I learned with a little jolt of sorrow tonight of the death of writer John Leonard at 69. (A passionate liberal who started his career with Bill Buckley's National Review, he died of lung cancer, but managed to get to his polling place Tuesday to vote for Obama; I am glad for him.) Leonard was best known as a book and television critic, but in truth I hadn't read him regularly in many years. For me, Leonard was Dmitri.
Dmitri was Leonard's sometime alter ego during a remarkable run as the "Private Lives" columnist for the New York Times. His columns ran back in the late 1970s, when I was an earnest journalism student at NYU, a thirsty sponge for styles and ideas and anything to crack the code of adult life--and literary life, to boot--in the mysterious Manhattan that swirled around me yet seemed oddly out of reach. Men in particular seemed like daunting aliens (I was reading a lot of Tom Wolfe, Esquire, and vintage Felkeresque New York). In contrast, Leonard's columns were raw, freeform riffs of male vulnerability. I recall his tenderness for "women old enough to remember Adlai Stevenson." I had to go ask my parents who Adlai Stevenson was, but I've never forgotten the chivalry of that line. Even as a 20-year-old, it made me fall a little bit in love.
Somewhere, I have probably got yellowing "Private Lives" columns in a file of beloved and forgotten clippings. Instead of finding them, I noodled around the online Times archive and sampled some at random. Most have aged poorly; they come across as strained and twee, overloaded with puns and arcana; many are simply incomprehensible. (To this day, they must surely be the trippiest stuff ever printed as straight editorial matter by the Great Gray Lady.) But flashes of Leonard's hallucinatory prose-poetry are still delightful...and his tenderness towards his unruly family and their chaotic brownstone leaped out as my unconscious inspiration for chronicling the CrazyStable.
The man could also be laugh-out-loud funny. Here is Leonard in May, 1978 on his attempt at a diet, which involved "22 cups of black coffee, 1/2 pound raw meat, and 3 fingers cheap bourbon whisky":
"In six months I lost 40 pounds, my sweet tooth and my will to live. Living was much less interesting than dieting. I spent hours in the bathroom on the scales. Mine was the ecstasy of self-denial; rid of the sin of flab, honed down to a tuning fork of bone, I would, if struck, give off a pitch so perfect that matter itself would shatter and atoms disperse on winds of light. All that was opaque would be transparent.
I am better now, thank you."
In reading this, I realized that the phrase "tuning fork of bone" has stuck with me for 30 years. No wonder I looked forward to Wednesdays! Reading Leonard was like reading Hunter Thompson, although the bookish urbanite couldn't have had less in common superficially with the Gonzo Master. It was a hypo full of pure creative id, a ticket to language as a surreal theme park where a writer could not only go on all the rides, but invent new ones.
Now, 30 years after my weekly assignation with Dmitri, it is his stay-at-home dad columns, his wistful odes to his teenage offspring, that touch me most. Although he was younger than I am now when he wrote this, the words feel as if he left them just for me, awaiting the day when my daughter would turn 13:
"The spring break is full of children. Children leave their shoes and their opinions all over the place. Descending the stairs, I stumble over a burning conviction, an ad hominem remark, several flippancies, and at least one patent falsehood. This is as it should be. The children are my ambassadors to the great world, my spies on the season of man. They bring back news of the culture..."
Rest in peace, Mr. Leonard, and may your heaven be full of good books, friends, and ideas.