George W.S. Trow, a writer and social critic whose dry humor and coruscating intelligence defined a 30-year career at the New Yorker, where he was a favorite of legendary editor William Shawn, died Nov. 24 in Naples, Italy, where he lived for the last five years. He was 63 and died of natural causes.
Trow, who joined the magazine in 1966, was best-known as the author of “Within the Context of No Context,” a scathing analysis of contemporary American culture.
Originally published in the New Yorker in 1980 and later issued as a book, it was a collage of riffs, each identified with a subhead such as “History,” “Gossip” or “Celebrities,” that wryly displayed Trow’s mortification at the ignorance of a generation reared on television.
“Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history,” he wrote.
“No good,” he concluded, “has come of it.”
“Within the Context of No Context” quickly attained a cult following for its originality and prophetic insights.
“People passed that copy of the New Yorker from hand to hand,” recalled Martin H. Kaplan, a media expert and director of the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, who knew Trow. “It was one of those early and prescient works of cultural criticism which ... conveyed how troubling it was to live in the brave new media world.”
It was also intensely personal and heavy with yearning for a bygone social order, when adults were adults and trivia were actually viewed as trivial.
His lamentations focused on an idiosyncratic array of what he called “Mainstream American Cultural Artifacts,” such as People magazine, the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the 1970s game show “Family Feud.”
Civilization had declined to the point where, Trow wrote, “a man named Richard Dawson, the ‘host’ of a program called Family Feud, asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman.” To Trow, that millions of viewers could be engaged by such puerile entertainment -- guessing what others had guessed, with nary a fact in sight -- was alarming evidence of cultural anemia. With some disdain, he described this “important moment in the history of television” under the heading “No Authority.”
Authority was one quality Trow (pronounced like grow) possessed in spades. His pronouncements were godlike, as well as abstract, bordering on mystical.
In reference to an America that had gotten too big and impersonal, for instance, he wrote: “The middle distance fell away.... Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy.” But, as Trow saw it, the intimacy was a television-induced illusion. Loneliness loomed.
“What made George’s piece great was the deadpan minimalism of the style, a freaky-deaky, I Ching-like idiom that made it seem like a text carved on some future, unearthed Rosetta stone .... It was a gag, but a gag about how everything you’ve ever cared about was just destroyed in a flashfire,” Donald Fagen, the musician and songwriter who met Trow in the 1980s after co-founding the band Steely Dan, wrote on his website this week.
“He was a kind of genius in the way he saw the world,” said author Jamaica Kincaid, who joined the New Yorker staff in the 1970s through Trow’s ardent sponsorship.
Born in Greenwich, Conn., Trow was well-grounded in the rituals of the upper class, even though his old New York family was not rich.
He knew, for instance, where a New Yorker should go to buy a proper summer suit, a pair of patent leather dancing pumps or a fedora. But he viewed that world of upper-crust New York from a writerly distance. “A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me,” he once wrote.
His patrician heritage stood him well through Exeter and Harvard, where he became president of the Lampoon, the club that produces the world’s oldest humor magazine. “He was a key figure in the transformation of the Harvard Lampoon from a stuffy clubhouse that put out a not-very-funny magazine into this farm team for ‘The Simpsons,’ ” said New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg, a former Harvard classmate who knew Trow for 45 years
Trow graduated from Harvard in 1965; in 1970, though he was already writing for the New Yorker, he helped fellow Harvard alums Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney found National Lampoon, the magazine that became a launch pad for a panoply of writing and comic talents. (Kenney, for instance, went on to co-write the scripts for “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” while other Lampoon colleagues provided the creative juice for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.”)
Trow did not follow their path, though he also wrote a novel, off-off Broadway plays and movie scripts. His screenplays included “Savages” (1972), directed by James Ivory, and “The Proprietor” (1966), directed by Ismail Merchant. But he concentrated his talent on the New Yorker, where he wrote “casuals,” or short humor pieces, longer reported articles and essays.
His two-part profile of Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, published in 1978, established his credentials as “a cultural critic of the first rank,” Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker this week.
According to New Yorker historian Ben Yagoda, Trow was once described by Shawn’s successor, Robert Gottlieb, as an “extreme” writer who produced pieces that were unusual even by New Yorker standards.
Some critics agreed, such as Richard Eder, who, in a Los Angeles Times review of “My Pilgrim’s Progress” (1999), a cultural history based on Trow’s interpretation of stories that appeared during February 1950 in the New York Times, said Trow’s writing could be “maddening and ruinously self-indulgent.”
Ian Frazier, another New Yorker writer inspired by Trow, said his former colleague simply wrote the way he thought. When “Context” was published in the magazine, it was “like seeing live theater: There was an improvisatory feel when you read it. It was an exciting piece of writing,” he recalled.
Trow was not an easy person to know, but if he liked you, he was a devoted and generous friend.
“All sentences, all paragraphs about this part of my life, my life as a writer, must begin with George Trow,” Kincaid, the highly praised author of autobiographical fiction, once wrote of him. She was a struggling writer on the staff of a now-defunct fashion magazine when she met Trow, who found her so interesting that he began taking her along on assignments and quoting her in “Talk of the Town” pieces as “our sassy young black friend Jamaica Kincaid.” He subsequently introduced her to Shawn, who hired her and later became her father-in-law.
Trow “was like a big brother to me,” she said this week.
Trow was incensed by Shawn’s firing in 1987 after 35 years as the magazine’s editor. Around that time, he began to cut himself off from once-dear friends. “We were abandoned,” Kincaid said.
He remained at the magazine until 1994, when he quit in protest of then-editor Tina Brown’s staff and editorial changes; he was particularly disturbed by what he saw as the magazine’s excessive coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. He continued to write for the magazine, which published his last piece in 1999.
His last years were difficult, his mother and only immediate survivor, Anne C. Trow, of Southbury, Conn., told The Times on Thursday. She said he suffered from depression; he told a friend, jokingly, that he was “bipolar light.” At any rate, he spent time in a psychiatric hospital near Harvard before moving abroad.
“It’s hard to be a writer, my dear,” his mother said in an interview. “There are so many projects you work on, and all of a sudden things go right, and all of a sudden nothing does.”
He deserted the house he had built in upstate New York and drifted to Alaska, Texas, Nova Scotia, France and, finally, Italy.
According to Decourcy E. McIntosh, a friend from childhood who visited Trow in Italy, he was writing about his mental breakdown and trying to “make sense of it ... for a general audience.”
Novelist John Irving, an acquaintance of Trow’s at Exeter in the early 1960s, remembered “something arrogant or smug in George’s smile; I occasionally felt that George Trow was smirking at me,” he wrote in the New York Times in 1997.
“Now I realize that he was simply more alert and more aware than I was,” Irving reflected. “What I mistook for smirking was instead something prescient in his smile; it was as if the unfathomable powers of precognition were already alive within him.”