Hutchins Himself

The "great man" who wanted to institutionalize the "Great Dialogue" is profiled by an erstwhile Center fellow


It was 1956, early winter. I'd come up to New York from Virginia for a Fund for the Republic conference. The city still functioned. Probably at its all-time peak. After work, midtown congestion was already quite uncongenial, but my taxi was surging north from 38th with pleasing periodicity. I'd gotten back to the Tuscany Hotel from the Fund's offices primed for a drink and a pleasant conversational dinner, but a note in my box from Jim Real said I was to come to the Waldorf Men's Bar where Real, along with Walter (Millis) and Bob (Hutchins)—"Bob" Hutchins!—would be waiting.

Three months earlier, during the 10-minute break after my 8:00 a.m. political science lecture to Washington and Lee sophomores, I'd opened a letter. Very terse. "Saw your article in Dissent. If you happen to be in New York, look me up." Signed, Ping Ferry, Vice-President, Fund for the Republic. It was some kind of cruel joke. Washington and Lee is in Lexington, Virginia. The southwest side of Virginia. You can only get there by jitney. I happened into New York City like every world war or so. If Ferry had said, "The next time you happen to get to Reykjavik,…" it would have amounted to about the same thing.

I fired off a furious reply. (Why not? With a type like that I obviously had nothing to lose.) "Thanks a lot. I'll be sure and look you up the next time New York holds a World's Fair, but it would probably be a waste of time to call on any rich foundation. There is no way we could have anything in common." Three days later a telephone summons: "Come at our expense."

A strange visit. The Fund for the Republic occupied the Lincoln Building penthouse offices. I was shunted around from Ping Ferry to Hallock Hoffman to Jim Real and others. Martinis and lunch at the Century Club. More interviews. Circuit finished. Back to Ping: "If money were no object and you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?" That was style! I told him.

But through it all I'd never met the boss. Rather, we'd brushed hands briefly as we happened to pass when I was being handed off between interviews. Fifteen years later I learned it was Bob himself who had first read that obscure article in Dissent; Bob who had told Ping to write; Bob who had read my insolent letter and said, "Get him up here"; and Bob who, briefed on each of my interviews, ordered simply, "Find out what he wants to do and fix it so he can do it."

I did get exactly what I asked for, and more. But I also got involved in meetings at the Fund about three times a month, plus piled-on requests for critiques and evaluations of books, of grant applications, and of just plain over-the-transom letters. They'd stuck into my dream bargain some canny, privately reserved fine print, but I wasn't complaining.

* * *

The Waldorf Men's Bar—anti-Women's Lib—6:00 p.m., 1956. A rich, blue inversion layer from incinerating Havanas hung over the room. The noise level from a thousand, tension-pitched voices—powered by what Bob fondly called the house deep-dish martinis—was accompanied by a 12-tone cacophony from the best-liveried and highest-paid plate-and-chafing-dish band ever assembled. It was a din that could be duplicated only in an Eighth Avenue dress-making loft. Sighting through the ingeniously deployed liveried guards who ran the compound and across the jammed-in, too-small tables, huddled over by too many people in too-large chairs, I located my target.

"You finally made it," quizzical, raised eyebrow, near smile: the second sentence Bob had ever addressed to me. "Pull up a chair and have a drink. We've already ordered."

It was not one of the easiest missions of my young life. But finally, jammed in beside Bob, I looked around for a waiter. I knew better than to try the enlisted ranks of bus boys, set-up boys, salad and coffee boys, etc. Only the officer corps could help me. So, fixing my eyes sternly upon a handsomely uniformed officer guarding one of the mid-room zones, I waved authoritatively, turning back to the table expectantly. Nothing happened. Looking back at the still immobile fellow, I assumed I had not gone high enough. So, finding the eye of a more elaborately braided sub-altern, I reissued my feigned New Yorker's summons. Nothing happened. By now—a little nervous, self-confidence rapidly draining—I tried a higher rank. Same result. Spotting next a certified field general, tails and command trappings marking a man of real authority, I tried again. Same result.

Now, having shrunk to about three-foot-six in my outsized chair, I turned to Bob, who had been oblivious of my desperate plight, and asked, "How does a guy get a drink in this place?" Sizing up the situation immediately, Bob realized I had done right in bringing my problem to him. This was, after all, one of those crises top executives are for. Summoning himself to his full height—even seated, he was taller than most of the patrolling officer corps—he fixed his eye coldly on the nearest waiter and, with an imperious gesture, summoned him to the position of "present menu" immediately, turning back to me benignly. Nothing happened! Mildly irritated, he then peered beyond the insensitive dolt—probably the recent recipient of a battlefield commission and too intimidated to move—and, fixing upon a superior of captain's rank, re-summoned. Nothing happened!

This produced an alarming situation at our table. Conversation stopped. The other two looked aside nervously. This might not go well at the next board meeting. Best pretend not to notice. Bob, visibly disturbed by now, fixed his eye directly on a cruising maître d' and motioned an unmistakable direct command. The kind that says of itself, this is a direct order! We all relaxed…nothing happened. It was a crisis. I wished I'd never come. And it was obvious the sentiment was echoed by the others, in spades—daggers.

Bob, a calm, meditative attitude now settling over him, lifted both hands from his lap and, starting deliberately from the flanks of the carefully ranked pieces of silver flatware that lay before him, picking first the outside pieces on both sides, salad fork in one hand, soup spoon in the other, began gracefully tossing them in pairs, back over his shoulders.

Instantly, with the first clatter of the pieces striking the floor, we were surrounded by sedulously servile livery. The room's heavy din of talk and clatter ceased. Bob, summarily addressing the highest-ranking officer who had rushed up, pointed at me and said slowly, "Get this man a drink," emphasizing each sternly delivered word with a punctuated jab that pointed every word toward me; and then airily waved them all away. The Men's Bar returned to normal. All was well. Bob turned to me, almost sadly, and said, "Harvey, I've never reached the knife."


Whenever Bob's friends gather, the talk turns to Hutchins anecdotes. "Bob," Milton Mayer once wrote, "is the kind of man other men's best quips are always attributed to." But not this one. I was there. It's my favorite of the many Hutchins episodes I've witnessed and of all those I've heard related by others. It was a side of Bob that helps define his originality. He sometimes, with feigned modesty, confessed that he was not an original thinker. Perhaps. Judgment on that, with Bob as with anyone else, will wait a while. But he was an original man. He just naturally, without trying, invented new and exciting ways of being a man, the way others invent things like holograms and lasers. And not just in matters of personal style.

Bob also had the talent of graceful shaftsmanship. Bill Benton, who was a great, if difficult, businessman, adored Bob, as well he should have. It was Bob who, when Bill was his executive chief at the University of Chicago, suggested one day, "Bill, I think you ought to buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica." The late Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Company had bought the plates during World War I in order to preserve them in the face of the impending death of the original company. But neither he nor General Wood was comfortable having a mail-order house publishing a distinguished encyclopaedia, and Wood had indicated as much to Hutchins. Just like that. An off-thought that Bill Benton soon recast into solid gold.

Bill once introduced Bob at a great ceremonial dinner as "the luckiest man in the world." Bob rose, and with elaborate care, managed his lank and limbs into podium position and said, "I must make a correction. I'm the second-luckiest man in the world. The luckiest man in the world is the previous speaker. He's never had to work for Bill Benton."

Bob functioned in a slightly different universe from the rest of us. It operated under enough of the same laws and principles so that there was sufficient coincidence to allow a realm of correspondence between his universe and ours, but for some purposes the two remained distinct. Bob's universe had different moral laws. It contained no Watergates, no godfathers. Its rhetorical landscape was carefully pruned of cliché and cant. Some inner censor, functioning with an editorial Calvinism, produced a bare-bones prose that drove his propositions directly into the brain with a drum fire of clear and distinct ideas: a Cartesianism of the moral order. He was not a systematic philosopher. He was, among other things, the greatest one-liner in the history of Western moral philosophy.

All of this issued from a physical and sartorial elegance which also seemed to be from another realm. Bob's shoes were always shined, but one could not imagine their being shined. Rather, the physical lawfulness of his special universe was such that dirt and scuffs simply didn't visit themselves on his shoes. It isn't that his fingernails were always immaculate; rather, it's that dirt simply didn't get under them in the first place. One could not imagine him picking his nose—in private. Biological laws were different where he lived. He didn't squirm or scratch. Itches just wouldn't dare bestir him.


Years ago, in consultation with Bob (and Bill Benton on deck ready for the fiscal alchemy), Mortimer Adler began working on the Great Books series. He delved into the preparation of its crowning Syntopicon with the assumption that the leading thinkers of history had engaged in a "great conversation" that had reached across the centuries, analyzing, developing, relating, and synthesizing recurrent themes in some on-going fashion—in a "Civilization of the Dialogue."

Adler believed that this larger, meta-dialogue could be extracted from the Great Books themselves and then explicated for the benefit of others. In this fashion the Syntopicon might serve as a facilitator to enable contemporary readers to participate more intelligently and wisely in the great conversation Hutchins and Adler presumed had taken place. One of the purposes of the Great Books dialogue would be to introduce people in general to the great conversation.

To Mortimer's great surprise and disappointment, he found that the dialogue he and Bob assumed to have taken place had not ever occurred. There was some cross-reference by occasional authors, but by and large history's great minds had ignored one another's arguments. When told of this, Bob merely replied, "If it doesn't exist, it must be created." And he did.

The desire to inaugurate this previously unarticulated, great conversation was Bob's guiding motive from that time onward. This goal was what led him to resign from the University of Chicago ("not a great university, only the best there is") and later found the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions ("not a great Center of independent thought and criticism, just the only one there is").

He had concluded, with the cosmic melancholy that pervaded all of his pronunciamentos, that no college or university, not even All Souls, represents a true intellectual community. Straight away, duty-ridden by Presbyterian birthright, he dedicated himself to founding one. Out of this persisting, 20-year quest evolved the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions as it is today.

Harvey Wheeler was one of the original fellows at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. This article is adapted from an address written for the occasion of Robert Hutchins's 75th birthday. in 1974.