Sunday 7 September 2014

Saki Fanciers Raise A Glass: Remembering Jack Langguth

Once a year for about a decade, I would disappear from work for an afternoon to go and have a long lunch with Jack Langguth. He died earlier this week, and it's a sign of the respect in which he was held that his passing was marked by obituaries in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The obits can only scratch the surface of his long career as a journalist, novelist, historian and latterly well-loved Professor at the University of Southern California in LA. Here's a man who was Saigon bureau chief for The New York Times during the Vietnam War (experiences he drew on for his award-winning book Our Vietnam), spent Christmas with Lee Harvey Oswald's mother in the aftermath of the JFK assassination (which he remembered for the LA Times here), and wrote books about subjects as diverse as black magic in Brazil, the CIA's use of torture, Julius Caesar, the second American War of Independence, and the life of Hector Hugh Munro, the writer better known as Saki.

I got to know him through that Saki biography, a superbly researched, hugely entertaining and definitive 'category killer' which is still in print. Having read the book, and enjoyed the half dozen previously uncollected Saki stories he included in the original OUP edition, I excitedly contacted him (with a surname like that, Google found him instantly) with a query about a couple of other obscure Saki tales I had tracked down. The enthusiastic email I got in return was the beginning of many years of friendship. "Let's meet for lunch when I'm in London," he wrote. So we did, and continued to do so once a year for ten years.

Jack would come to London, usually in spring, for a week or so, and cram in as many theatre visits as he could: he would literally see a different play every night, with matinees of yet more shows as well where possible. His love of the theatre was infectious, and the pleasure it gave him was palpable, whether he was praising one of his favourite actors, Simon Russell Beale, or gleefully demolishing the shows he thought were terrible.

Lunch was always at a branch of Bertorelli's in the West End, and we always raised a glass to Hector. For the first few years it was just Jack and I, but by our last meeting a couple of years ago, the merry band of 'Saki Fanciers' (Jack's term) had long since reached double figures. It's thanks to Jack that I contacted English Heritage to persuade them to give Saki a blue plaque (one was already underway, and Jack and I attended its unveiling in Mortimer St), was inspired to put together my own edition of uncollected Saki stories, A Shot in the Dark, and then asked to appear as a talking head (alongside Jack, Will Self and Alexi Sayle amongst others) in the BBC documentary The Double Life of Saki. Indeed, the creative forces behind that programme, writer/actor Roger Davenport and director/producer Andrew Hutton, became stalwart lunch-going 'Saki Fanciers' themselves.

Jack was someone for whom the word 'gentleman' fit perfectly. He was warm, generous, and that wonderful combination: unfailingly interested, and interesting. I shall miss him.

UPDATE:  Some other tributes to Jack can be found here, here and here.

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