The Magazine

Requiem for a Dream

The international man of mystery ain’t what he used to be.

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By JOE QUEENAN
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It is true that playboys often mistreated women, and worked in the employ of murderous dictators, and abandoned their kingdoms so they could cavort with daft floozies from Crabcake Corners, and inherited their fortunes from unprincipled oligarchs, and never did an honest day’s work in their lives. This is why so many of us wanted to be like them—especially if, like me, you were growing up in a housing project.

Playboys had glamour, class, brio. They seized life by the throat and grabbed for all the gusto. They took hours to get dressed, scant seconds to get undressed. They cut a fine figure and they did things with panache. My deepest personal regret is that I have never done anything with panache. I’ve never shot a lion or driven a Porsche to Dakar or run a line of credit in a brothel in Dar es Salaam. Just once in my life it would have been nice to do something with panache. Anything. Preferably in the company of Sophia Loren.

Playboys, though predators, are not necessarily pigs. Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have
bedded 10,000 women, was a playboy; Charlie Sheen is a pig. The world is full of men who take advantage of women, dawdle away years and years of time yachting, flying, carousing, and contributing nothing worthwhile to society. The difference is: Playboys contributed nothing worthwhile to mankind with style. They were a lot more fun than the guys who run the Blackstone Group, or the nerds who took Google public, or Bono.

Playboys allowed men the world around to vicariously experience their thrilling, glamorous lives, much the way the elegant Cary Grant’s exploits in a fistful of classy films helped pull the Great Unwashed through the Great Depression. You could vicariously participate in the exciting life of someone named Porfirio Rubirosa or Beau Brummel or Lord Byron. You can’t vicariously participate in the glamorous life of a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. There isn’t any glamour. As for panache and brio? Forget it.

The age of the playboy began to slip away in the 1960s when everyone started dressing as if they were affiliated with Three Dog Night, and people felt it imperative to contribute something worthwhile to society. That just wrecked everything. Things got worse when the entire planet started exercising, watching their weight, ditching nicotine, wearing belted shorts, reading books by Thomas L. Friedman. It has reached unimaginably hideous new depths in the age of the gated community, the speed dater, the Charlie Sheen victory tour, and the virtual dink.

Rubirosa would not care that the Droid has 200,000 fewer apps than the iPhone. He just wouldn’t. Rubirosa would not play Final Fantasy XI. He would have never gotten past Final Fantasy I, the one with Elizabeth Taylor. Rubirosa would not be seen dead texting or playing World of Warcraft or sucking on a Power Drink. And Rubirosa would never tweet.

It is often thought that playboys only drink and race speedboats and garrote jaguars and bed gorgeous women and contribute absolutely nothing of value to society. But this is not true. Casanova bequeathed the world his memoirs. The Marquis de Sade is still regarded as a brilliant writer, though mostly in France. Franz Liszt, who taught Mick Jagger and David Bowie and Keith Richards the ropes about stardom, screwed everything that moved as a young man; yet he was a brilliant, influential composer and the greatest pianist ever. (Warren Beatty made Bonnie and Clyde. But that was about it.)

Playboys are famous for making dramatic exits. Thomas Becket, playboy emeritus, got hacked to pieces in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, by King Henry II’s freelance henchmen. Lord Byron died fighting Turks, always a nice way to go. The Emperor Commodus—the one in Gladiator—got strangled by a wrestler. Freddie (“Suicide Freddy”) McEvoy drowned while trying to save his wife from drowning. Errol Flynn had a heart attack while taking a five-minute break during an impromptu party in Vancouver. Gunter Sachs blew his brains out. These guys knew how to make a grand exit. Again: panache.

The classic way for a playboy to check out is in an automotive disaster. Three playboys—Rubirosa, Dodi Fayed, and the Aly Khan—went up in flames in car crashes in France. Porfirio actually wrapped his car around a tree in the Bois de Boulogne. That is so cool. It is, in fact, the way most men of my generation would like to die: wrapping a sports car around a tree, preferably in the Bois de Boulogne. Or if that Bois were not available, then the Bois de Vincennes.

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