Friday, October 3, 2014

Winsor French

While we were all sleeping ... Cleveland picked up and moved away to other cities.
- Winsor French
There was a time when people, certain people, were paid to write. Winsor French (December 24, 1904 - March 6, 1973) was one such person. French was the society columnist for the Cleveland Press, intermittently, for almost forty years.

His story is sad and small, it took me over two years, on and off, to read Out and About with Winsor French by James M. Wood, because, frankly, I found his life tedious. Or perhaps just Wood's telling of it.

My main interest in this man, was, of course, that I hoped to take in more Cleveland history. But French was not nearly as enamored in the city during it's heyday as he was when it was vanishing before his eyes.

He'd leave the place, in fact, by the onset of World War II, choosing instead New York City and Hollywood, hoping to write that novel, that play, or anything of significance. However, he much preferred socializing to writing, and unlike some, he seem to accomplish do both.

French wanted to be like his close companions, Cole Porter and his wife Linda, philanthropist Leonard Hanna (whose gift of stock in the fledgling "Internal Business Machines" enabled the columnist to live in a manner he preferred) or the man who might honestly be described as his life partner, nightclub pianist Roger Stearns, but the best he could manage was to write about them, and how beautiful it was to live a life of opulent gaeity.

Much of his work involved being in Not-Cleveland, traveling to report on the conditions in Post-War Europe, and somehow managing to share only the company of seriously wealthy people for whom the war had been some kind of thankfully well rid-of inconvenience.

By the 1950s, French had become what so many of us find ourselves, the Resigned Clevelander. Lamenting the loss of something special, he spent his last two decades either writing about the Cleveland that had been, or banging the drum for people to return to downtown to indulge in what little excitement remained.

He lived downtown Cleveland, from an apartment on Playhouse Square with a view of his beloved Hanna Theatre, to a tony nest on racy Short Vincent, and even digs in ill-fated Erieview. But even he eventually left the city, another single man occupying a highrise apartment in Lakewood's Gold Coast.

Winsor French retired from his column in 1968. His tenure chronicles the time period of one major American city's entire collapse.

Last night a friend who works up Euclid suggested drinks at Hodge's - it might be the last time this season for cocktails alfresco.

On this late Thursday afternoon the avenue was bustling with walkers. I was reminded of something my sister-in-law from Minnesota said when I was giving her my nickel tour of downtown a year ago. She said, "Wow. Cleveland is like this place where everything already happened."

Passing visitors take selfies with the chandelier (which Winsor would have either loved or entirely hated) and I allow myself to imagine it's still happening.

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