Family members, former colleagues, important writers, and intimate friends gathered yesterday to praise the critic John Leonard for his “love of the life of the mind,” his “incomparably informed generosity,” his reluctance to “pan books or movies or TV shows or children, except when absolutely necessary”—and his unlikely dependence on just ten words: “tantrum, cathedral, linoleum, moxie, thug, dialectic, splendid, brood, libidinal, and qualm.”
Leonard died of lung cancer the day after Barack Obama was elected president last November, but his family waited until what would have been Leonard’s seventieth birthday to celebrate his life.
The two-hour-and-ten-minute memorial at the Unitarian Church on Central Park West in Manhattan began with a thirty-second welcome from Fran Lebowitz, who strode to the podium in a black suit jacket, white dress shirt, blue jeans, and brown boots—an outfit Leonard would have appreciated, partly because it could have been a sartorial homage to himself.
Lebowitz is one of scores of writers—Toni Morrison, who was also present, is another—who loved Leonard for who he was, and for the fact that he was the first critic to propel her to prominence from his most powerful launching pad, The New York Times.
Here is how Leonard celebrated the then-unknown Lebowitz, when she published Metropolitan Life:
To a base of Huck Finn, add some Lenny Bruce and Oscar Wilde and Alexis de Tocqueville, a dash of cab driver, an assortment of puns, minced jargon, and top it off with smarty-pants. Serve without whine. This is the New York style, and I for one am glad that it survives and prospers because otherwise we might as well grow moss in unsurprising Omaha.
Obviously, he had spotted a kindred spirit.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Leonard was the critical wunderkind of the New York literary world. Hired as an editor of the Sunday New York Times Book Review in the fall of 1967, Leonard became a daily book critic in 1968 and the editor of the Book Review at the end of 1971. No other journalistic ascent has been more meteoric than that.
Three months into his tenure as the Book Review’s boss, Leonard published an issue mostly devoted to books attacking the Vietnam War. He kept the top job at the publication until 1975, when his incapacity to adjust his principles landed him in the position of the Times’s “cultural critic” at large instead. When Leonard returned to being a daily book critic, his review of Lou Cannon’s new biography of Ronald Reagan was killed outright by his increasingly conservative boss, Abe Rosenthal. Then Leonard panned a book by Betty Friedan, a close friend of Rosenthal’s, and the frequency of his daily book reviews was cut in half. Leonard left the paper in 1982, but remained an occasional contributor to the Book Review until the end of his life.
Earlier Leonard had worked for the National Review and had been a student at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley he was also the impresario of “Nightsounds” at KPFA, the local outlet of the Pacifica Foundation, which was one of the earliest promoters of what we would later call the counterculture. Larry Josephson told yesterday’s gathering that tapes of “Nightsounds” were sent by fourth-class mail from KPFA to WBAI in New York, where a young late-night announcer named Bob Fass would play them. This made Leonard the father of free-form radio, a format embraced by Josephson, Steve Post, and, most famously, Fass—whose “Radio Unnameable” on WBAI launched a crucial anti-Vietnam hymn called “Alice’s Restaurant” a few years later.
Josephson called Leonard his “mentor, model, and friend. And my moral compass.…”
John wrote with a machine gun, spraying his readers with a dazzling and daunting fusillade of language.…John never sold out. Let me repeat that: John never sold out.
Before Berkeley, Leonard was an undergraduate at Harvard, where he caught the attention of Victor Navasky with a front-page piece in the Harvard Crimson, under the byline “John D. Leonard” (like “James B. Reston,” Leonard later discarded the middle initial as unnecessary).