Thomas Vinciguerra, an Appreciation

The journalist and biographer Thomas Vinciguerra, who died unexpectedly last week, fully subscribed to the “Oblivioni” ethos: there are a lot of great things to which you, the great seething American public, are utterly oblivious; there are things that you believe are worthless that are, in fact, excellent; it is a worthwhile if under-rewarded mission to bring light to the obscure and the “underrated,” as fanatically as possible; and one must never be defensive when telling the truth about these things. (Vinciguerra probably never heard of the “Oblivioni” website but he was a kindred spirit.)

Embracing his Weird

Vinciguerra’s writing talents were spectacular and effortless, but he veered to the obscure. During his college years, at Columbia, he enthusiastically revived the long-dead “Philolexian” debating society, which thanks to his enthusiastic, not entirely un-weird efforts, survives to this day. Indeed, Vinciguerra embraced his own weirdness without apology. When Time Magazine published an anonymous photograph of him during the 1980s and called him a “trekkie,” he sternly wrote wrote them a correction: he was a “trekker,” he insisted, not a “trekkie,” a distinction that only a trekkie could possibly have known.

A Champion of Wolcott Gibbs — but who is Wolcott Gibbs?

A founding editor of The Week and a regular contributor to the New York Times, he could have had a book deal for the asking if he’d chosen to write another biography of (for example) James Thurber, or any other famous name. But since early childhood, Vinciguerra’s favorite wit of the early 20th century had been, of course, Wolcott Gibbs, of whom you have only vaguely heard, and only then because of Vinciguerra’s yeoman efforts.

Timid acquisitions editors thwarted Vinciguerra’s proposal for a biography of the obscure and forgotten Gibbs, so he began with a collection of Gibbs’ writings, Backward Ran Sentences, which earned the endorsement of none-other-than P.J. O’Rourke. Then, after the success of that book, Vinciguerra rejiggered his Gibbs biography as Cast of Characters, a book about Gibbs “and the Golden Age of the New Yorker.” Thanks to the commercial considerations of the day, he couldn’t give Gibbs a one-man show, but he gave his hero top billing.

His Last Months

In 2021, Vinciguerra mostly confined himself to his home in Long Island, from which he publicly mourned a changing world. On February 8, he wrote what sounded like a cheerfully barbed summing-up of his career (“I’ve decided. I’m not Ben Bradlee, not by a long shot. But maybe — just maybe — I’m Jason Robards”) and his February 5 appreciation for Christopher Plummer is notable for a heart-breaking and unintentionally ironic plea (“I refuse to accept any more passings right now,” he wrote). But his unapologetic tribute to Dawn Wells (she played second-banana Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island and died on December 30) was the most quintessential:

“Just don’t know my favorite Mary Ann moment. Was it when she did her tap dance/soft shoe routine and her shoe got stuck in the glue? Or in the silent movie when Gilligan as the headhunter was strapping her to the palm tree? Or when she was the homely old maid called “Mary Ann” (which they used to call maids in the 17th and 18th century) in the vampire episode? Probably when she had amnesia and thought she was Ginger. She was so endearing and vulnerable.”

This is perfect, of course. Not even a tip of the hat to those who might disagree, those who might prefer Ginger, or those who might feel that Vinciguerra, given his prodigious talents, might have more worthwhile things to write.

In a New Yorker interview, Vinciguerra argued that Gibbs “would have been appalled,” by the collection he had edited, but mused about the conversation he would have with his idol, if only he could. One hopes, impossibly, that right now he is holding forth with Gibbs, and that, perhaps, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died the same day as Vinciguerra, might be with them.

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