John Scanlon, well-known public-relations man, raconteur, and determined amateur scholar of everything Irish, was my best man and a close friend for more than 30 years. John died of a heart attack on a sunny spring day four months before 9/11. He had performed brilliantly in defending CBS against litigation by General William Westmoreland, not so brilliantly in disparaging anti-tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand on behalf of a tobacco company. Five of us delivered eulogies at the funeral. When my turn came, I mentioned some proper achievements, of course, but also Scanlon’s exceptional skill at signing books, an unexpected accomplishment when you consider that he wrote no books—he just signed them. It may have constituted the same degree of difficulty as becoming a four-star admiral, though born in Switzerland or Paraguay.
The first time I saw John practice his craft was at one of the annual artists–writers softball games in East Hampton. Robert Sam Anson, one of the writers scheduled to play, had sent over some copies of his new book to sell and inscribe at the game. For some reason he couldn’t make it, so Scanlon graciously took over the signing.
After an uninspired start (“best regards,” “hope you enjoy this”), John began inserting small bits of altar-boy Latin, such as Et cum spiritu tuo or Suscipiat, Dominus, each phrase with an exclamation point to express excitement. He also added urgent interjections, like “check out page 67, just unbelievable,” picking the page number at random. In the margin on whatever page it was, John would scribble something inscrutable but emphatic, such as “This is the key to everything!” He also liked sprinkling in a few “cfs” over his inscription, as in “cf Pascal!” One truly creative touch was his signing to a young, attractive woman: “Let’s never forget Pamplona.” This had to be surprising, since the book was about Vietnam, and neither the author nor the buyer seemed to have visited Pamplona or recalled an assignation there.
Some months later, at my apartment in Manhattan, I went to look up something in my old edition of Aristotle’s collected works and discovered that Scanlon had been there, too. He had written on the flyleaf: “John, I’m proud to be your good friend and intellectual peer. As ever, Aristotle.”
My first thought was to check my books by Joyce and Yeats to see if Scanlon had improved them, too—but no, he had left them alone, possibly out of respect. But Scanlon had marked up Spinoza’s Ethics and Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Spinoza got right to the point: “John, I hope you have as much fun reading this as I did writing it. Cheers, Barry.” Who suspected that the great but grim philosopher Baruch Spinoza actually had fun writing the Ethics and that to Scanlon and his closest pals, he was just plain Barry? Immanuel Kant was terse, too: “Get a load of this, John. Regards, Manny.”
Soon friends of ours realized how easy it was to acquire a signed Hemingway, Proust, or Dickens: just leave Scanlon alone near your bookcase for a few minutes.
I own many books—too many—so I suspect that more Scanlon inscriptions remain to be discovered. I came across one recently, in Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society. As it happens, the real Erik Erikson, the great psychoanalyst, inscribed a book for me some years ago, after I interviewed him for the New York Times. An unusually good-hearted man, he wrote something kind about my alleged reportorial skills on the book’s title page. So now I have two signed Eriksons, the earnestly real and the cheerfully bogus, and as much as I admire Erikson, man of science, the inscription that I value more reads as follows: “John, we both know that almost everything in this book came from you. Thanks a heap for sharing. Erik.”
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