Fifty years ago this fall I was voted Most Charming Senior of Tilden High School in Brooklyn. Although it wasn’t nearly as prestigious a title as Most Popular or as academically impressive as Most Likely to Succeed, I was thrilled to accept the honor. If you asked me then what it meant to be charming, I’d probably say something about being considerate and smiling a lot, something rooted in good manners. Ask me today when recent articles bemoan how charm is in short supply, and I still find it hard to define.
My first memory of the word came from Prince Charming who used his gift to rescue damsels in distress by liberating them from some creepy evil spell. No matter who was in jeopardy…Sleeping Beauty, Snow White or Cinderella, her hero (who I also thought of as her reward for surviving such awful circumstances), was the same handsome, indistinguishable guy.
Through the years I’ve sighed over ridiculously engaging Cary Grant and Rhett Butler and James Gardner. George Clooney deserves a sentence of his own. Hugh Jackman too. Each could, as Rita Mae Brown said, “charm a dog off a meat wagon.” I see charm as a quality reflecting a relaxed assurance, a good natured ease that is both cool and warm. It’s one part casual offhand wit, one part superficial banter, both genuinely invested in making the other person feel good. Taylor Swift was charming… till she wasn’t. Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t, till he was. Michelle Obama is charming, her husband not so much. Bill Clinton’s got charm, his wife, not really. Meryl Streep, yes. Angelina Jolie, no. Lots of little kids have clear charm potential, more Southerners than Northerners deign to bring out the charm, and more than a few newscasters (Brian Williams, Charlie Rose, Charles Osgood) make the medicine go down with a dose of the social grace.
Like salt, just a subtle pinch goes a long way; too much and it becomes suspect and smarmy. Like brains and breeding, it can be used for good or evil. If you catch a glimpse behind the curtain and become aware of it at work, charm quickly feels manipulative and dishonest. Many lying sociopaths who pass lie detector tests, con men who swindle, and politicians who practice politics above all, possess the charm gene. In fact, the cynics among us insist that charm is inherently insincere, perhaps accounting for why we don’t see many charming real life soldiers or astronauts or heroes of any kind.
Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Charming people, living in our direct, data-driven world, understand that truth.
At the end of the day I believe charm to be a social… and civilized…virtue. The people I consider charming all shift the spotlight to others. They notice who you are. Whether theirs is an inherited blessing or a learned skill, it’s lovely to be in their company. Yet it’s puzzling, for a trait that skews more feminine in its self deprecating, good-listening-skills-required description, that most of us can more easily name more charming men than women.
Oh, the night I was to learn the news about whether I won the title of Most Charming Senior was November 22, 1963. Like a lie that goes unpunished, the fact that my victory went uncelebrated makes it an even more vivid memory. The Red Letter Hop was cancelled that Friday night. Because that was the day the most charming president we ever had went to Dallas.