When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the tasks he performs will have the consequences that are explicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be.
So says Erving Goffman in the opening chapter of his sublime sociological study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
I wonder if Warren Sonbert ever had the chance to read Goffman in his intensely peripatetic life — and if so what he thought of it. Warren was playing a part all 48 of his years. That part was “Warren Sonbert.” Handsome, elegant, witty he was a trust-fund baby who, as far as I know, held only two jobs in his entire life, outside of penning occasional opera reviews for the Bay Area Reporter (under the nom de Vertigo “Scottie Ferguson”). He was briefly employed as assistant manager of the Bleecker Street Cinema in the early sixties, and in the seventies and eighties taught film on and off at Bard College. The rest of the time he made films and travelled the world. Warren was the embodiment of William Burroughs famous dictum “It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.” But live he did, quite well to all appearances. And with Warren, appearance — making an impression — was of pivotal import. Am I saying that he was a “phony”? Oh, Warren was nothing so common as that. Rather, he was what Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly called “a real phony.” He was completely serious about the effect of high easy living he worked so hard to evoke.
I was one of many who considered Warren a friend. Yet in the wake of his death in 1995 I found myself wondering what that really meant. For at the last I was left with little but the impression of friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t really know him. It was rather that the entire concept of Warren as someone to know was in question. For Warren’s “presentation of self” was not so much a person as a costume — akin to the tuxedo of Pierre Lorillard IV.
In the early 1880s Lorillard helped make Newport, Rhode Island a yachting center with his schooner Vesta and a steam yacht Radha....