- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007


By Robert P. Moncreiff

Yale University Press, $35, 219 pages, illus.


If Angelo Bartlett Giamatti had not actually existed but rather had been a fictional character, most people would have refused to believe he was remotely real. A brilliant literary critic and teacher of Renaissance literature tenured in the departments of English and of Comparative Literature at Yale in his early 30s, Giamatti was appointed president of that university before his 40th birthday.

After a stormy eight years in that office, he left academia for another presidency he had long coveted, that of baseball’s National League. He topped that off by becoming Baseball Commissioner before dying suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 51. Add to this an ability to attract controversy in all the high offices he occupied and a colorful personality, and you begin to have some idea of just what a story his relatively brief life was.

Robert P. Moncreiff, a Yale graduate and a retired lawyer, never knew Bart Giamatti, but like most of his fellow alumni (and many who had no Yale connection), he was fascinated by what he observed at a distance about this force of nature. Finding that there was not much to be found in print about Giamatti, Mr. Moncreiff decided to write something himself.

(He also writes disarmingly that “retired professional persons … need projects with some intellectual content,” a statement that demonstrates what a contrast his low-keyed manner presents to that of his mercurial subject.)

He was hampered by Yale’s iron rule about not releasing any papers of its presidents until 35 years after they have left office and also by the unwillingness of Mrs. Giamatti and her children (two of whom, Marcus and Paul, are well-known actors today) to speak with him. Because of this, Mr. Moncreiff decided to make his study a profile rather than a full biography and, within the limits imposed upon him, has produced a judicious, informative book, albeit one that focuses largely but not exclusively on the public rather than the private life of Giamatti.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that, unlike the author of this book, I did know Professor Giamatti (as he then was) as an undergraduate at Yale, and I kept in touch with him sporadically after I graduated. I never actually took one of his courses, although I heard him lecture brilliantly on occasion, and he was a member of the small faculty committee that supervised the independent research projects of Yale’s twelve seniors who were Scholars of the House, of which I was one in 1970-71.

In this capacity, he had dinner with us each Monday night, along with his colleagues and sometimes invited guests, and I got to know him quite well. One winter night, I watched as he summoned up all his considerable resources of charm and turned them on a grumpy and disaffected W.H. Auden, who proved absolutely immune to them. With us students, Giamatti could sometimes be brusque.

It is true that he did not suffer fools gladly and that his brilliance could be daunting and intimidating. But he was a superb mentor and, although undoubtedly moody, was consistently encouraging and on occasion very warm. I think it fair to say that he was way beyond what most people associate with the phrase “type A personality”: Bart Giamatti was a type A + + + personality — and then some!

Perhaps this quality is key to the peculiar mixture of wild success and controversy, even failure, associated with Giamatti in all his roles, save that of teacher and scholar, where his accomplishments were unimpeachable. Despite a happy childhood and married life with his wife and three children, Giamatti was irresistibly impelled toward high accomplishment in the sphere of administration, first as Master of Ezra Stiles College at Yale and then as head of humanities for the university as a whole.

Yet Mr. Moncreiff shows a definite pattern of dissatisfaction with almost all the offices he held, notwithstanding his ravenous determination to achieve them. He quit the Mastership of Stiles, the presidency of Yale and that of the National League after much shorter than usual terms of office in each. He made waves wherever he went for those tumultuous dozen years before his untimely death, yet he seemed as roiled by the tempests he engendered as were his adversaries.

Driven and seemingly determined, fiercely ambitious and apparently self-assured, he was in fact driven by hidden demons and sometimes painfully uncomfortable in the roles he had so fervently and urgently sought.

Politically, Giamatti was a bit of an enigma. Widely believed to be a cultural conservative, he was cautious in revealing fully or acting upon what were in fact his core beliefs. Part of this was a correct realization that doing so would damage his chances to rise to the top at an institution where default liberalism, or what passed for it, held sway.

When as president of Yale his conservatism did appear, it undoubtedly damaged his standing among the faculty. Most of them regarded his tenure as president as something between a disaster and a tragedy, despite his real accomplishments in putting Yale on a sound fiscal basis and improving the always thorny town-gown relationship between Yale and New Haven.

Neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz were disappointed that Giamatti failed to join them in the trenches where they believed his actual beliefs made him belong. In fact, Giamatti was a truly independent thinker, rejecting what he saw as wrong with both left and right: He boasted that he never voted a straight ticket in any election.

Giamatti may have alienated people on all sides by his abrasive manner and disappointed many by what he sometimes failed to have the courage to say, but there can be little argument with what he did affirm: Civility, courtesy, respect, true freedom of discourse. As Mr. Moncreiff writes about his subject: “[T]here was his role as a defender of tradition, of order, moderation, and restraint in all things — in literature, in educational philosophy and standards, in political conduct, a role made more vivid because lived out against the background of a culture in which such values were under attack and widely out of favor.”

All this is undeniably admirable, especially because it went against the unfortunate grain of the times, but as the author concedes, “there was a dark side to Giamatti’s personality, an insecurity manifested by acute sensitivity to criticism and frustrated idealism, that caused him great personal anguish and sometimes limited his effectiveness.”

In evaluating Giamatti’s clashes with the labor unions at Yale and with Pete Rose in the world of baseball, Mr. Moncreiff makes it clear that these personality flaws played a prominent role in making the waters around him so turbulent. But it should also be remembered that whatever the flaws of his manner and personality, Giamatti’s actions were generally guided by those unimpeachable lodestars which he genuinely believed in as well as proclaimed. History will, I believe, judge this troubled but prodigiously talented figure more kindly than did his contemporaries and this measured, dispassionate book about him is a good start on that road.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide