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Charles Fountain

George Frazier’s duende

100 years after his birth, columnist haunts our imagination

(File 1974/The Boston Globe)
By Charles Fountain
June 12, 2011

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THE ECHOES grow ever more faint as we move ever farther from their source. George Frazier has been gone for 37 years, and we don’t hear as much about him anymore.

But, oh, how those echoes did thunder in their day. As a columnist at the Globe, and before that at the Herald, the wistful George Frazier could make us pine for days when Hobey Baker played for Princeton, or Count Basie and Duke Ellington played the Roof at the Ritz, their music wafting out across the Public Gardens and the Charles River and into the soul of a generation. The puckish Frazier would make us laugh and think in the same column, cutting to the quick of a Boston pol’s overstuffed persona while talking about nothing more than his hat (Sonny McDonough) or his pants (Dapper O’Neil). And the angry Frazier would eventually abrade our sensibilities, whatever they were, for his was a mercurial and unpredictable voice.

“George is like a jazz musician,’’ his friend Charlie Davidson, the Harvard Square clothier, famously said a quarter-century ago. “Jazz musicians know the melody, but they never play the melody; they’re always playing the improvisation. George is like that. People keep searching for the melody, but there is no melody. George was always playing the improvisation.’’

Immortality in a business as ephemeral as daily journalism is nigh-on impossible, but every city has a newspaper guy who will be forever identified with that city. H.L. Mencken in Baltimore, Jimmy Breslin in New York, Mike Royko in Chicago, Herb Caen in San Francisco. Frazier, born in Southie 100 years ago last week, is that guy for Boston.

In the years since his death, the Globe has reprinted dozens of his columns, sometimes just to let readers savor them again, or for the first time. Sometimes because they were still timely, such as the 1970 tribute to Fred Astaire that ran when Astaire died in 1987. Writers who knew him and writers who didn’t constantly evoke Frazier’s name and his words, because, well, because having George Frazier in your piece is like having the most interesting guy in the bar at your table. Besides, whatever it was you’re trying to say, chances are pretty good that Frazier said it with far more élan.

What is it about Frazier that continues to haunt our imagination after all these years? Other Boston columnists have had much longer careers. Still others found syndication and television gigs and broad national audiences. Why Frazier? Like other writers before me, I’ll lean on Frazier to explain. His signature, and most popular, essays through the years were the ones about duende, that special force or characteristic that makes someone or something irresistibly attractive. “So difficult to define, “ he wrote, “but when it is there it is unmistakable, inspiring our awe, quickening our memory. To observe someone who has it is to feel icy fingers running up and down our spine.’’

Duende, he explained, was what Ted Williams had, even when he was striking out, yet Stan Musial lacked, even while hitting a home run.

George Frazier’s column had duende. Others may have written of weightier matters, even affected more change in the city. But no writer ever quickened our pulse, sent us to the paper rife with anticipation, or lived up to our expectations more consistently than George Frazier. And we felt bereft on those days when a “bad bluefish’’ or “red-tide fever’’ prevented him from writing, and the Living Page space where his column should have been had the offerings of a pinch hitter and the words: “George Frazier is ill today.’’ Think about it a minute: How many columnists today — however powerful and appealing their work — leave us feeling bereft on the days their work is missing?

He would be unimaginably huge today. The blogosphere would send his every column around the globe a thousand times over, and cable television would scramble for his services, coveting his wit, his eloquence, and his comfort with controversy, not to mention his natty dress and his theatrical mien.

No one would be more at home in the Internet. He was befuddled by technology, but enthralled by all that was new and cutting edge. You can imagine him dragooning one of the co-op students to come outside with him as he smoked his cigarette late some night, then grilling the kid about the appeals of Facebook and Twitter. You suspect he would have been scornful of much of it, contributing as it does to the demise of conversation. And he would have only tweeted if he’d come up with the idea himself, before some editor told him he had to do it.

Yet it’s easy to imagine George Frazier on Twitter, isn’t it? He would have loved the challenge of framing a thought in 140 characters. No one would have done it better; think of all the one-liners in those “Another Man’s Poison’’ columns — “Whenever I take the train to New York, I consider the trip a success if I get there while my suit’s still in style’’ — 140 characters or less, all of them. Why, every literate being in the universe would follow him, and if that might leave him with somewhat fewer followers than Lady Gaga, wouldn’t we want to hear what he’d have to say about that?

Charles Fountain, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, is author of “Another Man’s Poison: The Life and Writing of George Frazier.’’