Nicholas Schmidle writes: When Glenn Stewart enrolled at the University of Oxford, in 1975, he was not a typical first-year student: a twenty-year-old American with mediocre grades, he had taken neither A-level exams nor Oxford’s entrance test. But he had an unusual degree of confidence, and, after securing a strong reference from an English grammar school that he’d attended for a year, he persuaded an Oxford admissions officer to let him in.
Stewart had grown up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of College Park, Maryland, where his father taught chemistry at the University of Maryland. An enterprising kid, he made money on weekends by selling soda in the bleachers at college football games. After Stewart’s junior year in high school, his father went to England on sabbatical and took the family along. As Stewart later wrote in a self-published memoir, “A Gentleman and a Player,” he loved being among foreigners: “I could tell they were bemused by my brashness, never having met a Yank up close before.” After a year at the grammar school, he reluctantly followed his family back home, received his diploma, and completed a couple of semesters at the University of Maryland. America bored him, however, and he sought his fortunes abroad.
At Oxford, Stewart, who was tall and lean, with long brown hair, exuded what one classmate called a “sense of adventure.” He joined a clique of theatre enthusiasts who included Rowan Atkinson, of “Mr. Bean,” and Pierre Audi, a student from Lebanon, who now directs the Dutch National Opera. Audi told me that Stewart had seemed unusually attuned to other cultures. The tumult in the Middle East—the Yom Kippur War, the opec oil embargo — made a strong impression on Stewart. Where others saw a crisis, he glimpsed opportunity. He began intensive study of Arabic and Islamic history. His thesis explored Byzantine-Hamdanid relations in the tenth century and the evolution of the Christian concept of holy war. While Audi was trying to “run away from the Middle East,” he told me, Stewart was charging toward it. [Continue reading…]