larz anderson - book annex - march 2012Our book today is Larz Anderson: Letters and Journals of a Diplomat, a pleasingly plump 1940 volume assembled three years after Larz’ death by his wife Isabel, whom we’ve already met here at Stevereads: she was the author of (among many other books) the delightful memoir Presidents and Pies. Her husband Larz spent his whole life in the U.S diplomatic corps and was besides that an energetically prolific letter-writer and journal-keeper who had always intended some day to write a memoir but never got around to it. After his death, Isabel also protested her intention to ‘do something’ with the vast written legacy Larz left behind – and true to her word, this resulting volume is a vast, lovingly assembled treat, professionally edited and footnoted, full of the adorable doodles Larz tended to draw on everything, and prefaced by a quick note from his life-long friend Charles Francis Adams, who was a classmate of his (Harvard ’88 – 1888, that is) and who writes simply of him, “his greatest talent was for friendship.”

The book is an endless gazetteer of privilege. Larz came from a wealthy Ohio family, went to Phillips Exeter and then Harvard, and took a long, leisurely tour of the world right after graduation. He entered the diplomatic service in 1891, married Isabel in 1897, and moved steadily from one posting to another – London, Rome, Belgium, Japan, always with ample leisure time, always with happy friends and lavish dinners. There was the sumptuous family home in Brookline, Massachusetts, a country mansion in New Hampshire, and a beautiful house in Washington, D. C., and there was the very comfortable yacht Roxanne, and after Larz’s retirement in 1913, there were cruises everywhere in the world, always with cheerful letters of introduction to all the best people in all the best ports of call.

It’s saved from being vaguely repulsive by two key things: First, the Andersons were inveterately fun people – genuinely inquisitive, tirelessly upbeat, and, eventually, very much in love with each other. Larz was a dauntless seeker after new experiences (“the most brilliant of us” Adams writes, uncharacteristically giving himself too little credit) and he prized more than anything sharing those experiences, both in person and then in print, as he did during the week in 1905 when he was feverishly preparing for a long camping trip in the wilds of Maine:

I am bound to town in a few minutes. I must buy some last things for our trip – make a larz anderson doodlesrough fellow of myself. Oh, I shall look properly dirty before we get through, unshaven, unwashed, and my, how good it will be when we come out of the woods and can lead a clean life once more! I hope Isabel will enjoy it as much as she anticipates – and that I may enjoy it more!

(The trip itself was one long rain-drenched mosquito-plagued disaster, but it made for such wonderful stories later that nobody seemed to care)

Larz served for a year at the Belgium station, learning in late summer of 1911 that his name had been put forward (the Taft administration, as usual, had been a little lax in sending out its notifications – a slackening that always happened when the President and Mrs. Taft set up vacation shop on the North Shore):

The first I heard of my actual nomination as Minister to Belgium was from a newspaper man who, by mistake, got me on the telephone while we were on board Roxana, tied up to the dock at Beverly. … When we came back and saw the announcement in the evening papers, assuring us of our nomination, I went to call at the Summer White House to express my gratification, but the President and Mrs. Taft were out. I stopped at Nahant to see Senator Lodge (who, however, had just gone to Washington), for I wanted to find out from him what might happen in the Senate, and he is one the Foreign Relations Committee. I got to Washington tonight.

Of course, even after Larz and Isabel left government service, they still had government access through their nerve-center Dupont Circle house, entertaining diplomats, kings, dowager empresses, and presidents, and being entertained in their turn. Some of the most fascinating little insights in this volume come from those latter days, which for a time seemed to pass in a dreamlike state of semi-permanence (“The year 1924 baby reading larzbegan as the year 1923 had ended, with beautiful days, cold, still, and sunny …”). Our happy couple weren’t on particularly friendly terms with President Wilson, but we get to read some of Larz’ observations of later presidents, some of which are fairly keen. “The President was not silent, but not talkative,” he writes of Calvin Coolidge for example, “his silences are most speaking, for you feel that he is there all the time, and thinking, and enjoying himself.”

Larz Anderson died of pneumonia in April of 1937, and his dumbstruck widow received telegrams from all over the world – expressing condolences, testifying to kindnesses done, remembering some wonderful stories. This big volume is a wonderful memorial to the man’s giving nature, but it’s not the only such memorial, not by a long shot: there are parks, and in Boston by the boat house there’s a bridge over the Charles, and in Jamaica Plain’s Arnold Arboretum there’s a gorgeous collection of bonsai trees – all the gifts of a more generous time. All the gifts of Larz.

  • Melwyk

    This sounds fabulous. I love collections of letters and journals, but must admit that, not being American, I’ve never heard of this man. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for it, it sounds like something very worth searching out!

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