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.”
And what with one thing and another, when in 1967 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who had been a founding editor of Monocle, called to say the New York Times Book Review, where he now worked,* was looking to hire a young editor and I threw Leonard’s name into the pot, it quickly boiled to the top. John’s meteoric rise as subeditor, daily book reviewer, chief editor of the Book Review and, later, columnist is not merely the stuff of legend. It is legend. It all seemed to happen in fifteen minutes. During his time at the Times, John took time out to drink a lot, so much so that eventually he left the paper, took up with Vanity Fair, enrolled in rehab at Hazelton and got completely off the booze. After that, he became everybody’s therapist.
In 1995 John, along with his wife, Sue Leonard, came to The Nation as literary editors, where they specialized in nurturing young, unknown (but not anymore) writers. That did not stop John from writing television reviews for New York magazine, doing cultural commentaries on CBS Sunday Morning and later writing a regular monthly literary column for Harper’s, periodic essays for The New York Review of Books (not to mention eventually being rediscovered by his old home, the Times Book Review) and, of course, publishing the occasional book of essays. But what was really remarkable (as distinguished from all of the above, which was merely remarkable) was that whenever a fellow employee–be s/he typesetter, janitor or editor–had an alcohol problem, I knew I could count on John to take whatever time was required as adviser/counselor/friend, and he always managed to do it in a way that was helpful without being intrusive.
Toward the end of his career at the Times, this most political of culture men used to write a column called “Private Lives.” Whatever feminists–and John counted himself among them–meant by that slogan about the personal being political, John lived it, and for this leftish human rights absolutist, the reverse was true as well.
*Another Monocle founder, Richard Lingeman, would later work for John at the Times Book Review and then with him and me at The Nation, where he toils to this day.
A Beautiful Audience
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing required of a decent critic is that he or she be a decent audience. To borrow a mantra invoked by generations of Vegas hacks, John Leonard was a beautiful audience. It was the principal example he set for hypersensitive couch potatoes like me whose minds were too restless to just sit there and let the media machinery pump helium through our retinas. John may have been the first reviewer I ever read who showed me how I could bring all of my learning, my resources and, above all, my passion to whatever I was staring at or listening to.
You couldn’t just be absorbed in what you were witnessing. You had to be engaged. And if you had to bring in your belief systems and your experiences from (as it were) left field, it all poured into the Joyful Noise you were making on culture’s behalf. John disparaged artificial barriers of “high,” “low” and “middle” and saw the flow of books, movies, TV programs and the rest as a mighty river with estuaries and inlets that were, in Robert Warshow’s words, “neither esoteric nor alien.”
John’s editorial chops have been given relatively short shrift in the wave of commemorations. So let it be emphasized here that the same generosity of spirit and probing insight that served him well as a critic were also his golden credentials as an editor. He took the time to get to know your style and interests the way a parent comes to know his child’s tics and yearnings. Always, he looked through and beyond the surface realities to illuminate aspects of your own writing that you didn’t know existed. He was, in other words, giving you the same consideration he was giving Toni Morrison, Joan Didion and Gabriel García Márquez–or, for that matter, Carol Burnett, Joan Baez and Ed Sullivan.
To sum up: if one was committed to professional spectatorship, one must use that vocation to exalt the humane and noblest of work, no matter where it exists, and tell as many other spectators as you could find where and how to best appreciate it. If you must slash and burn, do so without sneering or leering. John was my sensei in this calling. All I can do now is be as beautiful an audience as he was.