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Jack Smith

Lesson No. 2 in distinguishing class calls for a broader definition to include dignity, inner strength, self-esteem

May 21, 1987|JACK SMITH

My nominations of several public figures who have class and several who don't, according to my lights, have brought, foreseeably, both disagreement and affirmation.

Let me concede that, as some readers have pointed out, in presuming to judge whether others have class, I have betrayed a lack of it in myself.

Class, as I said, is defined by the dictionary as "excellence, especially of style or appearance," to which I added "grace, manners, poise, modesty, courage and generosity; there is a touch of noblesse oblige in it too."

If I were to suggest that I had all those qualities, I would automatically eliminate myself on modesty, at least. I must also say that I do not know the persons I named as having class or the lack of it. They are simply images. Reflections on a screen. Creations of the media. The real person may not show through in what we see.

As I said, all I know of Princess Stephanie is what I read in People magazine. And I conceded that my judgment of her as being without class might be "petulant and short-sighted."

Jorge A. Elias, an entertainment agent for overseas bookings, writes that he has just returned from a visit to his native Argentina with Princess Stephanie.

"Like you, the only thing I knew of Princess Stephanie was whatever was published in People magazine or the likes of it. Boy, I was wrong in my judging. I have found (in the few days we spent together) a warm, sensible, fun-loving human being. But, again, I was not from the press, trying to take a picture of her in the bathroom, nor I never asked her if she was the one who 'killed' her mother."

Elias is the first person I have ever communicated with who has met Princess Stephanie. I am obliged to regard her as a real person on his word, and to assume she has class.

Inevitably, many readers nominated people I left out. How could I list them all?

Doug Warren, a screen biographer who worked with them, says I should have included Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, David Niven, William Powell and Robert Preston as having class. "Preston reeked of class, drunk or sober."

I would not think that class reeks, nor that anyone could have it drunk. But then I didn't know Mr. Preston.

Walter C. Pitts says I should have added "inner strength and self-esteem" to my definition. "To me," he says, "no one exemplifies all those qualities more than Joe DiMaggio. . . ."

I don't know anyone who would argue that point. The morning after DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married, the paper got a tip that the newlyweds were staying at a motel in the San Joaquin Valley. I phoned the motel, got DiMaggio in bed and asked him how he liked being married to the sex symbol of America. With his usual politeness, he answered that it was fine. Now which of us had the class?

Ann Sherman James chides me for leaving dignity out of my definition. "But you partially redeemed yourself with Rafer Johnson. His Olympic stand will forever remain a monument to class. . . ."

Margaret O'Gara recalls that in her book "The Honeycomb," Adela Rogers St. Johns says of the Duchess of Windsor, "perhaps that might explain that while she had the look of breeding . . . she did not have what we call class . . . and if you can find a real substitute or synonym for that, please let me know."

Playwright George Axelrod differs from my judgment that Harry Truman didn't have class. "It was in 1955. His daughter had dragged him to the opening of a particularly rowdy play of mine and then (unbelievably) on to the party at Sardi's afterwards. There, after he had been jostled by crowds (ex-Presidents didn't seem to need Secret Service men in those days) and kissed by Jayne Mansfield, he was finally introduced to the author of his evening's discomfort. He was graciousness itself as he attempted to put me at ease. 'Mr. Axelrod,' he said, actually getting my name right, 'do you know what my favorite play is?' I was fascinated. 'No, Mr. President,' I said, 'what is your favorite play?' 'Mrs. Miniver,' he replied, beaming.

"Talk about grace, manners, poise, modesty and more than a touch of noblesse oblige. . . ."

Eric Anderson of Ontario also champions Truman. "He always seemed to me to be the epitome of the 'stand-up guy.' Someone who always acted with principle, regardless of the consequences. To me, this is class."

I take it back. Harry Truman had class. I felt guilty when I said he didn't. I met him once in the Galleria of the Biltmore during the 1960 convention. As Axelrod says, he was not surrounded by Secret Service men at the time. We simply strolled down the hall, talking baseball. Truman was the guy who said, "The buck stops here."

Brenda Shaughnessy, a senior at Newbury Park High School, chastises me for making "gossip-magazine generalities and unfair snap judgments."

I plead guilty.

"You label 21 individuals as being without class, not counting the entire history of California governors and Houston B-girls." (What I said was that Lyndon B. Johnson had no more class than a Houston B-girl, thus unfairly maligning all Houston B-girls.)

I beg their pardon.

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