On Describing a Human Being

I enjoy tracking unusually evocative ways to describe human beings. In every long profile piece the journalist sets aside a few paragraphs to capture the person’s physical essence and personality. To do this well requires finding a couple revealing nuggets / examples that speak to larger ideas.

I usually throw winning phrases onto my commonplace wiki, which is my repository of favorite words and sentences I read. Or sometimes I tag it under “writing” in delicious.

Mark Bowden wrote an 11,000 word profile of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, last year in Vanity Fair. At one point in the piece Bowden takes three paragraphs to try to size up his subject’s physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions. Bowden being Bowden, and Vanity Fair being Vanity Fair, I read it closely:

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. is fair-skinned with small, deep-set light-brown eyes. He has a high forehead with a steepening widow’s peak, his crown topped with a buoyant crop of wavy hair, now turning to gray. He is a slight man who keeps himself fit, working out early in the morning most days of the week. He has a wide mouth that curls up at the edges, and when he grins he is slightly buck-toothed, which adds to an impression, unfortunate for a man in his position, of puerility. He is a lifelong New Yorker, but there is no trace whatsoever of region or ethnicity in his speech. When he chooses to be, Arthur is a fluent, eager, even urgent talker, someone who listens impatiently and who impulsively interrupts, often with a stab at humor. He has delicate hands with long fingers, which he uses freely and expressively in conversation. He is long-winded and, in keeping with a tendency toward affectation, is fussily articulate, like a bright freshman eager to impress, speaking in complex, carefully enunciated sentences sprinkled with expressions ordinarily found only on the page, such as “that is” and “i.e.” and “in large measure,” or archaisms like “to a fare-thee-well.” He exaggerates. He works hard, endearingly, to put others at ease, even with those who in his presence are not even slightly intimidated or uncomfortable.

His witticisms are hit-and-miss, and can be awkward and inadvertently revealing. “Some character traits are too deep in the mold to alter,” says one longtime associate. Arthur has the clever adolescent’s habit of hiding behind a barb, a stinging comment hastily disavowed as a joke. Some find him genuinely funny. Others, particularly those outside his immediate circle, read arrogance—the witty king, after all, knows that his audience feels compelled to laugh. His humor can also be clubby. He will adopt, for instance, a pet expression that becomes an in-joke, which he will then deploy repeatedly. One of these is “W.S.L.,” which stands for “We Suck Less,” a self-deprecatory boast, which Arthur will use in discussions of the industry’s woes as a reminder to those in the know that, for all its travails and failings, his newspaper remains, after all, The New York Times.

While clearly smart, Arthur is not especially intellectual. For what it’s worth, he is a Star Trek fan. His mind wanders, particularly when pressed to concentrate on complicated business matters. Diane Baker, a blunt former investment banker who served for a time as the chief financial officer of the New York Times Company, has described him as having the personality of “a twenty-four-year-old geek.” She did not long survive Arthur’s ascension to the chairman’s office. His 30-year marriage has reportedly foundered over a relationship Arthur had with a woman named Helen Ward, from Aspen, Colorado, whom he met on a group excursion to Peru. Since separating from Gail, he has been living alone and has not been involved with Ward or anyone else. Perturbations on the home front are also a family tradition…. Arthur is provincial. Asked once if he had seen a story on the front page of that day’s Post, he looked confused until it was explained that the item had appeared in The Washington Post. He said, “I only read the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.” He sometimes takes the bus or subway to work, and for many years jogged in Central Park. Recently his knees have started to bother him, so he now prefers exercising on an elliptical trainer. He also takes Pilates classes and can be evangelical about them, telling friends the practice wards off arthritis, which has begun to worry him. But he is not a complete health nut. He still enjoys unwinding with a cigar and a martini. He still goes on motorcycle treks with his cousin Dan Cohen and other friends. He is drawn to feats of personal daring, and is an avid rock climber, a vestige of his enthusiasm for Outward Bound. He has little interest in sports, particularly team sports, and dismissed as silly the effort to lure the Olympic Games to New York City, which included plans for a sports stadium in Manhattan. In a presentation at the Times building, Arthur greeted the scheme’s promoters with cutting sarcasm, even though the paper’s editorial board supported it.

3 comments on “On Describing a Human Being
  • Mark Bowden is one good reason for reading Vanity Fair. (If you haven’t read Blackhawk Down, put it on your list: a great and important book that provides an unexpectedly useful understanding of the war we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.) William Langewiesche is another — how The New Yorker let him get away after American Ground is a mystery.

    In general, though, VF is on my almost-ran list of must-reads, and I usually only read it in airports. It’s too inconsistent, and too much of the content is superficial. After The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, and Harper’s, it often feels like a waste of time. Same with Rolling Stone, whose non-music content is often excellent but very inconsistent. I’m continuously surprised and disappointed by how bad most of the writing in The New York Review of Books is, even though they’re focused on so many subjects I’m interested in.

    I’ve come to realize your appreciation of good writing, Ben. I’ll be forever grateful to you for linking to Justine Musk, whose blog is in my top five. Also, I think you linked to The Last Psychiatrist, an extremely well-written and fascinating blog. You’re one of my trusted filters; your delicious links are a happy time-sink for me.

  • The reason both New Yorker and Atlantic lost Langewiesche is because VF has
    tons and tons of money. It's how VF gets any big name writer — Hitchens,
    Lewis, etc.

    I don't subscribe to VF but, like you, I buy in airports, or just print the
    big-name articles off their web site.

    Harper's is too knee-jerk liberal for me. NYRB is solid. I haven't noticed
    poor writing there, but I don't read it regularly.

    Justine is terrific.

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