Living in Los Angeles many years ago, I used occasionally to wonder about the people I would see on the sidewalk, at the art museum, in a restaurant. You got accustomed to seeing recognizable faces at random—Vincent Price in a frame shop, Mary Astor at the Motion Picture Home. But what about the chorus girls in Busby Berkeley musicals, or the endless supply of fedora-hatted cops in noir films? All those episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents; surely the matronly woman ordering a martini was Keenan Wynn’s love interest in an episode of The Twilight Zone?
I was accustomed to thinking this way, I suppose, because growing up in the Washington area—a smaller, infinitely more concentrated community than L.A.—I had seen my share of historic figures, or even bit players in the drama of state, as they lived out the balance of their lives in the neighborhood. In many cases they were survivors of epochs that, to my childish mind, seemed very distant in time and space; the world in which they had participated seemed dead, but they lived on, in the purgatory of the grocery line.
Speaking of which, I once saw General of the Army Omar Bradley—or I should say my mother pointed him out to me—in a small supermarket near where we lived, and I remember gazing at this bespectacled elderly man as he contemplated the vegetable bin. Not long before he had commanded armies—hundreds of thousands of men—in brutal combat, and now he was nodding gently in conversation, just a few feet away from me. His physical presence was fascinating, but so was the fact that General Bradley of World War II fame was here and now in need of groceries like everyone else.
Max Beerbohm once wrote an essay entitled “A Small Boy Seeing Giants” (1936) about being a London schoolboy in close proximity to the statesmen of the 1880s; a half-century later, he was himself (as he ruefully noted) “an interesting link with the past.” I am very nearly the same age now as Max was then, and can report that the interesting links with the past I saw in my early youth were from a very distant past indeed.
A man who had been a private secretary to President McKinley lived on a neighboring street. Theodore Roose-velt’s oldest daughter, Alice Longworth, could frequently be spotted entering and leaving her elegant, poison ivy-covered brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue. Woodrow Wilson’s widow was still a staple of local society—I saw her shortly before she died in 1961—and veterans of the Roosevelt and Truman years were then in the prime of life. That creature of habit J. Edgar Hoover used to lunch in a window seat at Harvey’s Restaurant in the Mayflower Hotel—the Mayflower still exists, but Harvey’s does not—and I always laughed at the sight of George Meany of the AFL-CIO because he sat (as a labor leader should) in the front seat of his limousine, beside the chauffeur. While she was not a Washington resident, I did once see Eleanor Roose-velt—at a Senior Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson rally in a suburban shopping mall, where the first thing that struck my eye, as she emerged from a long black Cadillac, was the dead fox around her neck.
As I grew older, I was emboldened to speak to the occasional giant, and learned an important lesson. Most were cordial, even flattered to be recognized, but not all. Walking toward Dean Acheson one brisk afternoon in Lafayette Square, I introduced myself, and proffered my paw, and would have explained how great an admirer I was except that he visibly glared as he shook my hand with icy impatience. I was so mortified that I waited two years to write him a fan letter about his memoir—and got a warm, lengthy response to soothe my mortification. As a young journalist I specialized in chatting about the old days with elderly Southern senators—John McClellan, Sam Ervin, John Stennis, Jennings Randolph—who often sat, alone and half-forgotten, at receptions.
Sometimes, of course, the figures were spectral: Robert McNamara used to be seen walking in the vicinity of my office, wearing a raincoat year round, looking suitably burdened by history. I spoke to him a few times—always breaking the ice with the fact that his son had once (accidentally) broken my arm in a soccer match—and noticed that he beamed with pleasure at the brief connection, but, on his way again, resumed the haunted expression. What a contrast with the spinster daughters of the Civil War general Philip Sheridan—Mary, Louise, and Irene—who would take the air on the balcony overlooking their father’s equestrian statue at Sheridan Circle. The first time I saw them I felt as if, in an instant, the entire century since Fort Sumter had melted away.