Forward by Christopher Buckley
I suppose we’re all familiar with the line, “And they say that chivalry is dead!” It is, of course, delivered in an ironic tone, by way of affirming the negative, namely that chivalry is not only dead, but long dead. Well, dear reader, I have news for you: As long as Jimmy Symington, author of this marvelous collection of anecdotes and stories, remains alive—and may he remain alive for many years—chivalry is not dead.
Jimmy, or as he is more technically known (drum roll, please), The Honorable James Wadsworth Symington, is a Platonic Ideal of The Gentleman. He is also, more to the point, one of the best storytellers in the world, a distinction he shares with his fellow Missourian, Mr. Mark Twain.
I’ve known Jimmy for three decades or more. And having spent many magical hours in his company, and that of his beautiful and in every way delightful wife, Sylvia, I imagined I had heard most of his stories, culled from an eventful lifetime. But as I read this book, chuckling and marveling as I went, I soon realized that, as the saying goes, I didn’t know the half of it.
Been there, done that. Jimmy Symington is a WASP Forrest Gump (only smarter, indeed, a Yale man.) You name it, he was there. The man has had more lives than a cat; more phases than Madonna.
His maternal great-grandfather John Hay was (among other things) private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. His paternal great-grandfather was aide-de-camp to a Confederate general by the name of George Pickett. Jimmy himself was a U.S. Marine at the tail end of World War II. At Yale he was a member of the fabled singing group, The Whiffenpoofs. He played at the nightclub in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel while getting his law degree at Columbia. (One night after performing, he was asked to stop by the table of Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo, who paid him a breathy compliment to which he could respond only—not forgetting his manners—“Thank you, ma’am.”) He was at the 1960 Democratic convention where his father, Senator Stuart Symington, came within a whisker of being tapped as John Kennedy’s vice presidential candidate. Katharine Hepburn called Stuart: “Handsomest man in any room.” His son, I can report, is a close second.
Jimmy worked as an aide to Attorney General Robert Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was assistant to the Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, John Hay “Jock” Whitney in which capacity he was called on to serenade the Queen of England—and prisoners at Her Majesty’s largest prison, Wandsworth. He was appointed Chief of Protocol by Lyndon Johnson, which job produced some of the funniest stories in here.
He was for four terms a U.S. Congressman from the aforementioned great state of Missouri (pronounced “Missoura”), which makes him a certified, one hundred percent Americano. Well, his resume goes on and on but I’m going to stop there because it’s giving me carpal tunnel just putting this much down. Suffice to say that this extraordinarily varied curriculum vitae has left him with more stories to tell than the Arabian raconteur Scheherazade rattles off in her A Thousand And One Nights. And though that is a great book indeed, trust me: Jimmy’s is funnier.
But this is not just a collection of amusing stories. We find him confronting General Westmoreland over his request for another 100,000 troops in Vietnam; and asking Werner Von Braun, father of the Nazi’s V-1 and V-2 buzz bombs, if he believes in God; and being handed a preview copy of the Warren Commission Report into JFK’s assassination and being asked by Abe Fortas if he can “find any holes” in it.
Reading this book is like spending time with a fascinating and mesmerizing old friend. I’ve been privileged to be his friend, and our country has been privileged to have him as one of its premier citizens. When God made Jimmy Symington, he didn’t do anything else that day.