Andrew Plunket Beirne III (and I always forgot it was one t, not two to his derision) was and is one of the fixtures of my life, so part of the land and geography of the places of my past that I sort of cannot imagine life without his being around. He could discuss music for hours, then analyze some company situation, and then look at you crosswise, when someone was doing something strange across the room. He would see it. Did I care about Country Joe and the Fish? The ne’er do well guests at Fellini’s Restaurant in Charlottesville? Or the bankruptcy of Johns Manville? I did after talking with him.
He was a good friend both at boarding school at Woodberry Forest, and after in Richmond, where our lives came together for social events, birthday parties and hundreds of calls, visits and coffee chats. For three years he roomed with my classmate Holder; the idea of a friend group having the names Plunket, Holder, Catesby and Garland was enough to sense something was going to happen if we were together. I know the teachers at Woodberry still around who knew him will be sad as I am; he was a sort of social glue. There are those who tear groups down, through lies and subversion. Plunket, in his optimism, showed there was value in any gathered pack, if you just came at it in reality, and looked forward.
Sometime after he got to Richmond, he was mugged in Shockoe Slip, as I recall. It was vicious and he was hurt quite badly, as I think he even had some bruises on his head. I never heard him get resentful about it; as I recall he thought it civilized (my word but that’s sort of the way he would have expressed it) that the city of Richmond paid for the out-of pocket medical bill through some sort of victim fund. That made Richmond sort of O.K., a thread of positivity in a city then riddled by murders, crack crimes and family breakdown. I recall another situation where he was done wrong by someone he thought was a friend. He spoke of it once, and never again.
When I started the weekly newspaper The Richmond State, he offered to write a column called Food under the pseudonym of Pongo Twistleton. Plunket was fully supportive of my fit of youthful entrepreneurial ambition, and was always talking up the paper to potential advertisers, as well as cleverly mentioning some of them in the column for fun, but only if they worked in his topic for the week. He brought the columns by each week written by hand, on legal paper.
The late Rob Crosby, who we lost earlier this year to cancer, typed them up. He was actually managing editor, but he loved to see what observation Plunket might bring for the next edition, and was glad to do the manual work of typing. Plunket and Rob were equals in the wry distance from life dreariness department. They were both observers, and far smarter than the rest of us. They lived for the present, fully understanding the past and the unimportance of the vanities we all exhibit, and the special dysfunctional vanities peculiar to Richmond.
The column used the pseudonym Pongo Twistleton, not so much because he was worried about being found out, but because he was not in it for the fame or attention. Pongo Twistleton was a minor literary character in a few P.G. Wodehouse novels. Twistleton, the character, is described as being “known for having an open heart with a large welcome mat.” That was Plunket, who had everyone over to his house more times than we deserved, but ultimately knew that life was not life if you did not live it with other people. Even my children love him as a person; he was nicknamed “bucket” as the name Plunket was just not seemingly a usual name for a man leading the entertainment at a 6 year old’s Peter Pan themed birthday party.
The pseudonym did allow him to be completely honest about everything that he thought, and it also made the column, and the newspaper, more fun. Food by Pongo Twistleton was really a commentary on Richmond, his adopted city. His mother’s family was all from Orange, near and associated with Woodberry, so he could give me insight on the melodies of Johnny Mercer (cousin of the late headmaster) and new the rest of the state better than many. But his time growing up in Connecticut let him have an outsiders view of the South, which was not always so pretty.
The column was really a commentary on Richmond, but had the effect of getting the reader to think about whether the food was good, and what it meant that you were eating it. The writing was flawless; he was just that good. He could switch tone, and voice and subject so deftly that you did not know where you were going, but at the end of the column, you trusted where you had been.
I found a number of his old columns on my zip drive. This is his imaginative take on Martha Stewart, if she took on George Washington’s birthday:
“Stars and Stripes with Martha Stewart” is a very instructive and fascinating prime-time special on just how to celebrate Washington’s birthday. Martha will with this program change forever the observance of this holiday. “This special day is just perfect for neighborhood children. Everyone can join in powdering wigs and sewing breeches. We find it most fun to then get the children in the costumes and float them on our pond using a rude craft. Afterward we like to go home were I serve fig pudding and a fine but inexpensive Madeira. All in costume.”
Plunket was up for the adventure; for a time in a Saab convertible, and later a real Range Rover. The good squared off kind. When he got to Richmond, he and Diane worked with me on fund-raising for TheatreVirginia at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I can recall so many board meetings of him keeping whatever we did in the realm of good taste, and I could count on a trip in the Saab to get the party pieces assembled on that Saturday morning before.
He came out to visit me in Knoxville, Tennessee when I did an internship while in college. He made friends everywhere, and quickly sorted out the restaurants. He also found a suitably un-ironic dive bar. Universally, he was never cross or ill tempered. That was because he saw the foibles of the world clearly, and was smarter than everyone in the room. If we think of the term emotional intelligence, he was that personified.
If he had been Ambassador to Iraq, I am sure that we would have never been at odds. He would have had them all to dinner, repeatedly, and talked to them and shared so many funny observations about the world, and people he had known or met, that there would have been no need for missiles. Who would want the war when the daily process of living was so much more of an adventure?
Diane was his love, and he not only loved her, but her family, and through his enthusiasm for them, I too became fans of the Marrows. I am sure that being married to Plunket was not always the easiest thing for Diane, though is living a real, examined life ever easy? The truth is that what is hard is living the dreary life others expect for you. On a trip to New York, we went out to lunch with his sister-in-law, a famed Bantam literary agent, at some very impressive Midtown Asian restaurant, I think. Of course, he was impressed with her work. And the lunch. But more than that, it was all about the extended family, and building that circle of friends and family up.
He knew Alice as long as I have known her. We all sort of grew up together from age 13, and he loved both of us as a devoted brother.
Plunket and Diane managed to reinvent the social order. His family connections and life story ensured that he never felt awkward doing what he thought needed to be done, or said. Who else among his class could decide that gourmet food ambassador with Kroger could be a more satisfying mid-life path than selling investments. And then take the gourmet food presentations to the Woman’s Club at the Bolling-Haxhall house. They were fans of the Dashiell Hammett Thin Man noir comedy movies and Nick and Nora.
About 11 years ago, Plunket and Diane had me to dinner one night while I was working on a contract assignment for Capital One up from Florida. Seeing him was as if no time had passed, no distance. “Garland” he said? He would use your name like that when he talked to you. This did not read as salesman like, but that he sort of knew where you were at the moment, and came at you with comfort. I am sad that was the last dinner I had with both of them.
He encouraged us to send our daughter to The Steward School. That he turned a volunteer-dad hockey coach position into a professional assistant coaching job at a large public high school, in two sports, was par for his unorthodox course in life. Take the slightly off path. And master it with no formal training, only the observation of others who do it well.
For years, so many of us will be talking of him, and our lives together. We are all the better for it.
Goodbye my friend.