Grace, the idea of moving easily in the world, is an achievement rather than a right. And it eludes so many of us. Sarah L. Kaufman is the dance critic of The Washington Post, so it’s no surprise that she sees grace onstage several times a week. But she has learned to detect it in other activities, other attitudes. Her new book, The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life, published by W.W. Norton this week, recounts how she has encountered grace in sports, in a restaurant kitchen and, very occasionally, in a celebrity encounter. In our excerpt, she writes about nighttime TV great Johnny Carson and . . . her great-grandmother. Sarah’s website is SarahLKaufman.com.
JOHNNY CARSON RAISED self-deprecation to an art. “Is there a revolver in the house?” he ad-libbed once on The Tonight Show as his monologue was flatlining. Notoriously shy, he let his guests do most of the talking. And he was open to learning from them. How striking this seems now, when everyone is so certain, so reluctant to admit gaps in knowledge. But Carson, one of the most famous men in America, was modest enough to react with interest to some new thing a guest on his show might tell him, and say, “I did not know that.”
His calm, authentic ease is why he reigned as a TV talk show host for so many years. Like Cary Grant, he possessed an exquisitely managed mix of charm and control. This was an intriguing and seductive formula, expressed most profoundly in his stance during his Tonight Show monologues, with that lifted, buoyant chest and a sense that his whole body was alert and tuned in to the moment.
But he wasn’t going to reveal too much to us, even as he delivered dependable laughs night after night, even as he zeroed in on each guest as if that person were the most fascinating creature on the planet. There was a distinct formality in the way this deeply private man held himself, head high and pulled back. He had this shining confidence and iron reliability. You could trust him with your stocks, you could watch him land a jet. But rather than setting himself above the public, Carson used his natural reserve to take the focus off himself and put it on his guests. His empathy toward them came through in a way that was perhaps missing in his offscreen life.
My great-grandmother and Carson came together in a meeting that must have sucked all the grace out of the air for a few moments, because here were two masters of it, face to face.
Mildred Holt, a stooped, frail-looking woman in a powder-blue dress, was neither a celebrity nor a newsmaker when she appeared on The Tonight Show in August 1987. She was just a little old lady from a tiny town in Kansas—and by old, I mean historic. She was 105 at the time. But she had all her marbles, as well as a sharp, straight-shooting wit, and that was enough for Carson.
While sipping a highball from a coffee mug on the set, Mimi—as my family called her— teased the TV king about his many marriages and had Carson so charmed that he kept her on after the commercial break. “Oh, you’re fun,” he told her, giving her wrinkled little hand a squeeze. When Carson remarked that she was “the oldest person I have ever met and ever had on the show,” Mimi chirped with a big, crinkly grin, “I’m too mean to die!”
Mimi’s comebacks had Carson laughing so hard at times that he fell back against his chair. Mostly, though, the King of Late Night leaned his chin in his hand and soaked up Mimi’s crackling optimism with a smile.
Someone in Ellsworth, Kansas, had gotten in touch with Carson’s staff about the extraordinary Mimi. Folks there had long thought she deserved to sit on Carson’s set. Who could argue? She was an irrepressible force. The daughter of a Civil War veteran, she was the youngest of ten children. She married a prosperous banker and had three children; the eldest was my mother’s father. When Mimi’s husband lost his business in the Depression, she took boarders into their roomy foursquare house. She also turned her dining room into a tearoom and served the noon meal (back when it was referred to as dinner) to the local schoolteachers. Mimi loved to cook. Fried chicken was a favorite dish; it began at the chopping block in her backyard. She was said to be unerring with an ax, though her chopping days were over by the time I knew her. She busied herself every day in her small kitchen, which was never updated, never had a dishwasher—she scalded her china in boiling water. If visitors dropped by while she was making a meal, she’d bring a cutting board into the living room and continue chopping vegetables on her lap.
Mimi had the most active social life of anyone I have ever known, making daily calls on friends around town and hosting teas and card games. She lived in her house with her widowed daughter until the very end of her life, and in her later years, as her card-playing friends moved into the old-folks home—none of them, it turned out, were as hale as she was—she’d visit them there. Among her favorite sayings was that she would never eat a meal alone, and by all accounts she never did.
This wasn’t surprising, considering she was one of the most agreeable people you could wish to meet. During one visit when I was nine or ten and she was, oh, ninety-something, I asked to see her wedding dress. And then I asked to try it on. And then I asked if I could wear it downstairs. Yes, yes, and yes—and we ended up on her front lawn in a fit of giggles, me with my arms through the sleeves of the shirtwaist, shrunken little Mimi holding the matching skirt against her hips. My mother snapped some pictures, and passing drivers stared from their cars. Maybe we did look a little kooky in our heirloom ivory muslin from 1905, very Gibson Girl, but Mimi didn’t believe in letting useful things molder in drawers. She would never choose misplaced reverence over fun.
She was an enthusiastic joiner and knew how to keep a good time going. With Carson she talked about getting her first car in 1914, and how she regretted having to give up driving at the age of 103. She also spoke out against West Coast snobbery: “I met a man at the hotel,” she told Carson, “and he said, ‘Where’re you from?’ and I said Kansas and he said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ That made me mad.”
Mimi was always ready to defend the heartland’s honor, but first she paused a beat, looking out to the audience with a sweet, pitying smile for the poor fellow with a low agricultural IQ. “He forgets that Kansas produces more wheat than any state in the Union,” she said. “That’s where your bread comes from.”
She was remarkable on TV, as relaxed as if she were sitting in her own living room. Like her host, Mimi was simply comfortable in her own skin. You could tell how much she was enjoying herself by her physical presence, the way she moved. She wasn’t stiff or crumpled in her chair. She gestured with her crooked fingers and swiveled around as she spoke (did I mention she was 105?), bringing Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon, seated beside her, into the conversation.
For a guest to pay equal attention to McMahon was so unusual that Carson good-naturedly jibed the older man: “She obviously recognizes you as one of her own kind.” He was right. Whoever happened to be in the room with her was Mimi’s own kind.
Mimi’s graciousness stemmed from her utter lack of fear. As a child preoccupied with imagined threats lurking in shadows, I once asked her if she were ever afraid of robbers popping out from her closets. Her chipper nonchalance stuck with me: “Well, if they get me, they get me!”
She was so at ease in front of the cameras that after the episode, Hollywood Squares called her to ask if she’d be on their game show, too, but she declined. Mimi had seen Los Angeles and preferred Ellsworth.
I’m certain her congeniality played a part in her longevity. Certainly she was no health nut. Mimi took her coffee with thick farm cream, dug into desserts with gusto, and enjoyed a hot toddy before bed. She had lost her mother at ten; she had lived through the Depression and the Dust Bowl and decades of widowhood. But Mimi didn’t truck with stress. She didn’t dwell. She let the bad crap go and stayed in the present, where she always found something amusing “to help pass the time,” as she put it.
A month shy of her 109th birthday, she caught pneumonia and died, three years after her Tonight Show spot. Her obituary ran in newspapers across the country. Her highball-sipping usually made it into the headline. But having a social whiskey was all part of her idea of a good time, along with being engaged in the moment, listening and reacting, seeking to draw people in and spread the good cheer around.
They were a good pair, she and Johnny Carson. All the papers noted that, as Carson’s oldest guest ever, Mimi was every bit his equal in cracking jokes.
–Sarah L. Kaufman
From The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life, by Sarah L. Kaufman, published by W.W. Norton & Co. © 2015 by Sarah L. Kaufman. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.