He was born Sydney Jackman, but took the name “Toby” in honor of his favorite teddy bear. After his Californian parents died, Toby was raised in Canada by his grandparents. He took a BA in physics (shudder) at Washington State, followed by a PhD in history at Harvard. He was very proud of the fact that his PhD was a biography: something few tutors would tolerate nowadays. Toby was interested in narrative and anecdote, which are discouraged in contemporary academia. It’s not true that he produced no further significant work, but he really used his Harvard connections to build an international collection of acquaintances and to turn himself into a latter-day flaneur. Among the names in his rolodex were Paul Mellon and John Julius Norwich. He collected art and distributed his family’s cash across the academic world. He excelled as an administrator and a teacher and established himself as a fellow of St. Edmund’s Hall in Cambridge. That’s how I had the pleasure of meeting him.
Toby took me and a friend to lunch one afternoon. He was tall and slight and quite blind, but was a charismatic magnet for conversation and gossip. He was fascinated by the revival of Catholicism in Cambridge (of which I was only a tangential part). High religion was to his generation a sin worthy of the Greeks but he reveled in the exoticism of our company. He struck me as an old fashioned Anglo-American liberal: more English than the English, but without their unpleasant snobbery. He was the kind of campus radical who might have campaigned (read: sign a petition) for nuclear disarmament, but not stopped too long lest he miss cocktails with Gerald and Betty Ford.
The point of a Cambridge education to men like Toby was to cultivate mind and character. The aspiration of getting a job was vulgar; equally silly as wasting one’s time and opportunity on drugs and sex. He threw out and absorbed the facts of art, literature, history, quantum-mechanics with the casuality of a woman discussing the neighbors beneath a salon hairdryer. Toby was a social and intellectual polymath.
When the lunch finished, he suggested we go Dutch. My friend explained later that Toby was rolling in money, but sometimes didn't offer to pay lest his guest take offense at the implication that he was penniless. I saw him a few more times and noticed that, as the years drew on, his dress became more avant-garde. By late 2005, he was walking around in what can only be described as dungarees and a cap. Pinned to the shoulder strap was a faded ribbon promoting a cause that had long been won. It was possible that he did all this because we were Catholics and thought we would appreciate his effort of "dressing down".
Now that Toby is gone, Cambridge is minus one less of those excellent men who stroll the riverbank in suits and hats. They sit in pub gardens stringing endless yarns about the time Isherwood tried to kiss them, or they performed the Heimlich Maneuver on Salvador Dali. They are the faint echo of a better, gentler age and I miss them all. RIP Toby and RIP Cambridge.