John Gross

Further to yesterday’s obituary of John Gross, as well as being formidably well read, John was also intensely clubbable, writes Rhoda Koenig.

"John’s exactly the same as Proust,” the debonair editor and cartoonist Mark Boxer once observed in a languidly wicked moment. “The only difference is, he doesn’t write the book.” John’s acquaintance among the rich and glamorous was astonishingly wide, especially for a literary man, and one who dressed like one.

He was frequently a walker to Drue Heinz and others whose conversation was not, whatever they may have thought, known for its wit and erudition. In their presence, his own was known for its emollience. I was once present when, at a party after a first night, she expressed puzzlement at an extremely obvious point in the play. John, nodding respectfully at her while looking nervously at me, said that it had puzzled him too.

John was also careful not to wound the sensibilities of his friends and acquaintances and other well-known people in the literary world. Fortunately for those who knew him, however, his courtly silence was limited to print. “Antonia Fraser keeps complaining that I didn’t have her novel reviewed until a year after it appeared. Well, that’s how long it took to find someone who would give it a good review.” At a PEN conference, he whispered to me, while Margaret Atwood was speaking, “That voice! It’s like being driven back and forth across Winnipeg on a Sunday night.” Margaret Drabble’s editing of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, he said, was appalling. “She knows nothing about the Jacobeans.”

John’s wit was frequently called upon to relieve his feelings in New York, a city better supplied with wealthy socialities than literary wits. Two New York Times executives, Jews known for their self-importance and their belief that they could not be more assimilated, were called by John (after characters in an ethnic low-comedy series of the ’20s) Potash and Perlmutter.

In his last years John worried about his memory – though he retained 10,000 times more than other literary people knew. Many of our conversations were full of allusions to our love of musical comedy and music hall. Struggling to remember a quotation once, he sighed and said, “Sorry, my dear, I’m afraid it’s all Lily of Lacuna now."