“The Cantos”: Brother Lee Frissell on George Unleashed in Italy

The lovely photo Susie posted yesterday of George and me walking in Venice last summer brought a memory of George vividly to mind.

Susie [George’s wife], George, Susan and I loved Venice. Although we’d been told the food was not as good as in the rest of Italy, our guide turned us on to some fantastic little local restaurants that were probably the best places we ate in Italy, and that’s saying something. The food everywhere was beyond description. Venice has its own version of tapas, eaten from a countertop–very simple, very delicious and very cheap–that she introduced us to. Each little restaurant had its own delicious wine.

Even George drank.

We had four young women guides on our trip–-one in Rome, two in Florence, and this one in Venice. All were excellent, including her, not least for her food tips, but she had a hard time suppressing her scorn for Americans and loathing of tourists. At one point, she blurted out to no one, apropos of nothing, “I HATE tourists!” We took it in good spirits and were even sympathetic, because the place was utterly overrun by people in baseball caps traveling in packs down the tiny corridors. The day after we left, a cruise ship slammed into the main dock. I wish they would ban those damn things.

We actually liked her, and were amused by her disdain for Americans. At St. Mark’s Square, she explained to us, “There was this guy named Napoleon. Maybe you’ve heard of him.” She scolded us for drinking bottled water instead of going into a taverna and asking for a glass of water (as if we’d know to do that). She constantly lectured us about how, after the war, the CIA had undermined the Italian Left, giving rise to the Mafia, the scourge of Italy to this day.

We completely agreed with her, but she couldn’t believe we were politically sympathetic. She seemed not to take our comments in that regard seriously. We were just…Americans. We might as well have had on MAGA caps.

Venice has a legendary history of jurisprudence, and when she learned that my wife, Susan–Frissell boys have a weakness for Susans–had been a public defender in New York City, she commented, “Venice had public defenders in the 15th Century. The U.S. didn’t even have them until the 1960’s.”

Despite being a former litigator, Susan, is a lot like George temperamentally, and took this in good graces, holding her tongue (and, after all, the guide was right.)

The guide did mellow a bit toward us on learning this about Susan, and made it a point to show us many of the storied courtrooms (and dungeons) in Venice.

She then asked what the others of us did (this at the very end of two solid days with us). When she learned George was an English teacher, she made the mistake of taking him on about poetry.

“Have you ever heard of the American poet Ezra Pound?” she asked. “He loved Italy and lived here for many years.” (Unspoken: “To get out of the United States.”)

“Yes,” said George, “He was a fascist and a vicious anti-Semite.”

She was stunned. “No, no. You don’t understand. In his youth, Mussolini was a socialist, and that’s when Pound supported him.”

I couldn’t resist jumping in. “No, he loved Mussolini’s fascism because he thought it restored the grandeur of classical Italy. He was also a big fan of Hitler. He spent the war in a prison for the insane in the U.S.”

George took it from there: “He would have been executed as a traitor except for the impassioned intervention of many great poets, including Jewish poets like Allen Ginsburg. He was an important poet, but he was a despicable man.”

She was utterly speechless, the tour ended on that note, and I’m sure she headed straight to the Italian Wikipedia.

We headed straight for an Aperol spritz.

Then, we vegged out for a week on the Amalfi Coast in a beautiful villa Susie found, and slurped limoncello made by our 87-year-old host.

Even George drank.

George and Lee

“A F@#cking Psychiatrist”: A Frissellian Reminiscence by longtime friend David Markus

The George Frissell I Knew

I first met George in 1980 when we were both in our late 20s.  His brother is my sister’s husband, and my first impression was that he was almost nothing like his brother, who was erudite and opinionated, with a finely tuned sense of humor and an affable, unabashed assertiveness about him.   George, on the other hand, was kind, unassuming, empathetic and, as I came to learn despite my first impressions, full of intellectual passion and possessed of a rich sense of humor—in those ways actually quite like his brother.

I encountered these qualities in George over a period of 40 years at family gatherings at Big Wolf, a family lake house in upstate New York, annual trips to Las Vegas for the first weekend of March Madness, and occasional visits to one another’s homes.  On every one of these occasions, George and I would have a thoroughly good time. He taught me about the great singers and songwriters of his youth in Texas (Johnny Cash, Johnny Winter, and John Prine are now among my favorite artists). He would recite their lyrics with a reverence others might reserve for Shakespeare or the Bible.

His love for the spiritual side of life constantly shined through, too, his conversation turning to Buddhism, Hinduism and, very frequently, the many religions of India.  Perhaps too frequently.  I finally had to forbid George to use the word “India” in my presence.  Peacemaker that he was, he acquiesced. I don’t think we ever had cross words.

Sometime in the early ‘90s, when we had each parted ways with our first wives, we became devoted wingmen in our pursuit of female companionship—especially at Big Wolf Lake in the summers—and a good deal of competitive teasing ensued.

The ribbing was mostly me alluding to his fashion sense—or lack thereof—which, I tried to explain, risked becoming a fatal hindrance to our efforts to impress women. He would ask what I was referring to exactly.  I would reply, “Cargo pants, dude!  Women are not drawn to men wearing cargo pants!”

I have never met anyone more devoted to this specie of trouser. Long and short, trim and baggy, bland and less bland, George wore them all, at all times, unabashedly, often with pockets bulging despite the considerable physical encumbrance this might pose in the closing phase of an amorous initiative.

One night, two female companions spontaneously agreed to join us for a moonlit splash in the lake.  But we soon realized that if George jumped in, the contents of his cargo pants would sink him instantly to the bottom.

I wondered if this obstacle might be turned to our advantage: “Ladies,” I inquired, “why not enjoy our aquatic frolic unencumbered by attire of any sort?”  Our companions were game, so we discarded our clothes instantly, to seek modesty, as one does in these circumstances, in the water itself.

But we quickly realized there were only three of us splashing about.  It was quite dark, but, looking ashore, I could see George moving around.  Despite my exposed state, I ran out of the lake to see if he was okay. I found him hopping around with his cargo shorts tangled above his knees–the pockets were so stuffed, he couldn’t get them off! “Dude,” I said, “get all that crap out of your shorts or you’ll never get out of them! Hurry!”  I then watched as he divested his cargo pants pockets of the equivalent of a Costco warehouse.

Fortunately, our companions had not lost patience with us, and could not see what went into George’s preparations, so we were able to join them in the water for what continued to be a delightful evening. I must confess, though, that George had a special mystique that served him well with the ladies that no errant fashion choice–not even cargo pants– could extinguish.


George’s sartorial preferences and unique charisma are not the subject of my favorite story about him.  Neither does this story capture any of his passion for ideas, travel, and music, nor his love of philosophy, religion, history, or arcane statistics. In fact, the somewhat violent overlay of this tale couldn’t be further from George’s pacific essence. This is just a memory that makes me laugh whenever I conjure it up.

Caveat: This narrative would be better captured in video form. As many of readers will know, George moved with a distinctly cinematic quality: his gait was slightly awkward, despite his muscularity and athleticism. He was a nine-letter man at Beaumont High, an assertion he once humbly shared with me, and I immediately fact-checked to discover was quite true.

And there was of course his verbal style, a steady flow of questions and commentary on virtually any topic of our time: “Hey Dave, could the Cardinals have possibly won the ’67 World Series if Bob Gibson had not started the seventh game despite having only two days’ rest? He hit a homer in the fifth.”  Or “Hey Dave, who ranks higher in your pantheon of western literary heroes, Homer’s Odysseus or Larry McMurtry’s Augustus McCray from Lonesome Dove?”

So, imagine if you will, a short bald white guy (me), walking down Mission Street in San Francisco with Georgie, wearing cargo shorts and low-cut hiking shoes. It’s the mid-1990s, and the Mission is still a slightly tawdry reflection of Mexico plunked down on the south side of San Francisco.

We’re taking in the scene, tasting tacos, browsing the variety stores with their colorful piñatas and Loteria cards.  I treat us to a couple of strawberry horchadas, which George is eagerly slurping down, when a bedraggled lady, probably in her 40s, strides briskly by, hair tousled, clothes disheveled. It’s my impression that she has been trailing behind us for a block or two. As she passes, she steals a prolonged, searching glance at George. I think to myself, “Damn, it must be those cargo pants again!”

We keep walking. I notice the woman has now ducked under an awning, eyes still fixed squarely on George. I ask him if he knows her, or was this just his animal magnetism at work again? He laughs me off.

Then out of nowhere I hear her shout, apparently directed at us, “Are you a f#@king psychiatrist?”

We both turn and look at her. George, ever the gentleman, not wanting to draw attention or reproach to this clearly troubled person, turns and walks on. I drop back, just to keep an eye on the situation.

Then, suddenly, she sprints by me, screaming at the top of her lungs, “You are a f@#cking psychiatrist. I knew it!” She pulls up right behind George, swings back her right foot, cocks it 90 degrees and delivers a mighty hammer blow squarely across his backside.  George staggers forward, then turns to face her, aghast, at which point she shrieks at him again. He whirls and begins sprinting down the street in full Beaumont High track-team mode, calling out, “Dave, Dave! Run for it! She’s out of her mind.”

I look at the woman and she just grins, shakes her head, and murmurs, “Fucking psychiatrist.”

Meanwhile, George is still sprinting down the street, not the wisest thing to do given the heavy police presence in the neighborhood, but I take off after him anyway. When I catch up, we are both out of breath.  I ask if he’s okay and, as he rubs his butt, I can restrain myself no longer and burst into laughter.  Soon I am in hysterics, unable to scrub from my mind the sight and sound of the lady’s foot landing so squarely on George’s hindquarters.

George, ever George, laughs too. “Here I come all the way from Texas to the city known for peace and love,” he says, “only to get my ass kicked.”

Then he smiles and adds, “But, as Gandhi said, one must become as humble as the dust before he can discover the truth.”