This isn’t to attribute the dearth of charm to some cultural and social declension, although clearly charm—with its emotional, even aesthetic, detachment—could hardly have retained its social sway after that most overwrought of decades, the 1960s. Any culture that celebrates youth necessarily provides stony soil for charm, which is by definition a quality reserved for adults: the young can be charming, which is an inadvertent attribute; they cannot have charm.
Of course, all of these social and cultural shifts, which are themselves inimical to charm, are rooted in a more basic change—the ever-widening infection of social relations by market values. That development, whether good or ill, indisputably makes for blunter and more crudely utilitarian manners. After all, in a way, charm is just small talk.
More important, charm, for all its appeal, isn’t a moral virtue—it’s an amoral one. Americans, especially American men, have always been, for some very good reasons, ambivalent about charm. It’s an attribute alien to many men because they are ingenuous, a quality that can itself be either admirable or unlovely. Many American military men deserve our esteem; the many I have known indeed do, but I have never met one with an ounce of charm. Indeed, what American hero has possessed it? The quintessential modern American hero, the eternally jejune and earnest Charles Lindbergh, who became a god when not yet a man, was in every way the antithesis of charm. America’s entire political history has been in some basic way a struggle between Jefferson—self-righteous, humorless, prickly, at once intellectually ardent and woolly—and Hamilton, a man foreign-born, witty, stylish, coolly brilliant, generous, possessed of a rare rapport with and an understanding of women. And just as Hamilton’s political vision triumphed, so did Jefferson’s political style. To be sure, we’ve always had sports heroes—Sonny Jurgensen, John McEnroe, Jim McMahon, Arnold Palmer—whose sly irony and authority-defining insouciance lends them the adolescent glamour of Peck’s Bad Boy, a posture that, while sometimes winning, can be mislabeled as charm. (Its limits are clear in the persona of a non-sportsman exemplar, Bruce Willis.) Indeed, sports—youngsters’ games pursued in earnest—essentially lack charm. The seriousness with which American men take sports both confirms and exacerbates their suspicion of charm.
So there’s nothing new about the troubled relationship between men and charm. The dearth of charming American leading men seems acute now, but only for a brief cultural moment, from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, did American movies elevate male charm—not coincidentally, during a time when middle-class women made up the pictures’ largest audience. Even then the roster of charming lead actors was pretty much limited to Grant (foreign-born and -raised, and entirely self-invented—a man without a country), Gable (endearing, although his charm was always at war with his compulsion to establish his masculinity), William Powell (a bit asexual), and—strange but true—the perennially underrated Fred MacMurray. As for most other male stars, even of romantic comedies, which was the only genre that celebrated charm, the distinction that separates youth from age applies: Jimmy Stewart in his fumbling ineffectuality and Gary Cooper in his galumphing diffidence could be charming—the modifier boyishly naturally appends itself—but they didn’t have charm.
In the old days, the phrase a charming man was often code for “a gay man,” and undoubtedly the undying but unfounded speculation about Grant’s bisexuality is based on the suspicion that no man so charming could possibly be heterosexual. There is no getting around the basic womanliness of charm. One of the three most important virtues in a man, according to Christopher Hitchens—among the very few charming men I’ve known—is the ability to think like a woman. (The other two are courage, moral and physical, and a sense of the absurd.) Certainly this is one reason many men find charm so alien and alienating. But a man’s ability to think like a woman, and its concomitant—an understanding of and interest in women—is probably rooted not in sexuality but in a sympathetic relationship with his mother or other women who raised him. That today foppishness, campiness, and a proclivity to dish get conflated with male charm indicates, as does the notion of Vaughn as a contemporary Garner, the culture’s incomprehension of that quality.