by Stephen Jay Schwartz

My sense of cool is Old School. I don’t even know what cool looks like today. When I was young and cool, things like comic books were the definition of not so cool. Now comic books are IT, man, but you have to call them “graphic novels.” Comic Con is supposedly cool, and yet many of my friends say they go there to “geek out.” The pictures I’ve seen of Comic Con make it look like the height of Geek Civilization.

Cool to me is white T-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes (or biker boots). Tattoos add an element of cool, too, although that’s a more recent phenomenon. It wasn’t so cool when the tattoos said, “MOM,” or “Semper Fi” or when they featured images of sea anchors and raunchy, naked women.

I think the image of cool, Old School, is Steve McQueen.

I’ll also throw in Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, both of whom I consider “Literary Cool.”


And I probably shouldn’t leave out the young Ernest Hemmingway.

Cool has an element of “bad” in it. Bad boys are cool. Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, James Dean. There’s usually an element of danger in the mix. Selfishness, temper, physical strength.

The Fonz was supposed to be cool, but not really. He was “television executive cool” or “Madison Avenue Cool.” Manufactured to appeal to the largest demographics. He was just Henry Winkler, really, a scrawny Jewish kid from New York. That ain’t cool.


Butch and Sundance were cool.

Cigarettes were supposed to be cool, but I never bought into that. If I’d been born a decade or two earlier I would have, though. And, of course, I’d be dead by now.

Oddly, however, cigars are a little cool. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it has something to do with Fidel Castro. Who isn’t exactly cool, but he’s a rebel, which makes me think of Che Guevara. Che must be cool, because he’s on all those T-shirts that cool guys wear with their bluejeans and boots.

Malcolm X seemed pretty cool, yet Martin Luther King was merely kind. He was a great man, yes, but I wouldn’t say he was cool. Mother Teresa and Ghandi weren’t cool, for that matter, either.

Fast cars are cool. They always have been and they always will be cool. Unless the Comicon crowd ends up ruling the world. With their Toyota Priuses. Yeah, I know, it’s responsible, but it ain’t cool. There’s no element of bad in it.

Cool is Porsche, Corvette, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ford Thunderbird, Jaguar…most any car from the ’50s and ’60s. Muscle cars are cool.

So are muscles, in fact. When I was in high school, cool was a young body-builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before Conan the Barbarian. And Lou Ferrigno, before The Incredible Hulk. Of course, they were all doing steroids, which we ultimately learned was not so cool.

The Matrix is cool. It reeks of cool, and yet it feels organic. It’s cool by design, yes, but it’s designed so well. Pulp Fiction, too, is cool.

Sports figures are almost always cool. In my day, Muhammed Ali was cool. I’m not a big sports fan, so I don’t know all the cool sports figures. They’re mostly football players, basketball players, baseball players, boxers. Maybe Indy car drivers. Testosterone sports. Not a lot of tennis players or golfers on that list.

I’m sure there was a day when Elvis was cool, but to me he was always an advertisement for what people who never knew cool thought cool should be. Just because he did that thing with his hips. Oh, that’s so cool. But cool came before Elvis – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane. Dangerous cats with their reefer ways. My God, you could lose your mind listening to their devil jazz.

The Beatles were cool, for sure. They started off kinda dopey, but they got their shit together as the war dragged on.

And Jim Morrison. Scary cool.


For that matter….Jimi Hendrix. I mean, really. Uber cool. Backed by overwhelming, misunderstood talent. And Janis Joplin. Too bad about all that overdose shit.

Maybe I’m past my expiration date. I’m an old man already. But, old men can be cool, too. Maybe it’s just what they represent. William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, old and still fighting the fight (when they were alive and fighting the fight). They were rebels. Their long lives represented the fuck you I can live my life the way I want to attitude that defines cool.

What’s cool now? Justin Bieber? Really? It can’t be.

Ask your kids, will you? Maybe your grandkids. You gotta tell me what passes for cool these days. I gotta know, because I’m too old to see it.

And, how do you define cool? What is this concept, and why are we drawn to it?

And, dare I try to relate this to novels? What would you consider a cool novel? I consider Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk the ultimate in cool. Or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Tell me, please. Educate me. Bring me up to speed.

Thank you and now I’ll shut up.

21 thoughts on “OLD SCHOOL COOL

  1. Dana King

    Cool implies understatement. No yelling or "look at me" exhibitions. Dry humor, a disdain for affectation. Steve McQueen's characters. (Though, from much that I've read, McQueen himself was not so cool, given some of his displays of ego.) Butch and Sundance. (Newman and Redford, for that matter.) Not the front men in the band, but some of the musicians. The cool one in The Who was John Entwistle. For the Stones it's Charlie Watts. (Daltrey and Jagger are hip, which is not the same as cool.)

    In sports, Deion Sanders and Terrell Owens are not cool. Cal Ripken and Pudge Rodriguez are cool. They are what they are, and you can take them or leave them. They're cool with it, either way.

  2. Barbie

    I have no idea what's cool. I've never been cool. I'm a weirdo who reads books for fun and likes way too much colors. But that's cool, too 🙂

  3. Sarah W

    Justin Bieber isn't cool–he's a somewhat talented kid turned YouTube virus. There must be a difference, or what's the point?

    I'll agree with everyone on your list, though Ernest Hemingway was maybe a little too invested in his concept of cool for his own good. Love that photo, though—even in a passport shot, he was intensely there.

    Paul Newman was cool, cookies and pasta sauce notwithstanding. But Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy . . . not so much, which shocks me, as I adore them both. Bogart, Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Dean Martin, yes, Peter Lawford, good heavens no. Was it the roles or the men?

    And what about women? I'd add Angie Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn to the cool roster, and Lauren Bacall, too.

    And The Last Hot Time by John M. Ford is on my cool novel list. The characters move through the story like a knife blade through a smoke-filled room.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think Dana brings up a good point – there's cool, there's hip, and there's edgy. Sometimes those things cross and or combine, ,but they're three different, distinct things. People sometimes still use the word "cool" when what they're really talking about is awesome. And I don't mean So Cal awesome, like a good burrito is awesome, but actually awe-inspiring.

    Like, Lady Gaga, unlike Justin Bieber, is awesome fro being so edgy and activist and lifesaving,, but it's in such an in-your-face way that you can't call her "cool".

    The Matrix is hip, edgy and in your face but still cool.

  5. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Dana – yes, I like that – "they are what they are and you can take them or leave them." That, in my opinion, is a defining element of cool. I also like your perception that the back-up musicians in a band, not the front-runner, tend to have that sense of cool.

    Barbie – reading books is the ultimate cool.

    Sarah – how could I forget the Rat Pack? What was I thinking? Absolutely – in some ways they defined cool. And Bogart. You've got your finger on the pulse, girl. And the women, too – Katheryn Hepburn for sure! I've always loved her, and she has that "I am what I am" quality that Dana mentioned. How about Audrey Hepburn? And Lauren Bacall, yes. I know there are quite a few women I'd include on that list, if I were more aware of their work in the classic films. Angie Dickinson is another great choice. How about female novelists?

    Alex – uh-oh, now it's getting complicated. But, you're right. Cool, hip, and edgy. I like my cool to have all three, actually. Hip sometimes doesn't occur until after the person has died, though. Like Che – I doubt he was "hip" until he ended up on a T-shirt. And then I find it hard to trust the image, since it was so clearly created by someone with an agenda. Oddly, I know almost nothing about Lady Gaga, except that she has a great publicist and she's always in the public eye. I don't think I've ever heard one of her songs. It's funny – The Matrix is cool for so many reasons. Will it be cool twenty years from now? Star Wars was cool when it first came out. Is it cool now?

  6. Richard Maguire

    Winning the Lottery when your agent calls to say "There's no hope" is cool.

    Going on a date with Jennifer Lopez is very cool.

    Riding a dancing Burmese elephant backwards down Main Street when your agent calls to say "Sold for a million bucks" is cool.

    Saying you've read ULYSSES cover to cover and knowing it's true when you could've been doing all or any of the above is sad.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Steve, the college kids I taught this year were way into the Matrix. I think it will hold up as cool.

    Lady Gaga is a total heroine to gay kids and kids who are bullied or just different. Her crusades against bullying and her passionate dedication to suicide prevention really are awesome. But if you were more of a dancer you'd know her music, too: like Michael Jackson did, she's creating a dance language that's already become a staple of street dance vocabulary.

  8. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Richard….you are my cool hero, for reading Ulysses cover-to-cover. I once joined a Finnegans Wake reading group for a day – it took us three hours to read one page. I asked one of the guys how many times he's read the book. "I've been reading The Wake for thirty years!" he proclaimed. "Wow," I said. "How many times have you read it?" "Three times," he said. That was my last day at the Finnegans Wake reading group.

    Alex – very cool about Gaga. Those are the best causes – I'm glad she's out there.

  9. Reine

    My father was in the play, Finnegan's Wake. It made him cool. But not me. I'd rather be hot. But I'm not.

  10. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Reine – there's cool, and then there's hot. I think cool is cooler than hot, and you resonate cool.

    Gar – I was really, really geeky before I bought that magic leather jacket. I'm thinking of renting it out to other authors for special occasions – only events I cannot attend, of course.

  11. Reine

    Poor Justin. I don't think even your leather jacket will help him. I predict a hastily packaged touring company of that play with the horse and naked guy. It will fail, and he'll have to marry the horse.

  12. Catherine

    Both of my daughters are asleep after a Friday night. Waking them to ask what they think is cool…

    I do know from frequent mutterings of disdain, what my youngest considers not cool though. The main thing that kills any trace of cool for her is contrivance. The double bluff not trying to be cool via marketing campaigns particularly enrages her. She is very astute at sensing source and motivation. She mostly seems to be drawn to trends about 6 months before most people.

    Both my daughters are quasi horrified when I tell them I think they're cool. I had the eldest say ' um thanks Mum, but dropping my Mum thinks I'm cool into conversation will never go well. '

    I think generally both of them think not following the crowd is a good start for cool. I've noticed that being disengaged in not prerequisite of cool for them. They seem to be drawn more to people passionately engaged in creating something who don't need group approval to drive the
    . I think they both think Nick Cave is cool but then so do . To me his self awareness his over the top lounge lizard on acid languidness is cooI.They also both reveled in ' Fear and loathing…'

    Cool over exposed often negates the cool. At least for a while then if it/ they were truly cool they come back and reveal enduring cool. You've used good examples of this Stephen.

  13. Catherine

    Sorry that some of that comment peters out. My commenting via iPhone process is a bit dodgy. The sentence about not needing group approval should end as them… Not the.

  14. Sarah W


    Cool female novelists? There's a whole sidebar full of them the upper right of this page.

    Add Lillian Hellman to that list, and Susan Glaspell, Anne Lamott . . . almost everyone I met at Bouchercon (Val McDermid and Laurie King to be placed at the top, right under Zoe Sharp) and if we can count writers of short stories and poems, Dorothy Parker.

  15. Mike Dennis

    I would include in your cool list the following:

    The Rat Pack (during the early 1960s)
    Humphrey Bogart
    Jerry Lee Lewis
    Claudia Cardinale (just watch ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST)
    Robert Mitchum
    Lawrence Block
    Samuel L Jackson
    Bonnie Raitt
    Barbara Stanwyck

  16. Melanie

    The reason you don't know what is cool these days is that what was meaningful to mid-century Americans is irrelevant today. Back then people were struggling to unbury themselves from overarching cultural assumptions which enforced conformity. One of the underpinnings of that conformity was patriarchy as interpreted through religion. This is why bad was so cool. Bad was a rebellion against following outdated rules of behavior which had lost meaning for people but which was controlling their options. Much of that dichotomy has been depressurized.

    Now people are struggling against a conformity driven less by religion and more by the shared understanding of what is going to help you escape notice by bullies and authority figures in the institutional setting of public education. This sort of rebellion involves standing out of the crowd by claiming your weirdness.

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