Jacques Barzun, Customer

Imagine Jacques Barzun receiving haircuts from two different barbers: one not knowing who Jacques is, and the other knowing full well. The unknowing barber confidently runs the clippers along the pate and trims here and there with scissors, perhaps ending with razor work on the sideburns and neck. He fetches the mirror to show his patron his hair from behind. It is a perfectly workmanlike job. With a brisk snap the barber removes the customer cape and hands Jacques a bill while he awaits his tip.

On seeing Jacques entering his establishment, the knowing barber probably has a somewhat different experience. At once he feels the weight of the enormous responsibility to do no harm to that magnificent head. He feels a kinship, one can imagine, to Margot Fonteyn’s pedicurist. The barber worries that his cutting instruments are not sharp enough. He wishes he’d filled that prescription for new eyeglasses. He reviews in his mind all prior instructions regarding Jacques’s preferences and hopes he hasn‘t forgotten any. He fetches a clean customer cape from the linen closet. As the professor takes the chair, the barber dispatches an urgent Hail Mary heavenward and concentrates on the task at hand. All he wants to do, as always, is to give Professor Barzun the best haircut he has ever had. He fetches the mirror when his work is done, not at all with trepidation but with pride and an enormous desire to please. He does not have to wait long for his reward: “Splendidly done,” Jacques would say with a warm smile, and the barber would be a happy man.

When I undertook the repair of Jacques Barzun’s clocks in the early 1970s I knew perfectly well who he was. I’d attended Columbia College and was steeped in the pantheon of intellectual giants: Barzun, Trilling, Highet, Hofstadter, Schapiro, and so many more. When I received the call from Virginia Xanthos Faggi, Jacques’s estimable assistant, that the University Professor would like me to have a look at one of his clocks I was of course both thrilled at the opportunity to provide a service to so distinguished a customer and terrified that I might not be good enough.

Not good enough? Of course I was good enough. I’d trained and practiced and studied clockmaking in New York under expert tutelage. I’d repaired plenty of clocks before I received Virginia’s call, so I fancied myself a competent, perhaps even gifted, mechanic. But was I up to the challenge of being good enough for Jacques Barzun? And what exactly did that mean?

It turned out to mean several things. It meant that if I said his clock would be ready in three weeks I could expect a phone call on the twenty-second day inquiring after the status of the job. Not in a nagging way, but in a firm and refined way that made it clear to me that Id made a commitment and that Jacques was holding me to it.

It also meant that if after my work a clock performed in any way differently than it had before, Jacques expected an explanation. (I learned early on in our relationship that he noticed everything.) He invariably understood what I had done and why, and he comprehended completely and immediately the subtleties and nuances that I tried to explain. Sometimes he would summarize my remarks so adroitly that I learned from him new ways of thinking about the elegance and precision of my profession. (When Jacques begins a sentence, “In other words . . . ,” the wise listener will pay close attention because a profound and stunning recapitulation is on the way.)

And it meant that I learned to be utterly honest. Sometimes, for instance, a clock will strike the hour a few seconds before or after the hour instead of exactly on the hour. It is easy (and, unfortunately, quite common) to explain away such inattentive or imperfect workmanship by saying, “That’s the way these clocks are,” but this is not acceptable to Jacques. To Jacques one must say, “Let me take it back to the shop and correct the problem,” or, in extreme circumstances, “I see your point and you are correct, but that’s the best that I can do.” I came to believe completely in what I take to be Jacques’s view, that reluctance is the worst failure.

To my immense delight we became friends and correspondents. Often, Jacques would write a post card or letter of gratitude for a job that he particularly appreciated. Though it is thirty years ago I still remember the thrill of receiving those notes. Imagine: the University Professor taking the time to write to me, and even, on occasion, to send along books or offprints of articles he’d written on various topics that he knew would interest me.

Ive believed for three decades that Jacques has had a profound effect on my life and my work, but I did not realize it in such a specific way until I began to think about writing this piece. It turns out that he is as formidable a customer as he is a scholar and educator, for he will share his knowledge, his skepticism, and his grace no less generously with a tradesman than he will with a doctoral student. I am grateful that his centennial has been the occasion of my clearly seeing how influential he has been. I only hope that in these remarks I have been able to pay him the high compliment of being Simple and Direct.


Not long ago an unexpected parcel with a San Antonio postmark appeared on my doorstep. The next thing I remember is standing at my workbench unpacking the contents, which were two clocks and a note from Jacques. The note was written in his unmistakable strong hand and with his customary punctilious phrasing. It seemed as though the note transported me back to 1971, when our friendship began.

I wrote to report that the clocks had arrived safely and to express my great joy at being back in touch. I subsequently wrote again, with my diagnoses, and asked him to contact me with his instructions.

A few days later I received a telephone message. It was from Jacques, of course. In a voice that sounded a bit weak but nevertheless as perfectly cadenced as ever he said that he had received my “very good letter.” Everything that has happened to me since that moment has seemed inconsequential.

Except for this: I returned his call without delay and we chatted for a short while. Hearing once again his voice, and sliding once again into an amiable conversation, it seemed to me (and still does) that we could have been sitting in his office in Low Library, or in his apartment, or in his office in the Scribner Building. These locations turn out to elicit more powerful memories than I had realized.

I had long been under the impression that the olfactory is the strongest and best remembered of the senses, but seeing Jacques’ handwriting and hearing his voice have given the lie to all that. Now, all of our interactions seem to have happened only yesterday, and there is no reason at all to doubt that he will live forever.

Fred Catapano
184 High Street
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

The Jacques Barzun Centennial