Searching for Eccentrics


A recent story in The Sun described an English eccentric, the Sixth Marquess of Bath, who had stocked his 9,500-acre estate with lions, giraffes, baboons and several dozen other wild animals, and charged admission to the estate in order to defray the alarming costs of running such a place.

The Sixth Marquess recently died, leaving his estate to his son, the Seventh Marquess of Bath, described as merely "conventionally bohemian."

The writer of the story raised the question as to whether there are more eccentric people in Britain than in other countries.

The question challenged this ex-colonial, and I thought it would be easy to scan newspapers and magazines and find amusing and charming tales about America's eccentrics.

Granted, they might not operate on the grandiose scale of a marquess, but I felt sure they would be equally bizarre in a uniquely American way.

I did not allow myself sure-fire sources such as "The Book of Lists" or the Guinness Book of World Records, nor the deliberately macabre subjects in such publications as the National Enquirer. My eccentrics would have to be pure, ongoing and spontaneous, not canned.

Either eccentric behavior is going unrecorded today or it isn't happening.

According to what I read in the newspapers, we only have lots of conduct that is weird, anti-social or twisted, and causing lasting harm to others. Eccentric behavior should do no harm, other than perhaps cause embarrassment to more conventional kin.

A glance at the city newspapers of this country typically shows a multitude of sad little tales such as "Pizza Deliveryman Wounded in Robbery," "Four Golfers Robbed on 15th Green," "Man Shot to Death Outside His Home," "Mother Dead, Daughters on Trial."

Suburban papers that tend to cover high-rent districts run ever-expanding crime logs of their targeted neighborhoods, from auto theft to rape.

According to FBI reports in the World Almanac 1992 and the World Book Encyclopedia, there were nearly 6,000 crimes per 100,000 of the population of the United States in 1990, up 400 percent since 1960. The number of homicides alone was six times that of the homicide rate of Great Britain. Our papers must be doing all they can to report our country's escalating crimes.

Perhaps being outrageously and harmlessly eccentric is a luxury not just of the rich but of the safe and law-abiding. Certainly, reporting it is, while the repetition of reported heinous crimes makes them banal.

Therefore, perhaps it takes more to be considered eccentric than it used to. Nowadays, we seem to spurn the delightfully eccentric for the viciously grotesque.

My parents used to have a friend who wore capes and kept peacocks on his (far less than 9,500 acres of) grounds. He was one of the few true eccentrics that I have ever known. I never appreciated him until now.

Ann Egerton writes from Baltimore.

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