John Leonard, R.I.P.

leonardI had no idea the death of the New York Times critic John Leonard earlier today would affect me as deeply as it has. “Another newspaper columnist.” No. Leonard was a peculiarly genteel voice throughout the increased coarsening of the 1970s, a coarsening that hasn’t stopped yet. He wrote the most elegant book reviews I’ve ever read, and his “Private Lives” columns, which seemed to appear twice a week, made me want to be him. That was how beautifully and pungently he wrote.

Case in point: a column about children maltreated and bullied at the Frick Collection in Manhattan. I don’t know if Leonard was a closet anarchist, but he had some trenchant and pointed comments about how Henry Clay Frick made the money that was used to buy the art that adorns his former mansion on East 70th Street. Frick made it on the backs of miners and steel workers. And now–or then–children were not welcomed in “his” museum.

Copyright restrictions do not allow me to link to the original article in the Times Archive. I’d have to give everyone the password to the Raritan Valley library, and that might not be a good idea.

However, Leonard’s final lines have stayed with me since 1978, when I–a new father–read them:

I don’t want to be liked by people who don’t like children.

V’imru Amen, John Leonard, great soul. Neither do I, to this day. And may the God I believe we both served reward you tonight and forever after for your courage, dignity and sculpted beauty of the word. In an age of political claptrap you were a voice of culture and dignity, and I for one shall miss you greatly.

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