Calvin Trillin

updated 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Trillin likes subjects both odd and ordinary—like sudden death and food

UNLIKE MOST WRITERS OF PAINTERLY, impeccably crafted journalism, Calvin Trillin likes dressing up in what he calls an ax murderer's costume—a warty fright mask, a Roto-Rooter outfit with "Calvin" stitched across the breast pocket and a big rubber lizard on his arm. For years he has appeared in this garb on the streets of Greenwich Village in the annual Halloween parade. "We have a couple of sacks of costumes at home," he says, "but every year I go back to the ax murderer. Am I getting in a rut?"

If so, it's the only rut he's ever been in. In a 30-year career centered at The New Yorker magazine, Trillin, 57, has poked all around the U.S. like a free-range chicken, bringing back a huge variety of stories—everything from the exclusion of Jews from Mardi Gras to the weight-loss program of Larry "Fats" Goldberg, the New York pizza baron who dropped 160 lbs. He has also prowled the blue highways in search of such lip-smacking local foods as Louisiana gumbo and Vermont bear—writing about them, said one critic, with "a sensuality so explicit as to border on the prurient." He turns out a loopy humor column syndicated by King Features, has appeared 33 limes on The Tonight Show as a sort of egghead comedian and has mounted two one-man shows in New York City.

But the shrewd and amiable Bud Trillin—almost nobody calls him Calvin—has steered clear of one subject: himself. "I've never heard him deliver a remark about his own personal problems, says fellow New Yorker writer John McPhee, who has known Trillin for 30 years. Some of that reserve has melted in Trillin's new best-seller, Remembering Denny, a memoir about the doomed Denny Hansen, a brilliant, athletic Yale classmate with a Rhodes scholarship and apparent!) limitless potential. He was so incandescent in school that his friends used to discuss, only half jokingly, what Cabinet posts they might hold in a Hansen Administration. Yet somehow this was the same person who in 1991 put a book and a frying pan on the accelerator of a car and gassed himself to death in a garage.

Remembering is a meditation, too, on the expectations shared by Trillin and friends, all those '50s white male Ivy Leaguers so sure they'd inherit the earth. After Denny's memorial service, he says, "all these people were discussing him so intensely. It made me think that the sort of mythic Denny had a hold on them that was worth looking into." But as Trillin looked back on the ruin of his college chum, he found himself increasingly weaving his own early life into the writing. "It became more difficult than any book I've ever done," he says. "I'm not used to writing personal stuff.

Buddy Trillin was born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., a shy boy of East European-Jewish immigrant stock. His father, a grocer, read the popular pulp novel Stover at Yale and was seized by the idea of sending his son there. Virtually coin by coin, he saved the money. Yet in all those years father and son never had a heart-to-heart. "He didn't talk about what he was feeling either," Trillin says. "When I was a kid, I associated feelings with the sort of thing women talk about."

Trillin rose to become chairman of the Yale Dally News but didn't leap directly into journalism, which was "déclassé in those days," he says. "In fact, we considered the word journalism candy-assed." Instead, he did a manly two-year hitch in the Army, stationed mostly on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. But once he became a civilian again, he joined TIME magazine and was soon based in Atlanta covering the civil rights movement.

One of the biggest stories in 1961 was the ordeal of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, who broke the color bar at the University of Georgia. Trillin was very different from other reporters there, says Hunter-Gault, 51, now national correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. "He wasn't frantic or screaming in my face. He was sort of unobtrusive and rumpled, wearing a trenchcoat—like a precursor to Columbo. But he was easy to talk to and one of the few journalists I trusted."

Later, back in New York, Trillin worked at TIME as a "floater," writing for various departments. Some of them he didn't like—Religion, for example. "I finally got out of that by prefixing everything with 'alleged,' " he said. "I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go." (He later wrote a comic novel. Floater, based on those days.) But in 1963 he found a better home for his quirky and meandering mind at The New Yorker. From 1967 to 1982 he produced, under the rubric U.S. Journal, brisk 3,000-word dramas every three weeks—mostly serious pieces about ordinary Americans, often at each other's throats, in which his wit gleamed like glints of gold thread.

That rhythm of work meant Trillin spent a week on the road reporting each story and two at work back home with his family, who are by all accounts the touchstone of .his life. He and Alice Stewart Trillin, 55, an educational-television producer, married in 1965 and raised two daughters in those years: Abigail, 24, now attending New York University Law School, and Sarah, 21, just out of Yale. In 1976, Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer. "She had never smoked," says writer Mark Singer, another New Yorker friend. "It was terrifying, and it really rocked Bud. He sublimated his fear by seizing the moment, by celebrating life in his work. That's what the food writing became. Later, Alice had part of a lung removed, and while she was recovering they went a lot of places together. They were having a good time because he didn't know if they would have a good time forever."

In 1982, Trillin abandoned his U.S. Journal series—and with it, food writing—for longer, more occasional pieces. Not only had Alice long since recovered, but he was discovering the downside of being identified as a gourmand: Food fanatics were collecting around him like crows. "I was getting calls from people," says Trillin, "saying things like, 'I'm on the corner of 10th and Elm in Toledo. Where should I eat?' " Still, he hasn't lost his taste for the exotic. At the Trillins converted farmhouse on the south shore of Nova Scotia, where they go each summer, "every day's a food adventure," says friend and neighbor Alan Comfort. "Bud hangs out on the docks wailing for the boats. He likes lung fish and tile fish, the kinds nobody else wants."

These days friends also notice that Trillin is keeping less to himself. "Since the Denny book, you get fewer jokes and more of the real thing with Bud." says Singer. Trillin is not. however, pushing further into confessional writing. His next book is a collection of light verse (tentatively titled Deadline Poet), including one hail-and-farewell ode to another old Yalie—George Herbert Walker Bush. ("We wish you well. Just take your ease/ And never order Japanese/ May your repose remain un-blighted/ Unless, of course, you get indicted.") "I'm going back," says the author, "to being the same detached smart aleck I was before."

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