Poet and philanthropy chairman McVay describes, in prose and
verse, his eventful life and his meetings with remarkable men, women, and
McVay, a Princeton alum, went from Cold War–era service in 1950s Berlin, where he met his wife, Hella, to a detour into natural science; he stayed after a lecture by animal-communication expert John C. Lilly and asked so many insightful questions that Lilly hired him as an assistant. Thus was McVay exposed to the minds and ways of marine mammals—predominantly dolphins and whales, whose underwater language Lilly spent his career studying. As the eventual head of both the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, McVay mingled with some of the great minds of the 20th century; he describes interactions with, among others, Isaac Asimov, Charles Lindbergh (whom he characterizes as being misinformed about whales), Prince Philip of England, Ralph Nader, Hillary Clinton, primatologist Dian Fossey (and Sigourney Weaver, who portrayed Fossey in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist), as well as luminaries of the World Wildlife Fund and the Chautauqua Institution (of which he became president). At one point in this book of reminiscences, the author quotes a character in Lily King’s novel Euphoria, who says that “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” and he sees it as “a cautionary thought for anyone trying to put together ‘an anecdotal biography.’ ” McVay follows that method here, recounting his eventful life mainly in short, pithy tales of meetings with remarkable people—and animals. He also sprinkles examples of his verse throughout this book, usually attached to a matching anecdote. Overall, this wide-ranging book compensates in passion and spirit what it may lack in cohesion. Conservation causes and eco-initiatives are strongly on the author’s broad mind, for example, as is the relative lack of recognition for modern female poets. He has little time or regard for climate change deniers or the Koch brothers, but he notes when someone makes a choice that benefits the planet.
A whale of a memoir in more ways than one.