David E. Davis, Jr: Guns, Whiskey and the Inalienable Rights of Children

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | May 03, 2011

National Lampoon's Bulgemobile Series, by Bruce McCall.

The last time I had a Chevy Cruze ECO, a six-speed manual, it impressed me mightily. (Mind you, that's not so hard to do with visions of crappy Cobalts and comically, chronically inferior Cavaliers still dancing in one's memory.) But then some idiot in a Honda Civic rear-ended me when he -- his own words here -- dropped a quarter and bent over to pick it up. General Motors was very gracious about the whole thing (the Honda was airbags-deployed totaled; the Cruze bumper needed a re-spray).

So, I'm hoping it'll be just as accommodating this time after they learn that I kind of f***'d up the automatic Cruze ECO I was testing last Thursday when I let Bruce McCall, the brilliant New Yorker illustrator/writer and celebrated inventor of National Lampoon's Bulgemobile, smoke a full-sized Dominican cigar in its car. My culpability this time is perhaps higher, for the pong of a vigorously smoked Corona is unmistakable and forever, and of course no one smokes in test cars anymore-- with the possible exception of a certain Magliozzi who will go unnamed. But I have an excuse other than Bruce's, which is that there's nowhere else left to smoke.

A certain Magliozzi who will go unnamed. (Car Talk)

You see, Bruce and I were coincidentally on the same Spirit Airlines jet last Thursday morning headed for Detroit and the Ann Arbor memorial service honoring David E. Davis, Jr., who some readers will know as the founder of Automobile Magazine, c. 1985. He's also the man I credit for giving me a column in his magazine 20 years ago, and thus helped to launch a career that's led to so many great adventures, none better, of course, than this high-paying Car Talk blog you're reading now.

Bruce knew David longer and better as the chum who'd coaxed him out of sleepy Canada and shuffling, provincial anonymity into the go-go advertising business of early 1960s' Detroit, when David ran the Corvette account at Chevy's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald. From there, it was a hop and a skip for both these talented, car-loving wordsmiths to establish themselves as respected masters of their crafts.

Davis made his name as the editor of the then newly re-christened Car ... Driver (formerly Sports Cars Illustrated), where he brought to car magazines the first glimpses of literary style, irony and a refreshing willingness to bite the hands of the car companies that fed them. McCall, a high-school drop out and self-proclaimed failure as a commercial artist, wound up painting covers for the New Yorker (forty to date), as well as writing the best autobiography I can remember reading, 1997's Thin Ice. He long ago moved to New York.

"Brooklyn the Brand", by Bruce McCall. (Featured in the New York Times Dining Section on Dec. 15th, 2010)

David E., as he was known simply to his legion of admirers, died a few weeks back of complications during surgery for bladder cancer, aged 80. Three weeks before he unexpectedly died, I'd spent six hours interviewing him and we got along so well that we planned to get together several more times, to perhaps turn our talks into a longer form project. We -- that is, me and this forbidding father figure who called me a "pinko" after he was done hurling withering invectives in my general direction -- had buried the hatchet; no way was I going to miss his memorial service. Except that bad weather socked in LaGuardia and after a delayed boarding and three fitful hours on the runway, our plane turned back to the gate. Bruce and I had missed the memorial for sure. Somehow, I'd known it -- anytime the destination is less than 700 miles distant -- drive. It'll be faster. Or, as David's old friend Brock Yates, who made it to the memorial, once remarked, "If you really need to get there, drive."

And so Bruce and I hopped into my Cruze ECO and drove back to Manhattan together, to raise a glass and luncheon fork in a two-man simul-memorial for my mentor and his old friend. It was only fitting that we were in a Chevrolet -- that's the account that the two had first worked together, after all (with the soon-to-be-famous novelist, Elmore Leonard) -- and it was fitting, as well, when Bruce said he'd be smoking a cigar in the car in David's honor. I did not do the PC thing and call the cops. I let him smoke. And because it was raining fiercely outside and we had to keep the windows closed, it was sort of like I was smoking with him. In fact, it was exactly like it. And thus we bade the big man goodbye.

They often called Davis the "dean" of modern automotive journalism, and David, who loved to be the mathematical center of any party, event or conversation, agreed. Modesty, McCall and I concurred, wasn't the big man's strong suit, though deep down, we suspected, self-love wasn't either. A brilliant raconteur, keen student of history and hard-living gourmand, he was a legend in his own time as well as in his own mind. Though we didn't always see eye to eye -- the man wrote fawning love letters to Ronald Reagan, signed "Guns ... Whiskey" and fairly drove me nuts as a young reader in the 80s when he strapped on the right-wing Midwesterner suit he'd largely eschewed in previous decades. I respected David for the big tents he pitched, and the elegant ways in which he furnished them. He was the whole package of human emotion -- caring, uncaring, gregarious, taciturn, loving, hateful, sometimes hurtful and easily hurt, in short, he was deeply human.

When we last met, David presented me with a large parchment proclamation he'd caused to be reprinted -- "The Children's Charter: President Hoover's White House Conference on Children's Health and Protection Recognizing the Rights of the Child as the First Rights of Citizenship, Pledges Itself to These Aims for the Children of America."  These nineteen fulsomely worded prescriptions -- this 1931 product of a Republican administration -- would be laughed out of today's GOP congress as a work of unalloyed socialism with such passages like the one stating that society owed its youngest members "...[f]ull-time public welfare service for the relief, aid, and guidance of children in special need due to poverty, misfortune, or behavior difficulties, and for protection of children from abuse, neglect, exploitation, or moral hazard." Davis agreed, he told me, with every word.

So, as I was saying, David was a complicated guy. And for Bruce and me, who'd seen more of the best of him than the worst, it was easy to celebrate his life and memory. If it turns out to be not as easy to rid the Cruze ECO of its cigar aroma, I just want Chevrolet to know that it reeks in honor of a departed pal.

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