play something once—something very beautiful—and then you just throw it away.'

"Now the questions tumbled out. Was it really possible, a student wanted to know, to improvise on any tune at all—even one the musicians had never heard before?

"Ruff said, 'I would like to invite one of the pianists here to play a short Chinese melody that I'm sure we wouldn't know, and we will make a piece out of that.'"

—from “Mitchell & Ruff”

Zinsser By the Subway

Oil portrait of William Zinsser by Thomas S. Buechner, 2006

“The American painter Thomas S. Buechner is best known for his portraits. His is the portrait of Alice Tully that hangs in Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and his portrait of a teenage girl named Leslie is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a long career of painting more than 3,000 pictures he has also found time to be the founding director of the Corning Museum of Glass, director of the Brooklyn Museum and president of Steuben Glass. He is also a teacher and a writer; his book How I Paint is a model of explanatory prose. He is also, less pertinently, my second cousin; our German-American grandmothers, Frida and Louise Scharmann, were sisters.

”Over the years Tom has occasionally asked me to be his editor. most recently on the catalog for a museum exhibition of 175 of his works that chronologically tell the story of his life as an artist. Putting that jigsaw puzzle together was a complex task, and afterward Tom said, ’I don’t know how to thank you.’ I told him I was just glad we were able to solve the problem. Then he said, ‘Would you like me to do your portrait?’ I said, ‘Oh, no.’ WASPS are trained not to put people to any extra trouble.

“But that night my wife said, 'It would be nice to have a portrait by Tom.' Of course she was right, so I called Tom back, and we agreed that I would come to Corning. the city in south-central New York where he has long lived, and spend two days sitting for him.

“'I’ll be asking you a lot of questions,’ he said. That sounded ominous. I’ve always thought of portrait painters as unlicensed psychiatrists, using their eyes instead of their ears to read the human heart. I doubt if Rembrandt’s sitters had many secrets he didn’t know about. What would it be like to have my 80-year-old cousin reading my 83-year-old face and putting onto canvas what he saw written there?

“I decided to bring along my reporter’s notebook and do a portrait of my own. It would be a triple portrait. One would be of Tom Buechner and his methods as a portrait painter. One would be of myself as I sat and thought my thoughts of time and mortality. And the third would be of the portait itself as it gradually came to life.”

—From Smithsonian Magazine, April 2007

Zinsser By the Subway

William Zinsser working in his office in mid-Manhattan. The painting on the wall is by his son, the artist John Zinsser. The baseball is a reminder of his book, “Spring Training,” written in 1988, about the spring training camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Florida.

“In this last of my writing places, all the strands of my life come together. I never know what outpost of my past I’ll hear from. Many people who telephone feel that they know me from On Writing Well. A woman named Fatima Al-Rasheed called from Kuwait to say that she had some writing problems she wanted to ask me about. A few weeks later she was in my office, bearing a gift of dates packed in a sumptuous wooden box. An editor from Los Angeles left a message asking me to call back as soon as possible. She and her collaborator were mired in an ethical dilemma they hadn’t been able to solve—a matter of rights and credits. When I reached her she was in her car. ‘Are you on the freeway?’ I asked. She said she was about to get on the freeway. ‘Well, pull over and park somewhere,’ I said, and for 20 minutes we traversed the hills and valleys of literary fairness and arrived at a place where she felt comfortable.

“Many younger writers have taken me as a mentor. They just look me up in the Manhattan telephone book. ‘I know how busy you are,’ they say, assuming that I spend every minute writing at my computer. I tell them I have many ways of being busy, and this is one of the ways I like best. I particularly like to be busy with people who want their writing to make a difference. and by now I have a small shelf of their books.”

—from “Writing Places”