Diana Vreeland was very charming. At the time the peerless fashion avatar and I first met, I was quite feral and schlumpy. After five minutes in her company, I felt as if I had suddenly donned spats and a cape, that’s how charming she was. Like all the great charmers, she had a gift for ratcheting up the joie de vivre experienced by those around her. Hers was an invitational charm with a clear message: Life is a freaky, fantabulous Mardi Gras, and you would be insane not to dig your Lee Press-On Nails into a passing float and climb aboard.
Though stratospherically charming, DV was not the most charming person I have ever met. That particular honor goes to a bloke you have never heard of. His name was Gerald. He was a not-very-successful mature male model who lived upstairs from me in gritty South London back in the 1970s.
A World War II vet, tall, mustachioed Gerry embodied the role of distinguished older gentleman, not only in catalogs but also in real life. He looked charming, and he spoke charmingly. He was, whether engaging in light badinage in the local butcher’s shop, recalling the horrors of WWII, or relieving a silver-haired broad of her chinchilla stole whilst thrusting a moderately priced bottle of sherry toward a camera lens, a paragon of charm in every situation—take my word for it.
In fact, you have no choice. While I can offer you myriad charming Gerry recollections, I am unable to cook up a theory of how his charm actually functioned. A mysterious combo of wit, poise, and self-deprecation, Gerry’s charm was like thistledown, floating away whenever you try to snag it and dissect it. The dictionary defines charm as a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty. Sounds like old Ger to me.
It’s telling that in order to find examples of charming individuals I am obliged to take a skip down memory lane—an extended one. Gerry and DV are long dead. Clearly, charm is not a 21st-century attribute. It is a lost language, a forgotten skill. How did this happen? It’s not as if the population has become totally horrid or naff—far from it. People today are actually quite pleasant and considerate. They are just not charming.
Here’s my stab at why: The digital revolution has sped up, flattened out, and depersonalized communication, stripping away the necessity of charm. When rapid-fire emails have replaced lengthy imploring epistles, who needs charm? When sexts precede conversation, who needs charm? When nobody feels an obligation to entrance/allure/captivate anyone else—now that we all suffer from high self-esteem, we cannot wrap our heads around the idea that another individual might need to be “won over”—what use is charm? Human interaction was once a proud, fluffy, prize-winning chicken; now it’s a simple paillard thereof.
In addition to the fact that charm no longer plays a key role in one-on-one situations, it has also vanished from group dynamics. Whether you were lolling around a literary salon or boozing in some squalid gin palace, charm used to be the grease that lubricated a dull social evening. Charming those around you was seen as good manners, a social obligation. Cut to today: If things go a bit soggy, we pull out our phones and perk things up with a little social media blitz. Who can be bothered charming others when you can amuse yourself with selfies? :(
Digital Charm & Conclusions
Even if today’s millennials—a pleasant, smart, ambitious, and altruistic bunch, but not charming—wanted or needed to be charming, they no longer have the opportunity to learn how. When the digital revolution dispensed with all that endless face-to-face communication, it also nuked most opportunities for the acquisition of charm from a charming elder. I was fortunate: I received my charmducation osmotically, effortlessly, courtesy of Gerald the model. On rainy Sundays we would engage in lengthy tea-drinking tête-à-têtes during which I was able to observe the master and receive the baton. (Pardon the expression!) If Gerry and I were neighbors today, we would be hunkered down on separate floors, charmlessly WhatsApping each other once a month.
Having demonstrated so convincingly why charm has become an obsolete commodity, why am I braying for its return? Why am I thrusting Gerry’s charm baton in your direction?
First and foremost, charm gives one a competitive edge. Whether you want to seduce somebody or sell that person something (or both), a little charm will, now that it has become endangered, give you a distinct advantage. Here is an au courant example: In NYC Uber cars are eclipsing yellow cabs. Why? Uber drivers look good, smell good, and greet customers with a smile. They are, in other words, almost charming. The result? Those poor, grumpy, monosyllabic yellow cabbies are in a death spiral. If I wasn’t so busy wearing spats and eating lotuses, I would open a charm school just for them.
Speaking of charm schools: In the 1980s I once attended the graduation gala of a charm school in Tokyo. All the students and teachers had taken the stilted, archaic 1920s idea of charm and run with it. This made for an unforgettable evening. Cigarette holders and champagne glasses were held aloft. Long pearl necklaces were knotted and windmilled. Chiffon hankies dangled from bangles. Heads were jauntily angled in imitation of art-deco flapper figurines. The entire experience was like being locked in a Japanese production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
In many people’s minds the concept of charm is inexplicably intertwined with the deranged formality and theatrical refinement I witnessed at that Tokyo academy. In order to revive the concept of charm, I will need to update it. In this series, I will take the smarm out of charm. I will also take the marm out of charm. My charm will be a brave new charm, a charm for the digital age. My charm offensive will prove that charm can be shekeltastic. Charm can be modern. Charm can be naughty. Charm is a feel-good thang, and the charming shall inherit the Earth.
Next up: Charm in conversation.