Sammy hugs Dick, August 22, 1972. Photo Credit: Corbis / Getty
Poor David Copperfield, to add to the other humiliations of his boyhood, at school is forced, for reasons too elaborate to go into here, to wear a sign that reads, “Take Care of Him. He Bites.” I have been thinking of that sign in connection with a sign I should like to make for myself that reads: “Beware. He Does Not Hug Men!” For I don’t. Not, that is, if I can help it, though sometimes, alas, I cannot. Being hugged by a man, you will have gathered, is not my idea of a swell time.
I don’t know when, exactly, men hugging one another got going in the big-time way it has in recent years, but I suspect its origins can be found, like so many false intimacies of the age, in show business. One easily imagines two burly comedians—Shecky Greene, say, and Don Rickles—hugging on a late-night talk show. Jerry Lewis must have been a hell of a hugger. Contemporary athletes also do lots of hugging after touchdowns, home runs, overtime victories. I have seen victorious professional golfers hug their caddies.
Two famous hugs in modern history are those of Sammy Davis Jr. hugging Richard Nixon and Jesse Jackson’s being hugged—and kissed at no extra charge—by Yasser Arafat. Davis, taking Nixon by surprise, hugged him, surely among the most unhuggable men in history, from behind. The hug of Arafat (Yasser, that’s my baby) must be among the hugs that Jackson would like to have removed from all photo files.
Barack Obama patented, if he did not invent, the combined handshake-hug, in which while shaking hands you lean in for a half hug and lay two quick pats on the other fellow’s back, while he does the same to you. I’ve had it used on me, and it is a slight improvement over the conventional masculine bear hug, but I could do nicely without it, too. I try to make it plain—in my posture, my facial expression, my general demeanor—that I’m not up for hugs, but that hasn’t stopped a small number of men I’ve known or recently met from putting the clamp on me. If only I had the physique to back it up, I’d say to anyone who attempted to do so, “Hug me and I’ll drop you.”
In this, the age of the masculine hug, I have in my mind been compiling a list of unhuggable figures in history—men no man of good sense would ever attempt to hug. I shouldn’t think Aristotle or Maimonides would welcome a hug. Had it ever, I wonder, occurred to another man to hug Stalin or, on a somewhat lower level of monstrosity, Leonid Brezhnev? Woodrow Wilson seems impressively unhuggable; so, too, does Winston Churchill and in fact every English prime minister in history up to Tony Blair. Perhaps the most unhugsome (unhuggly?) figure of all was Charles de Gaulle, whose hauteur, physical and emotional, seemed to resist any possibility of a male embrace.
Some families are big on hugs, kisses, love-yas. Mine was not among them. My mother and I rarely hugged, and I have to strain to recall our kissing. I don’t have to strain to recall kissing or hugging my father, because I am certain that past the time I reached the age of 3 or 4, we never did either. What I do recall is my father, when I was 5 or 6, upbraiding me for too gentle a handshake. “You call that a handshake, that fish you just put in my hand?” I remember him saying. Yet I loved both my parents, have never felt less than fortunate in being their son, and I haven’t the least doubt that they loved me. We just didn’t see any reason to get physical about it.
The male-on-male hug is supposed to demonstrate warmth, camaraderie, intimacy. An argument can be made that it is a perfectly natural expression of masculine ebullience, the expression of feeling much stronger that a mere handshake can convey. But I’m not buying it. I myself think it is little more than gaudy exhibitionism in a touchy-feely time. In the leaden embrace of such a hug, the grisly bearded or perma-stubbled cheek of another man grazing mine, I have only one feeling: sympathy for women.
The one male-to-male hug of which I thoroughly approved took place roughly 20 years ago when the two wittiest, most intelligent men I knew, Edward Shils and Hilton Kramer, neither among the obviously huggable, embraced affectionately after an evening we three had spent together, so delighted were they in each other’s company. That years before I had originally introduced them pleased me to the point where I almost could have hugged myself.