Biographies We Need: Bringing Context to the Life of George S. Trow

George S. Trow © Anne Hall

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

Every time I watch Bravo Network’s Watch What Happens Live (which isn’t often, I swear), I think of George W. S. Trow, and one arresting line from his famous book-length essay, Within the Context of No-Context. "The work of television," Trow writes, "is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it." In other words: we watch raptly as people like Andy Cohen, who exist within the "grid of two hundred million," as Trow puts it, talk to each other about their "reality" shows as if, well, it’s all actually real.

Lost? You’re not alone. Many readers were baffled at the idiosyncratic organization of the text, the frequent use of neologisms, and the generally esoteric tone. Some saw it as the bitter and incoherent musings of one mourning the demise of his beloved WASP culture’s hegemony. Many, however, including Jamaica Kincaid and John Updike, dubbed it a work that has gotten closer to any other to the heart of modern culture’s "terminal silliness," as Updike says. It came out of, they maintained, a mind unlike any other, and about that they were certainly correct.

A writer I once knew, a colleague of Trow’s at The New Yorker, put forth the following theory to me: "I think George was a genius, but he didn't quite know how to handle his genius. He just did the best he could."

George William Swift Trow, Junior, was born in September, 1943 in the upper crust bastion of Greenwich, Connecticut. He had one sister, Ellen, who was mentally handicapped and whom he loved deeply. Though he aspired toward an aristocratic lifestyle and aesthetic, he didn't come from old money. Rather, he came from a long line of newspapermen, and his awe of the family trade came up often in his work. His youth followed the proper trajectory for a boy born in Cos Cob: Phillips Exeter and Harvard, after which he was quickly hired at The New Yorker, then run by William Shawn who was famous for nurturing talent even when the talent veered dangerously close to self-destruction (see also: Maeve Brennan’s biography, Homesick at the New Yorker.)

Within the Context of No-Context was first published as an essay in the magazine in 1980; it was a released a year later as a book, which also contained Trow’s profile of Turkish-American music mogul Ahmet Ertegun. These two works -- extended pieces of nonfiction, essentially -- were the best received of his career; a novel, The City in the Mist, and a memoir, My Pilgrim’s Progress: Media Studies, 1950-1988, were less well received. In particular, the less-than-perfect response to the latter was a large blow to Trow’s ego, according to friends.

And friends he had. He was close with Diana Vreeland, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Doug Kenney, who founded National Lampoon. Trow hung out at Studio 54 in immaculately tailored suits with Bianca Jagger. He also helped nurture the careers of other writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Ian Frazier, who would become forces at The New Yorker in their own right. But then it all started to slip away. It began with William Shawn being ousted from The New Yorker; suddenly, the highbrow asylum turned into a glossy rag, headed up by polarizing media maven Tina Brown. Trow quit in a huff when Roseanne Barr briefly joined the editorial staff, and began a peripatetic existence that led him from the Alaskan wilderness to the psych ward at McLean to a dirty apartment in Naples, where he died from unknown causes (this was the official statement due to the wishes of his mother, Anne, who was still alive at the time of his death in November, 2006.)

By then, he had severed his connections with a majority of his friends, and the activities of his day-to-day life remain mostly unknown. The best window into his life to date is Ariel Levy’s excellent article in New York Magazine, "The Last Gentleman." I would like to nominate her to write the full-length biography; meanwhile, I myself am working on an illustrated edition of Within the Context of No Context. Stay tuned.