The mind refuses sometimes to speak to the heart. Other times the heart muffles its throb or disguises itself as reason.
John Leonard may have understood both tendencies, but to me he seemed one of the very few intellectuals who could balance his heart’s love of literature (among other arts) with his mind’s profound exactitude. Add to that his gift with language–his command and risk in its use–and one has an astute critic.
He was a rare friend. His company delighted me, always. Whether in Stockholm marveling at pageantry–its joy and seriousness–or laughing hilariously at a Fourth of July party at my house (where, unless I am mistaken, he was the only white person in attendance), or sitting in a chair homing in on a political crisis, or thrilled by a new author’s shine, he summoned the sheer satisfaction of being in his company. Incisive, generous, brave and unwaveringly honest, he was a singular human being whose heart embraced his mind. And in the work he leaves behind one can see that the two lived happily together.
Overcoming hesitancy and possibly bad manners, I asked him to introduce me at a forthcoming literary event. John accepted with alacrity in one last gesture of generosity cum courage. Someone will be in his place, but no one can take his place.
I first became aware of John Leonard in the summer of 1958. I was editing and publishing a tall, thin journal of political satire, Monocle (we called it “a leisurely quarterly,” because it came out twice a year), which I and a number of friends in and around Yale Law School had founded. One day I saw in the Harvard Crimson a take-no-prisoners, 750-word assault on our magazine. The byline: John Leonard, identified as a Harvard sophomore. The review, packed with the dazzling literary-political-cultural-sociological allusions that in later years came to be recognized as Leonard’s signature, attacked Monocle for its provenance (Yale), its shape (phallic), its style (insufficiently funny) and its content (McCarthyism was yesterday’s target–enough already). Other than that…
Naturally, I sent Leonard a note, congratulating him on his parody of a book review and inviting him to write for us. And mirabile dictu, five years later, he finally got around to it. But not before he did a yearlong stint as a writer for Bill Buckley’s National Review. (John later explained that Buckley, having read another of John’s undergraduate pieces, called and inquired, “I don’t suppose you’re at all conservative?” John replied, “I am an artist.” He was hired.) When I discovered that he had quit National Review and was an anti-Vietnam War activist working for Pacifica radio in Berkeley, California, I again invited him to write for Monocle, this time proposing “Confessions of a National Review Contributor,” which he did in the form of a truly brilliant parody of a letter from Whittaker Chambers (by then a National Review senior editor) to his children. A sample: “I am speaking to you, yes; but I am also speaking to Harvard College. To both, I owe an accounting. You see, at the time when most of Harvard College went to Washington to work for the New Frontier, I went to Coventry to work for National Review. I call this a Tragedy of History. It left me mentally scarred, victimized by a feeling of guilt and shame the psychologists call, for lack of a better term, the Military-Industrial Complex.”