Daniel Menaker

Noblesse Oblige

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Will Menaker would have been in high school, I think. He had idolized Muhammad Ali ever since we had seen one of the movies about him–was it Will Smith’s biopic, or “The Greatest”? In any case there was an event in New York, in some hotel high-floor event room, to which I had, inexplicably, been invited, and which Mr. Ali was also attending. I knew he would be there and and I think I told Will I would try to get Ali’s autograph for him. More inexplicably still, Lillian Ross, The New Yorker writer and William Shawn’s mistress, also attended this event, whatever it was. Lillian Ross and Muhammad Ali. What function could have put them together in the same room? She was no longer writing for The Talk of the Town very much, as I recall.
Lillian Ross is one of the two people in the world to whom I will not speak, not that she cares, of course. I won’t speak to her because having included me and Chip McGrath, a friend, in an anthology of Talk of the Town pieces at Random House, she dropped us out of the final product. I asked the book’s editor, David Ebershoff, why, and he was politely evasive, saying that Miss Ross thought that McGrath and I hadn’t really been regular Talk writers–which was true. I pressed him, pointing out that there were a few other “irregulars” included in the collection, and he finally told me that at some point as the book progressed, Lillian began to vilify me and McGrath for (I believe) not having supported Shawn during the contentious time when Robert Gottlieb was soon to arrive to take his place as the magazine’s Editor. Something like that. Ebershoff made it clear that Miss Ross had ended up being vituperative about us. Little did she or does she (unless she reads this) know, and, as I’ve said, little would she care, that I thenceforth determined never to speak to her.
Enough about Lillian Ross. Ali. He was there. He was looking good, if a little tremulous. Admirers surrounded him like iron shavings around a big magnet. I couldn’t just bust through and get his autograph. I hung around on the periphery, feeling like a fool and almost hoping that I wouldn’t even get the chance to approach him.
But I did. He was leaving. The crowd around him opened and he started walking in the direction of the elevators, and, miraculously, he was alone, except for a few bodyguards. No one approached him as he made his way. Except me. I figured out how to sort of flank him through this door and then back through that one, and we ended up face-to-face at the elevator bank.
Muhammad? No, Mr. Ali. “Mr. Ali, I’m sorry to bother you on your way out, but I wonder if I could get your autograph. For my son, for my son–you know, for him.”
“Yes, hold on.”
“Thank you.”
“You got paper?”

“Uh, no. Wait.” I somehow foraged some scrap of paper and handed it to Ali.

“You got pen?”

“Uh, no.”

His coterie did not seem to have a pen, either. They did seem impatient.

      “Wait, wait,” I said. I dashed away a few feet and copped a pen from someone else nearby. I went back to Ali. “Here.”
Ali looked at me, sort of scrutinized me. “Hey,” he said. “You know what?”
“What?”
He said, “You not as dumb as you look. What’s your boy’s name?”
“Will.”

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