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Class Act

One day in 1956, songwriter Johnny Mercer received a letter from Sadie Vimmerstedt, a widowed grandmother who worked behind a cosmetics counter in Youngstown, Ohio. Vimmerstedt suggested Mercer write a song called “I Want to Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart.” Five years later, Mercer got in touch to say he’d written the song and that Tony Bennett would record it.

Today, if you look at the label on any recording of “I Wanna Be Around,” you’ll notice that the credits for words and music are shared by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt. The royalties were split 50-50, too, thanks to which Vimmerstedt and her heirs have earned more than $100,000. In my opinion, Mercer’s generosity was a class act. By “class act,” I mean any behavior so virtuous that it puts normal behavior to shame.

It was a class act, for instance, when Alexander Hamilton aimed high and fired over Aaron Burr’s head.

Benjamin Geggenhiem performed a class act on the Titanic when he gave his life jacket to a woman passenger and then put on white tie and tails so he could die “like a gentleman.”

That same year, 1912, Capt, Lawrence Oates became so frostbitten and lame on Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Rather than delay the others in their desperate trek back from the Pole, he went to the opening of the tent one night and said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He thereupon walked to his death in a blizzard. Certainly a class act.

On the stage, the tradition that the show must go on has produced a number of class acts. Katharine Hepburn and Orson Welles have both appeared onstage in wheelchairs. During the run of The King and I, Gertrude Lawrence was dying of cancer but told no one. When she missed a series of performances, the producers wrote her lawyers, suggesting she was faking illness. They warned that if this continued, she would forfeit her share of the profits. The letter arrived on a Monday; Gertrude Lawrence had died over the weekend.

It was a class act of a different order, but a class act nonetheless, for writer Laurence Housman to take off his jacket at a proper English tea party so that a man who had just arrived in shirt sleeves would not feel embarrassed.

Even simple good sportsmanship can rise to the level of class act, as it did with tennis player Mats Wilander in the semifinals of the 1982 French Open. At match point, a shot by Wilander’s opponent was ruled out. Wilander walked over to the umpire and said, “I can’t win like this. The ball was good.” The point was played over, and Wilander won fair and square.

John Berendt, Esquire, April, 1991