Critical Mass

A Longtime Friend Remembers John Leonard

By Jane Ciabattari

Kerry Wood, a longtime friend of John Leonard’s, sent us this reminiscence:

It has all been said—everywhere but in the New York Times Book Review section where I expected to see at least a letter to the editor about the death of the man that captained that l ship so capably in its finest years and then was essentially blackballed for a decade.

I can offer nothing to compare with what I have read recently about my friend’s literary stature and accomplishments. I have known John since our high school days in Long Beach, CA, the town he wrote about in “Crybaby of the Western World,” my copy of which is on a shelf behind me along with “The Naked Martini” and “Wyke Regis.” John won’t be remembered for those early, unsuccessful novels. And who would believe that this man of letters and reviewer of 13,000 books would be a product of Long Beach Wilson High, the school so unfairly characterized in the Hilary Swank movie “Freedom Writers.”

I remember playing basketball with him on his driveway while our mothers chatted indoors. I was a good bit taller than John, and if I would score over him from close in he would declare the shot “a minnow” and say it was worth only one point.

I was at Yale when John dropped out of Harvard; the ironies of liberal John Leonard’s going to work for the “National Review,” and his staunchly Democrat mother Ruth’s relocation to a home on, of all places, Nixon Street, where she still holds on at age 90, something. John had interesting tales about covering the Cuban Missile Crisis for “National Review.” I was most amused when he came to UC Berkeley to complete his bachelor’s degree. This gifted prose stylist couldn’t produce a Harvard transcript that showed completion of a course corresponding to English IA (or whatever they call it). His admission into and completion of Archibald MacLeish’s Creative Writing seminar was insufficient to establish his writing competency. At Harvard he must have had the kind of exemption currently provided by passing the Advanced Placement test. At Cal, he had to take English 1 A and B. Recognizing the absurdity of the situation, his instructor suggested that he merely attend class, sit toward the rear, and work on whichever novel he was writing at the time.

An impoverished graduate student at Berkeley, just released from my army enlistment, I and others found cheap entertainment in picking up a six pack and enjoying the madcap humor of the Nightsounds show John DJed at the KPFA FM studio. A nickel-dime-quarter poker game always followed the show’s sign-off. Weekends, John would organize beer-and-softball affairs in Strawberry Canyon. One evening he taught a group of us an egghead game called Botticelli that I have no time to explain.

During the next half-century, our meetings were occasional and widely separated in time. John had made it big. He read and read and read and reviewed in his East 78th St. home in New York City. Second wife Sue and he dined out often; Sue at vegetarian restaurants, John at meat-and-potatoes places. They socialized casually with noteworthy people. What I appreciate most is that he always found time for “noteworthless” old friends like me. When we got together, it never occurred to me that I was trading jokes and memories with the most important living American literary critic. He was just an old pal.

No, we were never extremely close friends. I knew first wife Tiana but never became acquainted with children Amy and Andrew, who were either infants or off at school when I would visit. We enjoyed dinner and conversation with John and second-wife Sue last year. John was always there, always funny and hospitable despite his physical debilities. I recently was made aware of the seriousness of his condition when I telephoned him. He had to run down the several flights of stairs in his home. It was minutes before he could get out a complete sentence. We arranged a meeting time when he would be sufficiently recovered from his weekly chemotherapy treatments to be sociable.

I read that he voted and knew the outcome of the recent presidential election before he died. I hope someone got word to him that a few days earlier, unaware that he was in the hospital, I sent him an email saying we would be in town for a week after Thanksgiving and hoped we could arrange a get-together as we had a year ago. I said I would give him a jingle. This is it, John. You are already missed and will be long remembered by your legion of friends, famous authors and us ordinary folk.—Kerry Wood