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The Most Interesting Man I Never Met

Image: The Most Interesting Man I Never Met

Charles M. Fair, Jr.  (Photo courtesy Louise Sadler Kiessling, M.D., FAAP)

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Monday, 18 Apr 2016 04:53 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Back in college in the mid-1970s, Yours truly came across a fascinating 1974 book, “The New Nonsense: The End of the Rational Consensus” by one Charles Maitland Fair, Jr.

Aside from its attack on pseudoscience and irrational beliefs, it had a vague sort of doomsday quality to it. Fair noted the then-decade-old decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores throughout America, which he ascribed to families no longer passing on to their children the traditions of logical thinking and self-control.

Fair came to mind recently as his analysis of the emotionally undisciplined nature of youth at the time — and the accompanying campus violence of that era, not to mention what he noted as a decrease in what he called “sensible” crime (burglary and embezzlement, for example), usurped by senseless crime such as vandalism, arson, random acts of violence, and street assaults — gives the impression of being a long-ago precursor of one of my own recent blog postings, “You Say ‘Anti-Individuation,’ I Say ‘Deindividuation’” (Nov. 24, 2015).

Steeped as he was in physiology and philosophy, Fair had already begun exploring these foreboding ideas in his earlier book, “The Dying Self” (1969) wherein he examined the history of both the world and America, finding examples to support his thesis that the human psyche is slowly “regressing.”

Taking his place alongside the pessimistic intellectual ranks of such figures as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, Fair concluded that unless man makes a “decisive leap forward in understanding . . . to a religion of which Christianity will be seen to have been but a primitive precursor,” Western civilization and perhaps the entire human race are doomed.

Charles Fair’s intellectual range always impressed me, but I did not realize just how extraordinary his intellectual attainments were until I stumbled across his 2014 obituary and various tributes to him.

Born in 1916 in New York City, Fair’s mother was the former Gertrude Madora Bryan (1888–1976) a Quaker and Broadway actress. His father was Bryan’s second of three husbands, the stock market trader Charles Maitland Fair (d. 1939), who was the son of Robert M. Fair, the retired managing director of Marshall Field’s, and a cousin of Virginia Fair, wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt II.

Fair was raised in Manhattan and Oyster Bay, New York. He attended the Buckley School, the Fay School, St. Paul's School, and Yale University. By his own admission he was an unsuccessful Yale student.

The Yale Dean once asked him “How do you explain the lackluster return on our investment in you, Mister Fair?” to which he replied, “A poor rate of interest.”

At that point Charles Fair set forth on an astonishing life that only could have been experienced by a true polymath. He was an editor, poet (a contributor of light verse to Punch and the New Yorker), a banana importer, computer-company executive, script writer/ narrator, historian, and neurology researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.

In 1963 he was a Guggenheim Fellow at UCLA's Brain Research Institute, and the following year became a resident scientist in MIT's Neurosciences Research Program, one of the few to have held an appointment there with no academic degree.

His book reviews appeared in the The Washington Post and The Providence Journal, and he had a regular column in the American Poetry Review.

He wrote three books on neuroscience, “The Physical Foundations of the Psyche” (1963), “Memory & Central Nervous Organization” (1988), and “Cortical Memory Functions” (1992) as well as scientific papers on brain function.

Aside from “The Dying Self” and “The New Nonsense”, his other nontechnical book was, “From The Jaws of Victory: A History of the Character, Causes and Consequences of Military Stupidity, from Crassus to Johnson and Westmoreland” (1971), which was praised by Arthur Schlesinger for “fastening on the factor most neglected by conventional historians - i.e., stupidity.”

And yet Fair was always self-deprecating. In a 1971 interview in The Washington Post, the gray-haired, blue-eyed, mustached and handsome Fair described himself as “an unsuccessful playwright and writer, a twice unsuccessful husband but pretty good jazz piano player.” (He also played the vibraphone.)

Even so, at the time Fair’s books had already been published in Britain and translated into Italian, German, and Danish.

Fair was said to love sailing, the Boston Red Sox and good conversation. At one point in time he attempted to be a farmer. He also wrote and narrated the soundtrack for the original Salem Witch Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts.

At the time of his death from lymphoma in Wakefield, Rhode Island, on July 28 2014, he had been predeceased by his son, Charles M. (Chip) Fair and his former wife Kay (Ruddy) Fair.

He was survived by his wife of 34 years, Louise (Sadler) Kiessling M.D., FAAP, and two daughters, Ellen Bryan Fair of New York City and Shushan, New York, and Katherine Healy Fair, Ph.D., and her husband, Raphael Colb, or Fort Ann, New York and Exeter, New Hampshire.

A most remarkable fellow.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was founding editor of Jeff Pulver’s Voice on the Net (VON) magazine from 2003 to 2006, and the chief technical editor of Harry Newton’s Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.



 

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Charles Fair’s intellectual range always impressed me, but I did not realize just how extraordinary his intellectual attainments were until I stumbled across his 2014 obituary and various tributes to him.
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