The class system

On class….

When I was laid off from my last job, the bosses told me, “You’re a class act.”

I’m still not sure why they said that. Perhaps it was their way of softening the blow. (Memo to firing bosses, divorcing spouses, etc:  Never rub salt on a wound with an incongruous compliment, as in “I’m leaving you for another woman, Marge, but you’ll always be one helluva cook.” Yeah, right. Remember: If you really thought the person was that wonderful, you wouldn’t be getting rid of him, would you?)

Now as we prepare this issue of Class Acts, I look back on that time and wonder:  What does it mean to have class?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition for you bookworms) defines class  as “high quality, elegance … the best of its kind.” These, however, are not the primary definitions of the word, which is first, “a body of students, a course of instruction,” and second, “a social rank, especially a high social rank.”

The idea of class as a socioeconomic group came into vogue in the 18th century as the old aristocratic hierarchies fell to revolution, only to be replaced by a new hierarchy based on wealth and (today in particular) fame. You don’t, however, have to be Molière, Beaumarchais, Mozart – or for that matter, tabloid biographer Kitty Kelley – to know that class (as in upper) doesn’t always equal class (as in dignity with style). It’s interesting that at a moment in post-recession America when “money” is a dirty word – unless it’s yours or mine – Baz Luhrmann has chosen to make a new film of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” due in theaters next summer. Fitzgerald, who knew a thing or two about the rich – “they are different from you and me” – contrasts Tom and Daisy Buchanan, an Old-Moneyed couple whose recklessness leaves a trail of tragedy, with the mysterious, nouveau-riche,  slightly vulgar Gatsby, who, when the chips are down, acts with real nobility.

And therein is what makes class so elusive and fascinating. It’s hard to figure. It lies at the ever-shifting intersection of appearance and actuality. When I think of class, I think of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, who may very well meet in the finals of the U.S. Open this month. Has there ever been a more “class”-ic player than Fed Ex? The elegant backward arc of the serve, the head scarf placed just so, the subtly monogrammed polo shirts, the cardigans and crested blazers from a bygone era, the stable family, the devotion to charity, topped by the feel-good story of the return to No. 1, where many think he has always belonged. As one witty Russian player put it: “He’s Swiss. He’s perfect.”

Then there’s the Djoker: Where to begin? The jangling, spiky style, like an exposed nerve. The eating of Wimbledon grass. The Hulk-like ripping of shirts in celebration. The shorts emblazoned with Nole, his nickname, on the backside. The off-court penchant for James Dean Ts and “Miami Vice” jackets with the sleeves pushed up. (Memo to Nole:  The ’80s called. They want their wardrobe back.) The destruction of Perrier signs in a fit of pique. The rowdy family. The hardscrabble upbringing in strife-torn Serbia, whose leadership was indicted for war crimes. The quicksilver kaleidoscope of emotions that would’ve made Callas seem catatonic.

In other words, he’s not Swiss.

And yet…. (You knew there had to be an “and yet,” didn’t you?) Djokovic isn’t the butt of a blog, Pseudofed, which makes fun of his rather lofty pronouncements. (That would be you, Roger.)

When Federer regained the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic congratulated him – exhibiting a generosity of spirit that Federer has not displayed toward him. And when he was given the chance to use the rain as an excuse for losing to Nadal at the French Open, Djokovic brushed that aside and said simply, “The better man won.” It was the classy thing to do.

And that, in the end, is the crux of class. It is less about the cut of your clothes than that of your character, less about the correctness of your table manners than the manner in which you treat others, even if it’s at the expense of yourself.

Ironically, class is regard for others as the ultimate form of self-regard, for it says that you hold yourself in such esteem that you can afford to concede the point, take it on the chin and smile, even when your heart is breaking. (Right, Rob Pattinson? You go, kiddo.)

Perhaps that’s what my former bosses meant when they said I was a class act:  They knew they could count on me to hold it together just a little while longer. They knew I knew I was better than defeat.

Besides, the classy person knows how to make an exit – unlike Ann Curry, on her final day as “Today” anchor, in which, crying, she kept reminding everyone of all the terrific stories she had done for the network.

As Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times’ TV critic, wrote in her on-the-money piece, “Ms. Curry turned to the camera and delivered a tearful farewell that was gallant and also embarrassingly maudlin and grandiose and that pretty much summed up why she got the hook after just one year in the host chair next to Matt Lauer.”

Memo to Ann: A classy person may weep for the friends or job lost. A classy person never weeps for himself.

When I think of class, I think of Cary Grant. Always the epitome of elegance and manly beauty, he could’ve gone on playing the aging lover of increasingly younger Hollywood actresses. Instead, in his last film, “Walk, Don’t Run,” he played the dapper Cupid to Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton’s age-appropriate sweethearts and then sailed off into a silver-haired sunset.

For every Cary Grant, there are no doubt countless unheralded examples of such grace. My favorite is a newspaper account of a woman who was jilted at the altar. Rather than crumple into tears, she faced the guests and told them there was no point in wasting a perfectly good party. Everyone had a marvelous time.

Talk about a classy broad.

The better “man” won indeed.

… And the crass

If class eludes, crass exudes.

The déclassé are everywhere at the moment, thanks to the Internet, where it is more important to get hits with the lewd, the crude and the rude than it is to post something thoughtful, or – heaven forbid – kind.

Still, it’s complicated. One man’s class is another’s hauteur, one man’s vulgarity is another’s art. Are Madonna and Lady Gaga being crass when they perform their edgy acts, or are they just trying to provoke? Can you fault someone for lacking class when class is not the point?

Perhaps you can. Perhaps the difference between classiness and crassness lies in the execution. Nicki Minaj is a talented performer. (See her funny turn as the bride of Blackenstein on “Saturday Night Live.”) But when she did her appalling takeoff on “The Exorcist” at the Grammys earlier this year – complete with sexed-up monks and altar boys, a levitation and an off-key rendition of “I Feel Pretty” – well, she offended everyone from the Roman Catholic Church to shock-channel TMZ. (Memo to Nicki: You probably want to rethink dressing up your date as the Pope.)

Hey, at least she kept her clothes on, which is more than you can say for many performers and other celebs.

Is it possible to be sexy, classy and contemporary? Therein lies the difference between the erotic and the pornographic. Mario Sorrenti’s photo shoot with “Prometheus” stars Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron for last month’s W – which mixed flesh, leather and a tough tenderness – stopped short of S&M. Steve Klein’s photograph of a nude, masked Gaga being scaled by action figures – placed strategically on her body for her new Fame fragrance campaign – makes witty reference to cartoons and contemporary artwork in which the female body is viewed as a rolling landscape.

It’s a razor’s edge, and some refuse to walk it. When Jockey spokesman Tim Tebow hosted the company’s “Hot City Cool Down” in Orlando recently, he appeared on the runway in a Jockey T and jeans rather than shirtless or in his Jockey undies.

“I’m really trying to represent Jockey in the right way,” he told People magazine, a clearinghouse of the classy and classless alike. “They do things with class, and I want to do the same. I just focus on telling people what I like.”

“Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere,” the critic G.K. Chesterton once observed.

So does class.

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