Taking Calvin Trillin Seriously 'Remembering Denny' recalls the promise of Yale's golden boys

April 04, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

NEW YORK — New York--Denny Hansen had the good looks, the brains, the warm personality -- and the brightest smile you ever saw. Classmates at Yale joked about getting a job in Denny's administration when he became president. His presence was so overpowering that his friends' parents would ask, years after the Class of '57 had graduated, "Whatever happened to that Hansen boy -- you know, the one with that great smile?"

Denny Hansen killed himself. In February 1991, more than three decades after he had graduated from Yale magna cum laude and headed to England on a Rhodes scholarship, Roger Dennis Hansen went to a friend's house in Rehoboth Beach, Del. There he closed the garage door, started his car and inhaled enough carbon monoxide to take him away from what had become a miserable life. A friend told the Rehoboth police that Hansen had been "depressed all his life."

At Yale, Calvin Trillin had observed his friend's ascent into near-mythical status. "This was, after all, someone whose graduation was covered by Life magazine -- photographed by Alfred Eisenstadt, no less," Mr. Trillin says now. "So when I heard about his suicide, it really got me to thinking."

And it drove him, finally, to writing about Denny Hansen. In his just-published book, "Remembering Denny" (Farrar Strauss & Giroux), Mr. Trillin reconstructs the story of his friend, for whom, at age 55, life had become so unendurable that he had to find a way out. But the book is about much more: It's about the Yale experience and coming of age in the '50s, and about expectations and how cruel they can be.

"Remembering Denny" is a reflective and moving book, far different from the writing we usually associate with Calvin Trillin. He's known as one of the most eclectic writers in America today, with work ranging from long, nonfiction reporting for the New Yorker to a couple of comic novels, a weekly syndicated humor column, and weekly light verse for the Nation. Then there's his celebrated food writing, in which Mr. Trillin chronicles his travels around the country in search of favorite regional dishes (one being Maryland crab cakes).

He's also an accomplished joke-teller, often trading quips with late-night talk-show hosts. Last summer at the Republican National Convention in Houston, Mr. Trillin served as a floor reporter for the Comedy Channel. Every night, he would pick a "most fashionable" Republican woman. The first night, he told his listeners: "Tonight it's Georgette Mosbacher. We've decided after much analysis and discussion of her makeup that there is not a shred of mascara or eyeliner left between here and Lubbock."

"He's a rare combination," said humorist Dave Barry, who is a friend. "Bud [Mr. Trillin's nickname] is a very skillful writer and the best reporter of anyone who writes humor. He's a tremendous journalist with a great eye. I admire his skill at taking subjects and showing you very clearly what he means."

Serious topics

Mr. Trillin had dealt with serious topics many times before -- one of his best books is "Killings," an anthology of New Yorker pieces about various murders. But never had he delved so deeply into the personal side for a story.

"Usually, whenever I've written in the first person, it's been a lighter story, and the more serious stuff is done in the third person," he said at a Greenwich Village restaurant not far from his home. "But this was different. I couldn't see any other way to write about Denny."

When he came to Washington for a memorial service for Denny Hansen, the occasion turned into what Mr. Trillin describes in his book as a "Big Chill" weekend, in which Hansen was remembered by Yale classmates and colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, where he was a professor of international relations.

The testimony moved Mr. Trillin. Speaker after speaker offered evidence that Hansen, far from being the "golden boy" of Yale '57, was a man haunted by expectations and self-doubt, and troubled by questions about his sexuality.

Context of the time

Mr. Trillin had thought about writing something shortly after reading about his friend's death in the New York Times. After the "Big Chill" weekend, he knew he must.

"This book just never seemed to die; it kept jumping out of the bathtub like the killer in a horror movie," Mr. Trillin, 57, said. "It was hard, really hard, to write such a sustained work that's so personal, but I couldn't let it alone."

As he talks about Hansen now, and about his impact on others, Mr. Trillin says much can be explained in the context of the time.

"Being at Yale, in the mid-'50s, we lived in a very narrow framework," he said as he attacked his lunch of chicken soup and salade Nicoise. "The environment was all male, practically all white. It was a time of unlimited possibilities -- if you happened to be white and male -- and high expectations, both for individuals and the country."

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