Saturday, November 8, 2008

The passing of a mentor, John Leonard, R.I.P.

One of the people who gave me an opportunity in the field of journalism is gone: John Leonard died Nov. 5, 2008 at the age of 69.

John had written and edited for The New York Times, where he is credited with helping to break Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison on the international literary stage. He provided media criticism on CBS Sunday Morning. In a feisty and intense life, he also had organized farm workers and community activists against the war in Vietnam.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, "When I start to read John Leonard, it is as though I, while simply looking for the men’s room, blundered into a lecture by the smartest man who ever lived.” Studs Terkel said of John, "He has been a literary critic in the noblest sense of the word, where you didn’t determine whether a book was 'good or bad' but wrote with a point of view of how you should read the book."

I knew John, briefly and slightly, in the mid-1990s, when he and his wife Sue Leonard (who survives him) were literary editors for The Nation magazine. I was in my first years of writing freelance journalism. Sue Leonard used to like to tell how I sent her a photocopy of a long book review I had placed in The Riverfront Times, hand-writing on the back, "O Mighty Nation, I write book reviews, I'd like to write book reviews for you."

Which the Leonards proceeded to allow me to do. I was far from the only young writer they allowed into the elite pages of The Nation during their relatively brief stint on its book page. Their efforts in that direction were not very well received by the old guard, which is one of the reasons, I gather, they didn't stick with the low-pay, high-hassle joint position. Christopher Hitchens in particular made it a point to write acerbic letters to the editor about the new, young writers being given tryouts in the back pages. (Hitchens slammed me, once.)

John and Sue also were gracious hosts at their Upper East Side apartment. They threw annual literary parties and were generous and inclusive in their guest lists, inviting nobodies from the sticks like me and browbeaten office interns. After one of these parties that I traveled to New York to attend, I remember, I ran off with Alexander Cockburn's fact checkers to experience The Coney Island Mermaid Parade.

As a writer, John was known for knowing everything and trying to cram much of it into each and every sentence. He spoke that way, too. He wasn't a pompous host who tried to dominate the conversation, yet in my limited experience people always gravitated around him and did their best to get him talking and keep him talking. He spoke in the prose of great narrative fiction.

I remember fragments of one yarn about somebody who "made his way across the world and into the next two or three Doris Lessing novels, while papers continued to pile up in his doorway."

I am grateful for the opportunity he gave me, and I mourn his loss with a great many people who knew him much better and loved him more, especially his dear wife Sue and his two children. My sincere condolences to the Leonard family.


Book cover from The New Press.

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