The other week, This American Life devoted a 60-minute episode to the subject of frenemies. Listening to the stories presented in the program, we couldn't help but think that Jessica Mitford said it all in under 900 words, way back in 1977, in a piece she tossed off (her characterization, not ours) for The Daily Mail. Wait, frenemies? 1977? Didn't Sex and the City invent that word? Not so, children. Talented coiners all, the Mitford girls were putting down frenemies in the nursery, and to read their letters, they maintained a large circle of them throughout their lives.
"The Best of Frenemies," is collected in Mitford's Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckracking, recently reprinted as an NYRB Classic. Note Mitford's comment that frenemey is "an incredibly useful word that should be in every dictionary." Pity she didn't live to see it enshrined both in Merriam-Webster's ("first known use: 1977"!) and in no less than than most recent edition of The Oxford English Dictionary.
Mitford's commentary—included in Poison Penmanship—on the piece is as entertaining as the article itself. In it she explains how the piece came to be (or nearly didn't come to be: "I'd be hopeless on the subject of friendship, that sort of thing isn't my speed at all"), why it's included in the collection, and her delight in having it later republished in the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.
[Image: Kathleen A. Walker, back-cover illustration to the first edition of Poison Penmanship]
THE BEST OF FRENEMIES
English newspaper readers were accorded a rare treat this summer when the press discovered that Mr. Ted Heath, former British Prime Minister, maintained a “Friends List” of 110 names, with revealing notations to enable his secretary to identify callers. Among his graphic comments: “Smooth stockbroker,” “Old lady, not too nice,” “Sends goodies,” “Very rich—fork lift trucks,” “We owe dinner.”
Reading in far-off California about Mr. Heath’s Friends List, I visualize that it must have created a new parlour game being played nightly in sitting-rooms all over England: the capsule characterisation of Friends. I know it sent me scurrying for my address book, to scrutinize the names therein for appropriate one-line comment on each: “Lunch, not dinner, too drunk by then.” “Good for $100 contribution Prisoners Support Committee if approached right.” “Gone guru, alas.” “Into ceramics, health foods. Bother.” [Into? Yes, unfortunately—a new and deplorable shorthand for interested in or working at.] “An adorable creature, pity lives New York.” “Moderately good Scrabble, not much cop anything else.”
Actually, I soon discovered that a substantial number of the names listed in my address book belong in the category of Frenemy, an incredibly useful word that should be in every dictionary, coined by one of my sisters when she was a small child to describe a rather dull little girl who lived near us. My sister and the Frenemy played together constantly, invited each other to tea at least once a week, were inseparable companions, all the time disliking each other heartily.
I wonder whether most of us do not, in fact, spend more time with frenemies than with actual friends or outright enemies? Those fringy folks whose proximity, either territorial or work-related, demands the frequent dinner invitation and acceptance of their return hospitality? Pondering the potential guest list, dear reader, how often have you and your spouse bickered on in this fashion: “Well, if we ask Geraldine, we’ll have to ask Mary and her awful boy-friend.” “We can’t just ask Peter from my office and not the others—makes for bad blood. If we ask Peter, we’ve got to have the lot.”
The return invitation of the frenemy is always cause for alarm, although generally not immediate alarm: “It’s three weeks off, darling, and anyway it’s a free dinner so let’s go,” one says hopefully. In our neighbourhood, the evening too often involves the showing of slides of the frenemies’ trip to Europe. In California, where the threat of earthquakes is ever present, one can take out “slide insurance” on one’s house; but this does not, as I have ascertained from my insurance agent, apply to such gatherings. “There is no such thing as a free dinner,” my husband once gloomily remarked as we staggered, exhausted, from the interminable click-click of the slides being put into their slot: “Oh, sorry, upside down, but this is Maudie at the Kremlin—you can just see her skirt on the left....”
But real friends—ah! Who are they? Mostly people, boys and girls, whom we knew and laughed with and loved passionately circa age twenty. Only rarely does one make new friends in later life; I have some, and I cherish them dearly. The point about the friends of our youth, though, is that no matter how divergent our interests, viewpoints, ways of life have become over the years we can pick straight up with them and carry on as before: “Your pugs, darling, they are too smashing,” I will exclaim to such a friend who knows I actually loathe pugs, and she will counter with “Well darling I haven’t actually read your book [she actually loathes books] but I do think it’s marvellous anyway...” and from then on it is very plain sailing: a sort of basking in mutual fondness that has nothing to do with her pugs or my books, just the heaven of each other’s company for the sake of it.
Enemies are, to me, as important as friends in my life, and when they die I mourn their passing. For example, when I was writing The American Way of Death, some of my very best quotations of the funeral industry spokesmen were those of Mr. Wilber Krieger, Managing Director of the National Selected Morticians. His pronouncements were always absolutely sure-fire, marvellous copy. I could never have done without him; his “selection room for Merchandising Research to demonstrate lighting to show arrangements and decoration through the 25-unit balanced line of caskets,” and so on; he made my book. After the book came out, his denunciations of it in Casket & Sunnyside made my day. How very sad, then, to read in Mortuary Management that Mr. Krieger has gone on to a balanced-line casket. The news filled me with gloom; lifelong enemies are, I think, as hard to make and as important to one’s well-being as lifelong friends.
Our former President, Mr. Richard Nixon, evidently recognizing this universal human need, maintained an official Enemies List. Surely Mr. Heath could produce one of those? But perhaps it would turn out to be not all that different from his old Friends List, with the same occasional notation “We Owe Dinner.”