A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles

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9780374252083: A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles

In this unique book, John McPhee takes us into the world of several fascinating people. His inimitable style reveals the intricate details of his characters lives.

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About the Author:

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles, A
ONE A Roomful of Hovings 1967 FIFTH AVENUE Each day, nearly all day, Thomas P. F. Hoving stood somewhere near the Short Portly rack in the John David clothing store at 608 Fifth Avenue. He wore a double-breasted sharkskin suit, with a fresh flower in his lapel. On his face was a prepared smile. He was a floorwalker. This was the summer of 1950, and he was nineteen years old. "May I help you, sir?" Hoving would say to almost anyone who came through the door. "I'd like to see Mr. Card." "Card! See-You!" Hoving called out, and Mr. Card, a master salesman, sprang forward. See-Yous were people who asked for specific clerks. Otherwise, customers were taken in rotation. It was not unknown in that era for clothing salesmen to slip substantial honoraria tofloorwalkers to get them in the habit of turning non-See-Yous into See Yous. But Hoving was unbribable. He had learned that every salesman recurrently dreams of a rich Brazilian who--when it happens to be the dreamer's turn to wait on him--wilt walk into the store and order fifty-five suits. Hoving would do nothing that might spoil this dream. The door opens again, and a tall, slim, wilted-looking man enters the store and dispiritedly examines a display of ties; then he crosses to the rack of 42 Regulars and begins to finger the sleeves of the suits. This man is a Cooler. His constitution has just been defeated by the incredible heat outside, and he has come into the store to recover. Hoving is merciless. He says, "May I help you, sir?" "Just looking," the Cooler says. "Sir, you don't belong in this section," Hoving says. "You are a 39 Extra-Long." To show Coolers what they were up against, Hoving would lead them directly to the area of the Hickey-Freeman suits--the best in the store, one hundred and twenty-five dollars and up. Hoving's idea of a summer place was Edgartown, on Martha's Vineyard. He hated this job--or, more precisely, he hated the idea of it--but it was apparently designed by his father as a part of a program of training, for his father, Walter Hoving, who was then president of Bonwit Teller and is now chairman of Tiffany & Co., happened to own, as well, the John David chain of stores. Young Hoving learned a lot there. He could fold a suit and wrap it in ten seconds; he also noticed that prostitutes who came into the store generally hunted for contacts along the suit racks, while homosexuals used the shoe department. Every lunchtime, all summer long, he went to the Forty-second Street Horn & Hardart and ate the same meal--hamburger, mashed potatoes, and a ball of chocolate ice cream. When Hoving, after a brilliant year as City Parks Commissioner, had just become (at the age of thirty-six) Director of theMetropolitan Museum of Art, he reflected, one day, on the John David summer. "Mr. Card and Mr. Mintz were important influences on my life as a floorwalker," he said. "They told me, 'Don't buckle in. Do it honest. Only schnookers will ask to be brought out of rotation. The rich Brazilian will come to every man in his lifetime.'" Hoving said that he had not believed in the rich Brazilian until a day when one came in. "He bought twenty Hickey-Freeman suits," Hoving recalled. "The young salesman who had him was going bo-bo. Around the first of August, that summer, I began to get the ague from standing on my feet all the time. The man we all worked for was called Colonel Ladue. He had owned the chain before my father did, and had been retained to run it. You had to call him 'Colonel' or he'd get disturbed. You know what kind of a guy that is. He had an adder's glance--without a nod, without a smile, without a crinkle of the eye. That summer killed me on the mercantile business." EDGARTOWN Hoving in Edgartown, in the summers of his adolescence, was a part of what he describes as "a wild bicycle set, semirichies, cultured Hell's Angels of that period." They had names like Grant McCargo, Dikey Duncan, and David Erdman, and they numbered up to fifteen or twenty, with girls included. Hoving was not the leader; he could apparently take or leave everybody. Nonetheless, he was thought of by some of his friends' mothers, though they seldom had anything really gross or specific to cite, as the sort of boy who was probably a corrupting influence on their children. He went out with a scalloper's daughter. His family didn't give him much money--never more than two dollars a week--so he washedcars, worked in a bicycle-repair shop, painted sailboats, caddied for golfers, and set pins in a bowling alley. Sailing races were the main preoccupation of the pack, and Hoving was always a crewman, never a skipper--in part, he says, because he never had a skipper's feel for the wind and the sea, and in part because he never owned a boat. All the boys wore blue or white button-down shirts. Hoving had both kinds, too, but he also appeared in patterned sports shirts, which were an emblem of immeasurable outness. He didn't care. Everybody wore a stopwatch around his neck, for the racing. One day, when the boys were fifteen, they discovered another use for the stopwatches. Grant McCargo bought a case of ale--"local poison, eighteen cents a can"--and, as Hoving continues it, "we all went into the graveyard and sat on friendly stones; we had shot glasses, and every thirty seconds everybody drank a shot of the ale until we were completely zonked." He played tennis barefoot, and his idea of real action was a long, cool ride in the breakers. "Great! Great!" he would say when he felt an impulse for the surf. "Let's go out to Barnhouse Beach and get boiled in the rollers." When he went to the beach, he took books along, in his bicycle basket, and he read them while he was lying in the sun recovering from the rollers. Robert Goldman, who later roomed with Hoving at Princeton and is now a writer of musical plays, was an occasional visitor to Edgartown in the years when Hoving was there. "He had a precocity typical of New York kids," Goldman remembers. "You know, you leap right from childhood into being twenty-one. Tommy was always hip, always absorbed with upper bohemia. He made newspapery references. He was the first person I ever heard use the word 'great' in that special sense. Everything was 'great.' I went to Edgartown uninvited once, and I was pretty much on the outside of things, and a situation came up one day when Hoving said, about me, 'Hey, let him play.' I've never forgotten it. He was an unaffectedcity kid, with spirit to him. He never made me feel like an intruder. Some of the others did." Hoving clowned and joked a lot, and he haunted an empty house once with Dikey Duncan (using sheets, chains, and foghorns) until the police put a stop to it, but he was actually quite shy, and he felt sure that he was not at all popular. One index of popularity in Edgartown, however, was the number of bicycles that could be found stacked outside one's house, and wherever Hoving was living was where the biggest stack of bicycles was. To be sure, this was in part because of the warm personality, unfailing generosity, and utter permissiveness of his mother, who was apparently neither as staid nor as consciously social as most of the other parents in Edgartown, and whose house (always a rented one) was a sanctuary for young people from discipline of any kind. She had been divorced from Tom's father when Tom was five years old. Her name was--she died in 1954--Mary Osgood Field Hoving, her nickname was Peter, and she was a descendant of Samuel Osgood, the first Postmaster General of the United States. Her father, Tom's grandfather, was such a fastidious man that he kept a diary of the clothes he wore. His wife left him, and from the age of two Tom's mother was brought up by an aunt. She married Walter Hoving when she was a debutante, pretty and blond, a cutout exemplar of the girl of the nineteen-twenties. Although she never married again, men were always attracted to her in clusters, and--according to Nancy Hoving, Tom Hoving's wife--"old half successes with moon in their eyes still ask about her." Some of her friends would act, on occasion, as surrogate fathers to Tom and his older sister Petrea, or Petie, turning up at child functions where parents are supposed to appear. Both Tom and his mother had strong tempers, and the two of them would sometimes have conflagrationary fights. Friends once came upon them sitting in a doorway in Edgartown together, weeping. Tomeventually learned not to participate--to act, when something unpleasant came up, as if it weren't there. (This is a faculty he is said to have kept.) His mother's emotions sometimes overflowed in the opposite direction as well, and the more demonstrative she was toward him, apparently, the more he pulled away, developing a general aloofness that characterized him for some years--until he was ready to take part in things on his own terms. Remembering himself at Edgartown, he once said, "I'm sure the other mothers thought, Poor Peter, with a son like that! I was pretty scrawny, uncoördinated, and slovenly." He fought constantly with his sister (he once pushed her out on a roof and locked the window), but he was unusually close to her--they were two years apart in age--and he has named his only daughter Petrea for her. His particular friend was Dikey Duncan, whose family held the Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce franchise in the United States. Hoving and Duncan had the same attitude, according to Hoving's description: "Cool. We cooled it, you know. The same thoughts came to us. Dikey was bland, thin, and wiry, and he had a delightful irresponsible touch. We all used to go out to South Beach and play capture-the-flag, then sit around a great fire and get zonked. Dikey, who liked whiskey, would suck away at this bottle of Black Death. Everybody else drank Seabreezes. There were periods of forty days when we were never not drunk in the evening. One night, Dikey shambled down to the yacht club and insulted many parents, and our intr...

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