IT WAS WHEN I was in second grade that one of the teacher at our school brought a plastic model of the United Nations building back from her visit to New York and gave it to the school. She told us how beautiful the building was, and how wonderful it was that nations were learning to work their problems out by talking rather than fighting with each other, and what a wise and good man the Secretary-General was. She couldn't quite pronounce his name.
That was when I first learned what the United Nations and who Dag Hammarskjold were. It was almost seven years later that I watched a tearful Pauline Frederick son tell the world that Hammarskjold was dead. His airplane had crashed--or had been shot down--just as it was about to land at Ndola, a small town on the border between the Congolese province of Katanga and Rhodesia. Hammarskjold had flown there to talk with Moise Tshombe, intending to negotiate not only a ceasefire but the terms under which Katanga would eventually be re-unified with the rest of the Republic.
It was with wonder that I realized that I really knew nothing more about him then than I had in second grade. And from the newscasts it was obvious that the press didn't know a great deal more. They had miles of video-tape and films to document what he had done, but none of them seemed to have a very good idea of just who he had been. He had been the rarest of public figures, the man who honestly wished to keep his private life private--and succeeded.
That presented problems for his would-be bioggraphers as they rushed their books to press. The better of the biographies restricted themselves to recounting his career. Too many of the others filled the void with scribblings ranging from near slander to the vaguest musings about the man's personal affairs to pompous pronouncements on his virtues and shortcomings. As a result, Dag Hammarskjold the man remained an enigma to all but the circle of his closer friends.
ONE OF THEM, one of the closest, has finally chosen to present what he knew of Hammarskjold in an attempt to "answer some of the questions too often asked me." What Bo Beskow has written is not a biography of Hammarskjold, not even an account of Hammarskjold's life during the years Beskow knew him; it makes no attempt to recount the man's career, except when it impinges upon Beskow's private story. Perhaps even Beskow's term for his book, "a portrait," is incorrect, because one does not begin to get, even at a single point in time, a full picture of the man. It is obvious that Beskow knew Dag Hammarskjold well, but it is equally obvious that there was much he did not know. That is why it is so pleasing to find Beskow never straying form what he knows, and knows well. He talks about meeting Hammarskjold, about buying him a seashore cottage near his own, about the books the Secretary General read and his taste in art. He talks about the times they spent together, in Hagestad, the seaside retreat; in Hammarskjold's Manhattan flat while Beskow was painting the fresco in the Meditation Room of the U.N.; at Brewster, the small estate Hammarskjold had rented in upstate New York.
Beskow quotes Hammasrskjold, his public speeches and his private letters, and he had chosen to illustrate the book with almost a hundred photographs, some by Hammarskjold, but mostly his own. The result of it all is a collage held together by nothing more than memories; but it is a very pleasant collage, and memories are enough.
What Beskow has attempted seems like a new biographical form because it is done so well. Reading it you feel what you feel what you know Beskow wants you to feel, an appreciation of the places and things Hammarskjold himself appreciated, an impression of the simple elegance of the man's style.
And you feel what Beskow himself feels, a tremendous sense of loss, a longing to turn back time and correct its flow and see a smiling Dag climb off the plane at Ndola, a sure knowledge that, were he still alive, the world would be a bit better place to live in. Either as a friend or a biographer, Hammarskjold could have asked of him nothing more.