When someone once wrote that Eliot Asinof was “the last angry man,” it made Eliot furious.
Yes, he agreed, he could get angry at times, but as he saw it, this wasn’t some sort of character defect; there were good reasons for his rage. Like a lawman of the old West, Eliot, who died on June 10 at the age of 88, lived by a code. He hated hypocrites, liars and cheats. It wasn’t his fault that they kept crossing his path.
He also couldn’t tolerate injustice, stupidity and abuse of power–especially when he was the victim of it. Bad books and movies were also on the list. Even more, however, he hated it when other people–those who couldn’t help themselves–suffered similar fates. When they did, it infuriated him, but instead of just grousing, he created a lifetime’s body of work celebrating rebels and nonconformists who took on the system. Eliot’s characters didn’t always win, or, as in the case of the notorious hijacker Garrett Trapnell, didn’t always have righteous intentions, but Eliot admired them for it. Even the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, the subject of his most famous book, Eight Men Out, were to some extent righteous rebels in Eliot’s view. He didn’t absolve them of their crime, but he understood it in the larger context of baseball’s unjust treatment of those great athletes.
The outlines of Eliot’s life are probably common to many Nation readers of a generation that is rapidly disappearing. His father helped run the family menswear store, and Eliot was raised on Long Island and Manhattan. He was a World War II veteran who was radicalized by the infuriating stupidity of military life on Adak Island in the Aleutians, where he served out the war. He was hit by a rock during the melee caused by the American Legion at the 1949 Paul Robeson concerts in Peekskill, New York. He became a screenwriter and TV writer and worked as a front for blacklisted writers until he was blacklisted himself. Unique among Nation readers, he married Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn, had a son and got divorced. He wrote his first novel in 1955 and fourteen subsequent books of fiction and nonfiction.
Eliot represented the best of the old left and was proud of it. When Bob Dylan, then the young pied piper of the New Left, made his now infamous and ignorant put-down of the people who “haven’t got any hair on their head” in the audience at the annual dinner of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, it was Eliot who led the booing–and not because he was follicularly challenged himself.
A longtime Nation subscriber, he could still get pretty cranky about the magazine. In his last hours before doctors induced his final coma, I brought him a pair of reading glasses so he could read the latest issue. He glanced at it for a moment and laid it down. “You know, I have a lot of problems with this magazine, but,” he added with a shrug, “it’s the best we got.” Then he had a few choice words for our healthcare system, said he was ready for a nap and never woke up again.