One day, while John Train was a graduate student in comparative literature at Harvard University, he encountered in an issue of Collier’s magazine the name of a man that would inspire a lifelong interest: Katz Meow of Hoquiam, Wash.
Mr. Train reported the discovery to friends and they began telling him about other unusual names, including Melissy Dalciny Caldony Yankee Pankee Devil-Take-The-Irishman Garrison, of Tryon City, N.C.
He would go on to write not one, not two, but three entire books devoted to the subject of “remarkable names of real people,” bringing to attention an Englishman called Strangeways Pigg Strangeways and the Ohio resident Mary Louise Pantzaroff.
That was just one role Mr. Train played — the jocund hobbyist who ambled into bookish success. He helped found the literary quarterly The Paris Review with other Ivy Leaguers while bopping around Paris in the 1950s, and he wrote books on eccentric topics aside from names, like the cultural histories of oranges and Oriental rug symbols.
Yet he was also an operator in high finance and world affairs who, by one researcher’s account, had ties to U.S. secret services. Mr. Train founded and ran a leading financial firm devoted to preserving the money of rich families, and he worked to support the mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The multifariousness of his career defies definition, but one quality did underlie his many activities. Mr. Train exemplified the attitudes and values of the exalted class he was born into: the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the postwar era. He was globe-bestriding but also self-effacing, erudite but also pragmatic, cosmopolitan but also nationalistic, solemn at one moment and droll the next.
“His WASPiness was so old school, and it’s long gone now,” his daughter Nina said. “Some of his friends were the last of that ilk. He lived and breathed it. He didn't change one bit, right through the ’60s.”
Mr. Train died on Aug. 13 at a hospital near his summer home on Islesboro Island in Maine, Nina Train said. He was 94.
John Pell Coster Train was born on May 25, 1928, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His family traced its roots in America to the 17th century, and they lived in a town house whose plot is now occupied by the Buckley School, which he attended.
His father, Arthur, was an assistant district attorney in Manhattan who also wrote popular short stories for The Saturday Evening Post about a crafty lawyer named Ephraim Tutt. His mother, Helen, was a painter.
John graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in 1950 and earned his master’s degree there in 1951. He soon moved to Paris and began hanging out with George Plimpton, a fellow alum of The Harvard Lampoon.
“It was generally agreed that the best thing you could do was start a literary magazine in Paris,” Mr. Train told The Washington Post in 1980 about the era in which The Paris Review was founded. “It seems like a strange thing, but I promise you it is true.”
Mr. Train is credited with coining the magazine’s name and helping to establish its art-for-art’s-sake sensibility. He worked for a time in a role he labeled “so-called managing editor,” but he did not discover a lifelong métier in the work. “The poetry was usually handwritten and sometimes it smelled rather queer,” he told Newsday in 1981.
Mr. Train joined the Army Reserve in 1951 and went on to active duty in 1954. He worked as a speechwriter for the Pentagon. After being discharged in 1956, he began working on Wall Street with the mutual fund investor Imrie de Vegh. In the late 1950s he opened his own firm, which had several names over time but was mostly known as Train, Smith Investment Counsel.
By his early 40s, Mr. Train was himself a white-haired master of the financial universe who wore a bow tie and pinstripe suit. But he had not grown up excessively. He was still capable, for instance, of defending his interest in names in a 1976 Paris Review article that argued that the North would have lost the Civil War if Ulysses Grant had been given a first name with less “panache.”
Mr. Train’s other oddball preoccupations that led to books included “remarkable words with astonishing origins,” “mots justes and indispensable terms” and “remarkable occurrences” (in 1895, for instance, only two cars existed in Ohio, and, Mr. Train claimed, they collided).
He treated his political interests less jokingly. A committed cold warrior, he wrote for The Wall Street Journal about military affairs. He became concerned that the conspiracy-monger Lyndon LaRouche was a “possible Soviet agent,” Mr. Train’s longtime assistant Sara Perkins said in a phone interview, and he convened meetings at his home for journalists, law enforcement agents and others in government to raise awareness about research he had done into LaRouche.
Mr. Train’s activism provoked a ferocious reaction from LaRouche’s followers, who accused him in 1991 of serving as “chief propagandist in the ‘Get LaRouche’ drive.” In 2007, Washington Monthly wrote that LaRouche had encouraged his followers to believe that “they were the victims of mass conspiracies” that were “usually perpetrated” by Mr. Train.
A yet murkier side of Mr. Train’s political engagement was documented in Joel Whitney’s 2016 book, “Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” a history of connections between Paris Review founders and intelligence agencies.
Drawing on a collection of Mr. Train’s papers at Seton Hall University and two interviews with him, Whitney wrote that in the 1980s Mr. Train used a “shell nonprofit to foster schemes” furthering U.S. “intelligence and propaganda missions” in Afghanistan.
Mr. Train ran an organization, the Afghanistan Relief Committee, which presented itself as largely devoted to helping refugees and offering other forms of humanitarian aid, but a study by the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies found that its budget was spent largely on “media campaigns.”
“Finks” does not go into detail about the nature of these campaigns, but it does describe, among other things, a memo showing that Mr. Train planned to set up “TV propaganda against the Soviets” with the help of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who went on to become a warlord designated by the U.S. as a terrorist.
Mr. Train’s first marriage, to Maria Teresa Cini di Pianzano, ended in divorce, and in 1977 he married Francie Cheston, who survives him. In addition to her and his daughter Nina, from his first marriage, he is survived by two other daughters from that marriage, Helen Klebnikov and Lisa Train; a stepdaughter, Alix Tower Thorne; two stepsons, Harry Tower and Whitney Tower Jr.; six grandchildren; six step-grandchildren; and nine step-great-grandchildren.
At his death, he lived on the same Upper East Side street where his family lived when he was born.
There is a consistent theme throughout Mr. Train’s seemingly disparate books: fondness for the elements of everyday life that may be overlooked — names, idioms, common fruits — and a demand for vigilance to appreciate them.
“Not many of us look at carpets carefully, or are able to interpret their extraordinary messages,” he wrote in “Oriental Rug Symbols” (1997), his study of motifs on carpets that adorn homes around the world. “In this respect carpets resemble stained-glass windows; one is moved by their beauty, but the experience is enhanced by understanding.”