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Jack Smith

Class-Conscious : Today's Celebrities Seem to Possess Notoriety, Fame and Fortune--But Not Class

May 10, 1987|Jack Smith

Everett Freeman of Westwood deplores the 1980s as being totally without class.

He means that nobody has it.

"Class almost seems to have disappeared from our society.

America had class once. People had class, music had class, movies had class.

Cary Grant had class, Humphrey Bogart had class in his fashion; Ronald Colman and Sidney Howard and Franklin Roosevelt had class. . . . I can think of almost nobody today who has it. Notoriety, fame, fortune--but not class."

Is Freeman right, or is he merely wallowing in the nostalgic notion that everything was better in the "good old days."

I remember once asking UCLA scholar Lynn White, who died the other day, whether street life was more dangerous in the 1970s than it was in earlier times.

He said, "No historian would prefer to have lived in any previous time."

So, as bad as things are, they have been worse. It was more hazardous to go abroad in the Middle Ages than it is today. Wealthy Romans could not walk on the street without a phalanx of bodyguards. There were no organized municipal police forces before the 19th Century.

Did we used to have more class?

What is class, anyway, in the sense that Freeman means? It is hard to define. The word is tainted by its meaning of social level--upper class, middle class, lower class. Those divisions are determined entirely by how much money a person has. They have nothing to do with talent, intelligence, creativity, honor, integrity or altruism. We cling to the notion that high birth bestows class, but in this country, theoretically, we have no titles, and no hereditary aristocracy.

What does the dictionary say? Not until definition No. 9 do we find the one we seek:

"Class, n. (Slang) excellence, especially of style or appearance."

Excellence and style, yes; but more than that. To me, it also implies grace, manners, poise, modesty, courage and generosity. There is just a touch of noblesse oblige in it.

Class comes from an unflinching response to the abrasions and vicissitudes of life. It is a burnishing. It is a hardening under heat. A purification.

Does anyone have it today? Maybe it's easier to say who doesn't have it.

Jack Dempsey had it. Grace, manners, poise, modesty, courage, generosity. Joe Louis had it, even though he ended up in debt and humiliation.

John McEnroe doesn't have it. Good tennis player; no class.

Chris Evert has it. In sports, she's right at the top. Modest in victory, gracious in defeat, unrelenting in play, courteous on the court, she is the epitome of the champion.

Frank Sinatra doesn't have it. Good singer; no class.

Lena Horne has it.

Carlo Maria Giulini has it. No one ever conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic with more style, restraint, passion and princely authority.

I don't know whether Humphrey Bogart had class or not. Maybe Freeman is right. He had it in his fashion. He certainly had it in "Casablanca."

Katharine Hepburn has class. Jimmy Stewart has class. Claudette Colbert has class.

Sean Penn doesn't have class.

Ralph Bellamy has it. His performance at the Academy Awards in March was brief, poised, modest and gracious; it had perspective; it had humor; it had class. Pretty good for an 83-year-old actor who never got the girl.

Did John Wayne have class? Maybe, like Bogart, in his fashion. But maybe he knocked over too much furniture. Not that a man of action can't have class.

Does Sylvester Stallone have class? Don't ask.

Does Ronald Reagan have class? The job itself should give him class. But Harry Truman didn't have class. God knows, Richard Nixon didn't have class. Lyndon Johnson had about as much class as a Houston B-girl. Jimmy Carter was too cornpone. Ronald Reagan doesn't have it either. There's too much Bonzo in him.

Rafer Johnson has class.

Jim Bakker doesn't have it. Oral Roberts doesn't have it. Jerry Falwell doesn't have it.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had it.

Queen Elizabeth has it. Princess Stephanie of Monaco doesn't. But those judgments may be petulant and shortsighted. All I know of Queen Elizabeth is what she chooses to reveal. She may be a shrike in the boudoir. All I know of Princess Stephanie is what I read in People magazine. She appears to be strong-willed (which is OK) but spoiled and a touch decadent. No class.

Fernando Valenzuela has class. Win or lose, he is stylish, modest, amiable and imperturbable, and he fields as well as he pitches. Not bad with the stick, either.

Peter O'Malley has class.

George Deukmejian doesn't. No governor of California has ever had it. Earl Warren was a bear. Goody Knight was a ham. Jerry Brown was a moonbeam. No one ever accused Pat Brown of having class (though his wife, Bernice, has it).

Tom Bradley has it.

Oliver North doesn't have it. I don't even think Henry Kissinger has it. He's intellectually too arrogant.

George Shultz used to have it, but he lost it. You can't have class with a tattooed tiger on your rump.

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