Eulogy to Henry Clune
Read at Memorial Service October 12, 1995, at Christ Church, Rochester
When I first met Henry he was 100 years old, and in the early stages of our friendship, after each visit I would wonder, as I drove down the North Road back home, "Will I ever see him again? Will he die before I return?"
After a while had passed, perhaps six months, this question no longer bothered my mind. For I had concluded, on the basis of all available evidence, that Henry would live forever.
I imagined that long after the rest of us had gone, Henry would still be here: dressed in jacket and tie for dinner, reciting Macaulay and Addison from memory, sipping his martini and making a sly wisecrack, disagreeing with Peter about the dramatic talents of Katherine Hepburn. The first book he lent me was John P. Marquand's So Little Time. So little time, indeed.
Henry W. Clune was the man who wrote Rochester. The city is his in a way that no other American city has ever belonged to an author. He rendered it, in fiction and history and profile and vignette, with such thoroughness and skill that he not merely described Rochester but actually helped create it: its conception of itself comes in large part from the pen of Henry Clune, so that his patrimony over these 105 years may read: four sons, fourteen books, and one city.
And, of course, one river. Henry lived almost all his life under the charm of the Genesee, and along the metaphorical banks of that river "Which in the face of great obstacles, flowed north with a contrariness reflected in not a few of the people who have lived adjacent to it," as he wrote in his classic history of the Genesee—a book that will be read for as long as the river flows.
The 19th century poet Willliam Hosmer, our own Bard of Avon, New York, seems to have anticipated Henry with his verse:
Ambition from the scenes of youth
May others lure away
To chase the phantom of renown
Throughout their little day;
I would not, for a palace proud
And slave of pliant knee,
Forsake a cabin in thy vale,
My own dark Genesee.
Henry once wrote of his European travels: "I liked London…but it wasn't Rochester," and he was not being arch: He had seen a century pass by, in all its glory and carnage and hope and sadness, and what mattered, in the end, was Linden Street, and Brown's Grove, and Mrs. Clune and the boys, and lively conversation, and banging out a good story on his typewriter as the sun came up.
In a novel by Sinclair Lewis, one of Henry's favorite writers, a character asks plaintively: "Why is it that nobody ever does do any of the things that he's free to do?" Henry never ran a sub-four-minute mile, but other than that he did pretty much what he wanted to do in this life, and in so doing he also enriched the lives of his friends, his family, his readers.
"I have had a wonderful life," Henry often said, as he sat in his den, fire crackling, drinks poured, lights on high, surrounded by sons and friends and books and of course photographs of his beloved wife. As a writer and reporter and raconteur he did more than tell stories: Through Henry, characters out of the dim past, not only George Eastman but Hinda Wassau and Rattlesnake Pete, came to life once more. Henry had not only seen history, in a sense he was history, preserving the earthly memory of so many souls, now departed, but remembered by us, and so in a way still alive.
Another upstate writer, Carl Carmer, the folklorist and poet from Albion, once wrote:
Late June he died
Don't mourn, said she
Things keep on
That folks don't see.
And so will Henry keep on, in our memories and in the memories of our children's children. For as long as there is a Rochester, Henry will be with us.
In his penultimate book Henry closed with this passage:
I have known no great triumphs. Flowers have not been flung in my path; I have heard no cries of 'Viva!' but I have done almost everything I wanted to do. In the vespertime quiet of a warm summer evening, on the terrace in front of our house, I have occasionally heard a whispered query: Where would you rather be than here? The answer is prompt and inevitable. Nowhere else in the world. Except for a couple of departures in early manhood in futile quest of greener pastures, I have lived all of my long life no more than fifteen miles from the place of my birth; thirty-seven years in the City of Rochester, fifty-five years in the same house with the same wife in the village of Scottsville. I always had a lurking wish to appear considerable in my native place, and in a career of nearly three-score years in the newspaper business in Rochester I achieved status and a desirable prestige. I always liked it here."
And Henry, "Here" will always like you.
As Henry W. or "Heinie" Clune, newspaper reporter or novelist, writer or husband and father, Henry was a fully integrated man. We have biographical facts, estimates of achievements, and gratitude for them. I want to remember the lively gentleman I found in his writing and fifteen years of warm friendship.
His Rochester began in Linden Street, bordering the Ellwanger-Barry nursery fields, in the family of a Horatio Algeresque businessman and amateur bicycle racer. There were sisters, family reading, a bull terrier, and lively neighborhood friends. He once wrote, "They were happy days, and my mother made them happy. She was a serene and gracious and kindly lady." Here he first experienced Rochester's peculiar charm, "rarely noticed by casual visitors and that…native residents themselves are unable very specifically to define. It is an insinuating thing…"
He also found rich human variety, stimulation and excitement. Sixty years ago he scolded Carl Carmer for finding Rochester mediocre, dull. "The trouble with Mr. Carmer's appraisal is that he relied too much upon his own experiences here, circumscribed as they were by academic life, instead of digging into the rich story mines of the town." Henry started mining these priceless veins in 1910. Curiosity and appreciation for a telling that gave shape and meaning to human experience led him to salon and saloon, police and political headquarters, stage door and circus tent, speakeasy and off-track parlor, cinder track and ballpark, greasy spoon and private club while on his "Main Street beat." (He would have been here today.)
He also saw something of the world. From France he wrote that seeing young men "torn, shattered, spoiled…convinces one that war is utterly stupid." That remained a lifelong conviction. The Jazz Age tested any shreds of pre-war Edwardian innocence, but Henry never lost his bearings. As a Phillips Andover student he used a false mustache to get into a Boston theater where Annette Kellerman, the diving Venus, plunged into a glass-sided tank. A photograph of another beautiful and talented swimming champion, Charlotte Boyle, led him to her as his treasured wife of nearly 70 years. In Scottsville, his beloved Genesee River flowed nearby their home. Four energetic, individualistic sons provided hiking and swimming companions. And there was a string of the much misunderstood bull terriers, companions during long walks in the country. He described one of them. "He's clean-cut, athletic, kindly, intelligent, hardy enough to stand the sub-zero regions of Northern Canada, or the heat of India. He's even-tempered, never snappy…" Without offense, not a bad description of the owner. He once wrote in a notebook: "Home was always the center but never the circumference of their lives." The lively Clune family provided instead gyroscopic stablility.
Henry's early Seen and Heard pieces were add-ons to everyday reporting. Over time he wrote 7500 of the enormously popular columns. In 1935 one began: "You sit at a typewriter…and stare at the keys. You say to yourself, 'Here it is 2 o'clock, time to get busy.'" He also clipped Red Smith's comment: "Writing a daily column is easy. All you have to do is sit at a typewriter until small drops of blood form on your forehead." Leg work, reading, events of all sorts, and interviews supplied raw material. At 6' 2" he looked down on many of his subjects, but never emotionally. Empathy, an unobtrusive notebook, and genuine curiosity about people allowed him to plumb depths, while his reporter's eye was recording appearances, and their significance. The harvest's diversity is incredible. In addition to thousands of local subjects, he developed a Seen and Heard "Who's Who." A tiny sample of remembered moments included, "Thomas Edison: With a stub pencil he wrote the answers to all questions except one…concerning the immortality of the soul, [which] he answered only with a smile." He found Winston Churchill "A looming, monolithic figure…"; Eleanor Roosevelt, "Gracious as a June morning, with the energy of a six-day bicycle rider." Jean Harlow, "The whizziest, whiz bang blonde, ever." Occasionally, he came a cropper, as with child prodigy Yehudi Menuhin: "But what made you think I'm a pianist?…I'm a violinist!"
At the age of 76, he wrote, "A fellow could get tired of this sort of thing, but oddly, to date, that hasn't been the case with me. I get tired, but not tired of the job." But he did have ambitions beyond the job. Early on, he wrote at home in "a cubicle that is variously used as a dog kennel, cloak room, bird sanctuary and repository for old newspapers and magazines, ice skates and box kites." He later cited, with approval, John Steinbeck's remark that the profession of book writing makes playing the races seem like a stable and conservative occupation. Still, word by word, year after year—with perseverance that would make Cal Ripkin blanch—he shaped a few million more words into the shelf of published books. His legacy, not just for Rochester, should be long treasured in the Gutenberg Galaxy. Those volumes fulfilled a vision that he had in prep school. The income was supplemental, although a particularly good advance backed a foray into New York's posh "21." Six well-received novels made him a bonafide literary man, and although he never practiced Hemingway's boastful self-comparison with Tolstoy, Henry did feel somewhat comfortable among the likes of Marquand and O'Hara, while lusting after the gloss of a Cheever. While minimizing his own "critical judgment," he continued to hone it on Edmund Wilson and Mencken. Henry read eclectically and well. He practically parsed Addison, Swift, and Macaulay. For decades he noted down stunning phrases and expressive vocabulary from many sources, although he was suspicious of "bower bird" words and abstractions.
Writing expressed a full life. His youthful aspirations as a mile-runner show up in columns and fiction. In 1969 his last regular Seen And Heard described the Jets playing the Buffalo Bills, as they did last Sunday. But he often found professional football "a poorly rehearsed tumbling act," and especially abhorred the super-hyped Super Bowl. In 1987 he wrote, "Come Super Bowl Day, I think I shall settle into a pleasant chimney corner, a Shetland comforter over these ancient knees, and re-read Emma, my favorite Jane Austen." He grew to dislike boxing, but had enjoyed its colorful crowds. Horse racing held similar but more fashionable attractions, especially at Saratoga.
But nothing excited him more than an elegant Pullman car, and the volcanic power of a steam locomotive. Once he rode the 20th Century Limited's engine cab. "We moved slowly, majestically out of the Buffalo yards, the locomotive click-clacking heavily over the yard switches, soon we were clear and moving at a constantly accelerating speed. The engine swayed alarmingly." At the end of the run, in Syracuse, he asked the engineer, "Do you ever come in late?"
"'This,' he answered haughtily, 'is the Twentieth Century Limited!'"
"It was a little like Napolean in Egypt saying, 'Soldiers, from the summit of yonder pyramids, 40 centuries look down upon you.'"
Henry looked out from his single century with eyes that took in less light, but still flashed. Though his hearing dimmed, the inner ear stored the rhythms of Shakespeare that he would recite by heart. His curiosity never dimmed; his memory was phenomenal; his correspondence voluminous. He sometimes worried about our collective future. As he mellowed into those last years, the sunshine and color, the zest and body of a remarkable life, fully ripened, sifted through.