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.
—from “A Reluctant WASP,” Town & Country, August 2004
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.
—from “Writing About Your Life”
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.
—From “Writing Places”
“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.
—From “Writing Places”
“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.
—From “Writing Places”
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.
—from “Spring Training”
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?
—from “Mitchell & Ruff”
“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?
—From Smithsonian Magazine, April 2007
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.
—from “Writing Places”