Some years back, when I had taken one of my sons to London, a portly gentleman looking something like a tweedy Dr. John (or Debussy) showed up every morning at the door of our Ebury Street flat. He knew where we were staying because he had generously arranged the lodgings himself. He said Ebury Street was where Bertie Wooster lived. Then, day after day, he proceeded to show us around his adopted city with patience and enthusiasm, regaling us with stories about his adventures in exotic lands, some of which were probably true. On the bus to Stonehenge and Bath, this Londoner out of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, kept us entertained by surreptitiously sketching caricatures of our fatuous tour guide.
I should add that he had his left foot in an unwieldy contraption that was necessary, he explained, to ease his gout. For a full week, he hobbled around town like that, never letting this encumbrance cramp his considerable style. My son, who was in middle school at the time, thought this International Man of Mystery must be with the CIA. Probably a “hitman.”
This was S.J. Masty, a friend from my Washington days in the late 1970s. It was the first time I’d seen him since he had flown off to the Middle East shortly after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, saying he wanted to aid the resistance. To that end, he seems to have run a bar in Peshawar, a kind of Rick’s for the Muhajideen.
It would be the last time I would see him, too. One night in mid-March this year I was telling a young writer friend about Masty, and the next morning—eager to find out what he might be up to these days—I looked him up online. That’s when I discovered that he had died in London, succumbing to cancer, on the day after Christmas. He was 61, and with his passing, Anglo-American conservatism lost something special.
Look Masty up on Amazon, and you’ll find a useful tract, The Muslim and the Microphone: Miscommunications in the War on Terror, and a novel, The Test of the Magi, as Johannes Bergmann. But if you Google him, you’ll enjoy affectionate recollections and a few marvelous pictures of a man whose contributions to civilized society were considerably greater than those of most political writers whose words are looked at by hundreds of thousands and promptly forgotten. Masty also wrote songs. Influenced by his years in Pakistan, he called his genre “country Eastern.”
I’ve heard that when Masty was a Hillsdale undergrad, he would chauffeur Russell Kirk from Mecosta and back, a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Kirk’s Christian humanism left its mark on Masty, as Masty’s own distillation of the same mellow spirits had on many younger conservatives who were fortunate enough to know him. Well read in the classics of the East as well as West, he would talk about them long into the boozy night—and not just talk but listen. Older people always found him endearing; young ones looked to him as a kind of sage. I remember most his merry tales, the humor of which seemed to bubble up from a tolerant astonishment at the foibles of all fallen creatures. His interest in people of all religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds was broad and deep. He had great respect for the Islamic peoples—and great affection.
For all his old-world affectations—and I loved his affectations—Masty was as American as you can get. He was probably the most truly democratic and least snobbish man ever to carry a walking stick. When I first met him, he had just returned from a semester or so at St. Andrews, and he was forever promising to “give me a shout” or chuckling over the latest political “con-TROV-ersy.” But after living in the Middle East, North Africa, London, and God only knows where else all those years, he became just what he had always set out to be, which was a citizen of the world—a self-made citizen of the world, at that. Re-inventing yourself on that scale, after all, is something only an American can pull off. And maybe only this American.
Alan Pell Crawford is the author of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson.