3 Geniuses on Vacation

George Steiner, the literary critic, Wynton Marsalis, the celebrated trumpeter, and Doug Gilmour, the Hall-of-Fame hockey player, walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up, takes stock of the situation, and asks,

“What’s this? Some kind of joke?”

It is almost certain that Steiner, Marsalis, and Gilmour had even heard of each other, let alone gone out for a drink together. But there they were, piled on my nighttable over this past week’s vacation.

Or, at least, their books were.

Strangely, they each offer a similar life lesson.

Steiner, who passed away at 90 this past February, was an eminent intellectual. Originally from Austria of Jewish parents who fled the Nazis to France and then to the United States, he was educated at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford.

Fluent in several European languages, he held teaching positions at Cambridge and Geneva while lecturing around the world and writing reviews for The New Yorker. I’ve read more than half-a-dozen of his books and found each one immensely stimulating—from his reflections on creativity and communication in No Passion Spent (1996) to his startling articulation of Adolf Hitler’s point of view in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. (1981).

In late-in-life conversations with journalist Laure Adler (A Long Saturday, 2017), he reflects on his career as one who had to overcome significant challenges along the way.

Cursed with a withered right arm, his parents compelled him to learn to write with it, not just to switch to left-handedness. He struggled with a daunting new context as a highschooler in New York City whose previous homes had been in Vienna and Paris and whose previous languages had been German and French.

The record shows, however, that Steiner succeeded—as universities from Bologna to Glasgow awarded him honorary doctorates to complement his numerous decorations from British, American, and French institutions. He made the most of what he was given.

Wynton Marsalis is the distinguished director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program in New York City. He is the only musician to win a Grammy Award in jazz and classical music during the same year, and did it twice in a row. He is also the first jazz musician to receive a Pulitzer Prize—for his composition Blood in the Fields.

Marsalis comes from a jazz family: father Ellis was a successful performer and instructor, brother Branford used to lead The Tonight Show band, and his two other brothers perform as well. But, as Marsalis recounts in Moving to Higher Ground (2008), he was raised in poor and violent neighbourhoods from which young men often went to prisons or graveyards.

He is careful not to claim any false “street cred,” knowing that others have suffered far more (notably his idol, Louis Armstrong). But his dazzling success has come from doing his best with what he had—and his book keeps repeating that theme.

Jazz performance itself, he avers, is all about offering your distinctive voice to the world. Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, to cite two jazz greats, had very limited technical skills. But they focused on what they could do well—“nobody has everything”—and worked hard with both integrity and conviction to bring their particular gifts of music to a welcoming public.

Doug Gilmour has been retired from the NHL now for almost twenty years. But for the previous twenty, he was a force in that league as both a consistent scorer and a shut-down defender. Gilmour won a Stanley Cup, was named twice to the All-Star team, was a finalist for the MVP award (in the era of Gretzky and Lemieux), and received the Frank Selke trophy for best defensive forward.

Not bad for a little guy from Kingston, Ontario. Gilmour was undersized his whole career and passed over consistently by scouts who thought he simply wasn’t big enough to play at the next level. No matter how many scoring records he set along the way—and he set more than a few—Gilmour had to prove himself again and again, not least after being drafted only 134th by his first team in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues.

Prove himself he did, however. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011 and his number 93 was retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016. He is still in the top 20 career point-getters in the NHL.

And yet…

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