Now that the formalities of defining the philosophical framework and essentials of American flânerie have been dispensed with, there remains only one additional sine qua non before beginning the journey, namely, a brief discussion about the man who is the inspiration for this enterprise..
"If you ever wondered whose oyster the world is, meet Charles H. Baker, Jr.”
Esquire Magazine, 1954
Charles Henry Baker, Jr. was born on Christmas Day in 1895 in Zellwood, Florida. His parents, Jane Paul Baker and Charles, Sr. were both apparently from the Philadelphia Main Line, though I have so far been unable to determine precisely where.
Writer and restaurateur St. John Frizell has done a good job in researching the details of his early life, of which said details are rather scant. If you are interested, I would refer you to the article he wrote for the Summer 2008 issue of Oxford American, which you can navigate to from the Charles Baker link on the Resources page of this website or simply click here. Any information I would provide in this blog posting would only be duplicative of his superior efforts.
In 1925 Charles Baker received an inheritance from a grandparent who was apparently successful in the Pittsburgh steel business, and this presumably gave him the resources to embark on the first of his three trips around the world, aboard the S.S. Resolute of the Hamburg-American Line.
At every port-of-call, Charles Baker made it a point to seek out the most notable dining and drinking establishments, taking copious notes for the cookery and cocktail recipes he was able to obtain, as well as for the characters and other local color with which he became acquainted at each place, then filtering these notes through the perspective of his worldview into prose that ultimately became the foundation for The Gentleman’s Companion, Vols. 1 & 2, and all volumes and articles thereafter.
This was a man who clearly loved fine food, drink and life, and the social interaction that went with it. And he preserved it all through his writing.
It is Charles Baker’s writing style that endears him to so many, which has often been described as “baroque” in its character – indicative of an educated man-of-the-world who was keenly aware of many things, and who wove all of that awareness into a complex tapestry of imagery and obscure interconnections of knowledge, resulting in a descriptive prose that captured not only the food and drink and atmosphere of the establishments in which partook, but the previously referenced characters and local color as well, all in a dimension seldom seen. And perhaps most significantly - he captured the nature of the era itself.
It is extremely important to understand the context and timeframe in which he made these journeys. The period between the World Wars, despite the economic and political hardships that were inflicted upon many, was nonetheless an exhilarating time to be alive. It was a time when communications and transportation technology had advanced to the point that almost every place in the world was accessible, but it was also still an adventure to get there.
Traveling to different parts of the world at that time truly brought you into….. different worlds! Different foods; different people; different libations of every imaginable kind – not the tedious homogeneity that one fines permeating our modern globalized existence today. And it was also a very unique time when, in the words of St. John Frizell, “life [was] improbably well-lived,” regardless of where on the globe you might find yourself.
And here’s an important point: it wasn’t that people had an excessive abundance of anything back then – far from it. But they seemed to make the most of what they had in the most civilized way possible. That’s the difference. Today we have abundance, but we seem to have lost either our knowledge or desire of how to use it and live graciously.
So as a result, no matter where on earth Charles Baker traveled, he almost always seemed to find a place where he could quaff that distinctively American invention – the cocktail. Ingredients and presentation would always be indigenous to the locale, but nonetheless it appears to be one of those pleasurable aspects of life that a good portion of 20th century humanity had in common.
And it is my observation that he embarked on his journey within a relatively narrow window of time during which the confluence of so many other cultural factors came together (e.g., technology, social conventions, style) to provide for a life experience that none of us today can ever hope to see. The world was indeed his oyster.
But as we have seen, he chronicled this world for us so that we could live it through his highly unique and descriptive prose. You owe to yourself to go to the Resources page and check out at least one of his books.
In 1932, Charles Baker met the woman who would become his third wife, Pauline Paulsen – daughter of August Paulsen, a Danish immigrant who came to Spokane, Washington in 1892, and who became a millionaire through his stake in the Hercules silver mine located in the Coeur d’Alenes range of the Rocky Mountains during the mid-1920’s. When August Paulsen died in 1927, much of his fortune went to his daughter, Pauline.
It was a marriage made in heaven for Charles Baker. He and his wife now had millions of dollars available to them – right in the midst of the Great Depression. She shared his love of travel and drink, and so the stage was set for him to live the life of a flâneur and bon vivant until his death in 1987. They shared drinks with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Burl Ives, Hervey Allen, Errol Flynn, William Faulkner and Robert Frost.
They settled in Coconut Grove, Florida and built an estate they called Java Head, which is where Charles Baker finalized his manuscript for the Gentleman’s Companion, first published in 1939. The estate still exists by the way, and currently has a market value of about $9.3 million, with 10 bedrooms, 7.5 baths, all within almost 12,000 square feet. Just for kicks, you can see a video of the property here, if you’re so inclined.
Now, I don’t have millions of dollars, nor do I live in a 12,000 square foot estate in Coconut Grove. Instead, I have a jumbo mortgage with a day job in New York City. But you know, it doesn’t matter.
When I first became aware of Charles Baker, it was during a period when I was spending the better part of my own life trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of it. I saw how this man lived his life through his writings. And when I saw him characterized by one critic as both, “a flâneur and bon vivant,” I knew immediately that my future aspirations and finally been defined. Charles Baker showed me how to savor the best in life, and to capture it through his wonderfully descriptive writings.
So, a Charles Baker and a millionaire I am not, nor will I ever be. But I do share Mr. Baker’s passion for life, fine libations, and the ability to savor, love and share with those around me.
Therefore, in thinking this through, one thing has become very clear: You don’t need great, or even modest wealth to become a flâneur - or even a bon vivant. It might be nice. But you really don’t. And in fact, I have concluded, that to be the kind of flâneur to which I aspire, in the manner that I have defined, that much money would truly be a detriment to the effort.
It's really far more about one's state-of-mind than about wealth.
I think I have a better way. And I’m going to lay it out here in this blog. So stay tuned.
© 2016 David Nogar All Rights Reserved
David Nogar is a railroad transportation consultant presently working in New York City.