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).
Navasky, the future editor of The Nation (and future chairman of CJR), was then publishing a satirical magazine called Monocle, which was the subject of one of Leonard’s earliest, unbridled attacks. Yesterday, Navasky read the lead of Leonard’s story:
In this somber age of Nixon, Nikes, and Maidenform Bras, we make very few demands on anyone with the courage to be funny. But even within this abysmal temperance, we look at the latest issue of Monocle (a magazine of political satire) much like the young man watching his mother-in-law plunge over a cliff in brand new Cadillac—with mixed emotions.
Navasky responded with a letter inviting Leonard to become one of Monocle’s contributors. Leonard eventually agreed—resulting in “Confessions of a National Review Contributor,” which he offered in the form of a parody of a letter from Whittaker Chambers to his grandchildren.
It was Leonard’s son who yesterday identified the ten most important words in his father’s gigantic lexicon. “Freud, I’m sure,” Andrew Leonard said, “would caution against the perils involved in posthumously editing one’s father.”
And yet when Leonard taught criticism at the Columbia Journalism School, his stepdaughter, Jen Nessel, recalled, “his first assignment was to trash a classic, and his last assignment was always for the students to review their fathers.”
Nessel remembered Leonard as “a giant head, a benign version of the great and powerful Oz before the curtain’s pulled back.” His first words to his granddaughter Tiana, Nessel recalled, were “class struggle.”
Next up was Toni Morrison, who called Leonard “the first critic who took me seriously as a writer.” When she left Lorain, Ohio, Morrison had New York on her mind. She assumed the city would be “fast, smart, generous, open-minded, and free. It wasn’t all of those things all the time—but John was.”
E.L. Doctorow said he had been stunned when Leonard had tracked him down to apologize after the Times Book Review had run “a short dismissive review of a novel of mine, The Book of Daniel.”
Here was the editor of the TBR apologizing for a bad review!.…He did not draw his identity from the job he held, the institution he served. With that brilliantly capacious mind he seemed to have read everyone, and to be on top of everything. A mind of swift-moving, synaptically fired thoughts so that his sentences seemed to race along and sometimes pile up in their effort to stay abreast.…Those club-sandwich sentences.
Then Doctorow offered an example of Leonard’s capacity to eviscerate with economy, by quoting his review of Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing in the New York Review of Books:
[Mailer wrote] “That is one of the better tests of the acumen of the writer. How subtle, how full of nuance, how original, is his or her sense of the sinister?” [Leonard asked] (George Eliot? Chekhov? Stendhal?) “Few good writers come out of prison. Incarceration, I think, can destroy a man’s ability to write.” (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Koestler, Genet, Havel, Solzhenitsyn?) “It is not only that no other man writes so well about women [as D.H. Lawrence], but indeed is there a woman who can?” (If not Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, or Colette, how about Shikibu Murasaki?) “It is possible that Bellow succeeds in telling us more about the depths of the black man’s psyche than either Baldwin or Ellison.” (No, it isn’t.)
Like his very close friend Molly Ivins, Leonard was adored by many of us for his unflinching left-wing principles. His review of James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar enumerates a few of them:
But those of us who grew up dreaming of teaching, journalism or nonprofit social service, for whom the point of an economy is to provide jobs, food, medicine and space for its citizens, for whom leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers, prestaggered cash flows and capital liquidity ratios were a superstitious sort of Pythagorean number mysticism—who have always rooted for Jesse James, Calamity Jane and Willy Loman against railroads, Daddy Warbucks and J. R. Ewing, who have lined up with deerslayers and river pirates against J. P. Morgan as immortalized by Steichen, the avatars of Donald the Vulgarian and the severed ear of a kidnapped Getty—are nauseated by the celebrity chic of the megapolists who show up every year at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley media and entertainment conference to get their mugs shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, who would have fired Franz Kafka for looking in his mirror, seeing the modern corporation and inventing workmen’s comp, who might even have been happier in Regency England, when the poor were hanged for poaching rabbits. But then we have also wondered why the downsized and homeless haven’t stoned the smoky windows and slashed the radial tires of every stretch limo on the streets of the imperial city.
Boy was he prescient about that “superstitious sort of Pythagorean number mysticism.”
Leonard was an alcoholic who stopped drinking a couple of decades ago. In the words of his colleague Eden Ross Lipson, “he had sobriety long enough for an entire career, and used it generously.” But he was always conscious of the dangers threatening scribblers everywhere. This is what Leonard said about them in that same review of Mailer quoted by Doctorow:
Of course, it’s virtually as if writers are there to be ruined. Look at the list: booze, pot, too much sex, too little, too much failure in one’s private life, too much attention, too much recognition, too little recognition, frustration. Nearly everything in the scheme of things works to dull a first-rate talent. But the worst probably is cowardice—as one gets older, one becomes aware of one’s cowardice. The desire to be bold, which once was a joy, gets heavy with caution and duty. And finally there’s apathy. About the time it doesn’t seem too important to be a major writer, you know you’ve slipped far enough to be doing your work on the comeback trail.
Remarkably, Leonard never succumbed to any of those dangers. As Jen Nessel put it, “he was deeply principled in ways you don’t see much anymore.”
Last year Leonard hung on just long enough to celebrate the seventieth birthday of his wife, Sue Leonard—and to cast his vote to end a forty-year-long era of conservatism in America. Only then could he allow himself to let go.Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.