Charm: The Elusive Enchantment

The latest in a series of short volumes about human traits (not necessarily virtues), this is a well-written, delightful, indeed mostly charming book (it is least so, as if to prove its own point, at those rare moments when Epstein seems sharply critical with the aid of a vulgar word or two). The later stories about rogues with their endless rather boring sex addictions represent skimmable material, but maybe that’s just me. (Perhaps Epstein, in truth beyond his role of raconteur, is bored by these stories, too.) It’s rather odd that he takes a stab at the old TV show ‘What’s My Line?’ — or at least the performers on it — for reasons that are best known to himself: the show after all did run continuously for 25 years, and from what I can see on YouTube, is quite entertaining. Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf in particular strike me as very charming.

Occasionally one wonders why the proofreader fell asleep: apart from one or two unexpected typos — Mr Epstein gives the impression of being careful and thorough — in a discussion of a Mr Bolitho, we are suddenly confronted with a comment about ‘Mr Biltho’. I laughed when I read that: it seemed almost to be an intended comical mistake. Then there is the question of whether Mr Epstein might be drawing too much from memory instead of consulting his notes. We are told that Evelyn Waugh addressed a woman as ‘Madame’: unless she was French this seems unlikely, since Waugh was English (as am I), and the usual form is ‘Madam’ — no final E, and the first syllable is accented. It’s only Americans that seem to insist on the French form over the English. More importantly, we are told about a man named Irv Kupcinet, and how someone once imputed his daughter’s suicide to his wife’s behaviour. But according to Wikipedia, the daughter was a homicide victim, and though the killer was never identified, there was no doubt about the cause of death. Now, there’s a massive difference between suicide and homicide. Is it Epstein or Wikipedia that’s wrong? Later we are given an anecdote about Cary Grant, and how he made an undesirable lunch companion, such that Mel Brooks declined his invitation when it came a third time. But we’re never told what we want to know: What happened at lunch?

Most of the assessments that Epstein makes of charm, on nearly every page of the first few chapters, are well stated and amply illustrated by the examples he sets before us. Once or twice I am not so sure, and wonder if the charm will-o’-the-wisp has gone wandering. Early on we are told that charm is ‘in the eye of the beholder’, which is exactly how I put it to myself before the author made this point, when I was joining in on his reflections about what charm actually is. On the other hand, we are later told that like goodness, charm can be ‘ingrained’ when long practised or habitual. But then, to be ingrained, charm would have to be an intrinsic quality and a trait that is really not quite ‘in the eye of the beholder’. Perhaps, more like beauty than goodness, charm is a bit of both: something that may be real in its discrete parts — a beautiful face has those eyebrows, those cheeks, those lips, that nose — but is nothing without an audience to appreciate it. Beauty wants to be seen, not hidden away under a barrel. Charm likewise is really only present when there is someone else, a third party, to respond to it. I really think that, on balance, charm is about effect rather than cause, and that we begin to lose sight of its essence if we think of it as ‘ingrained’ or intrinsic. I would venture to say that charm is more fragile or ephemeral than beauty and more dependent on context, on the wishes and expectations of others. Prejudice aside, I would assert that a beautiful face is beautiful in Milan or Wuhan or Lima, whereas charm might not travel so well.

As a stylist, Mr Epstein likes to do it his own way, and you can see him avoiding cliché with alterations to the usual: Casanova isn’t beaten but instead a man ‘beats on’ him with a cane; I personally don’t need that extraneous ‘on’. He uses ‘contemn’ instead of ‘condemn’ more than once, though why he prefers the archaic version of this word isn’t clear, except for the fact (perhaps) that nobody these days uses it. Similarly he says that someone ‘undergoes a stroke’, which seems an odd way to put it: most of us would say that people ‘suffer’ one. But the temptation to avoid the usual led to this different and I think not quite satisfactory change of words. When he rhymes ‘lung’ with ‘tongue’, it momentarily seems clever, but a second later I’m thinking: ‘No, that doesn’t work’. (The line is: ‘[Byron’s] verbal cruelty was famous; whatever was on his lung was on his tongue.’) What else? Epstein has apparently decided that Lord Byron died of something called urima, but when I Googled the man’s death, the results were full of malaria, with no mention of this mystery ailment, urima. It turns out that no one knows what killed him, and there are several possible contenders. I know that in a relatively short and fleet-footed book, the author does not want to belabour all possibilities — but since urima is something that almost no one has heard of, and it’s not the primary cause others give of Byron’s death, I think in fairness a nod to those facts could have been made. Why? Because if there is a truth out there, we want to know it, and if the truth can’t be known, we want to know that, too. We don’t want to have words like urima thrown in our eyes, be none the wiser, and then emerge from the potted biography baffled when we compare it with other accounts. Then again, when Epstein says that ‘the killer was in fact that famous serial killer, nineteenth-century medicine’, I laughed in recognition of that sad reality: nice line. Afterwards I thought that, were I the author, I wouldn’t have written ‘killer’ twice in this particular sentence. Not because I’m nitpicky, but because Epstein has a talent for making you read not just his subject but also his style.

At the book’s end, we have confirmation that Mr Epstein and those in his circle, whom he says he canvassed, do not find much charm in most famous people of today or recent times. But I kept raising names in my own mind: what about the late Freddie Mercury? The late John Candy? How about the late John Inman, who charmed millions in America and around the world as Mr Humphries on the long-running English TV show, Are You Being Served? What, precisely, is uncharming about the current Queen of England? And, on American soil, the Connecticut fitness professional and yogini Ellen Barrett has always struck me as perpetually charming. When Epstein says that late-night talk show hosts and news anchors don’t qualify as charming, I can only think of the interview that Conan O’Brien did in London with Sir Paul McCartney many years ago, in which each man came across with a great deal of charm indeed. I don’t know much about Stella McCartney beyond the fact that she’s a fashion designer, wife, and mother — but I saw her in a video talking about favourite albums from her past, and she seemed very charming to me. Am I more of a charm pushover than Epstein? I don’t think so. But if I am, which one of us is worse off?

UPDATE: Speaking of charm, Roger Daltrey has his fair share, methinks. And then there’s this review: ‘Daltrey begins and ends his charming, too-short memoir with a common trope: a teacher who tells him he’ll never amount to anything.’

Update No. 2: Just thought of another immensely charming (and intelligent) public figure: Ricardo Montalban.