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Ross Wetzsteon, the Voice‘s longtime theater editor, died at 3:20 a.m. on Friday, February 20. He succumbed to pulmonary complications while convalescing from cardiac surgery. His friends and family are devastated: Having watched him survive two bouts with cancer, they assumed he would outlive this too, and emerge smiling, refreshed, ready to immerse himself again in the pleasures of work and family life. Soft-spoken and gentle in manner, he was a tower of quiet strength at the center of this paper.
Ross joined the Voice as a contributor in 1966. A graduate of Cornell, he had studied with Nabokov, of whose works he was a lifelong devotee. Though born in Montana, he was a New Yorker, and in particular a Greenwich Villager; it’s impossible to imagine him making as happy a life anywhere else. He became such a quintessential New Yorker that he once wrote an article on how a WASP feels about “passing” for Jewish.
Ross stayed at the Voice for 32 years, riding out the stormy changes of ownership and editorship with smiling ease. For a brief period he was editor in chief himself. He oversaw articles on everything from politics to sports and classical music, but his true objects of fascination were the theater, tennis, and our changing sexual mores. He often wrote on these subjects, lucidly and tellingly. His editing of other writers, though, never had a trace of the would-be author’s ego that mars the work of so many editors. With a blue pencil, Ross was like a great surgeon—swift, precise, understanding, patient, and unfailingly generous.
The simple truth is that Ross loved writers and the art of writing as much as he loved to edit. The number of youngsters to whom he gave their first break is beyond counting. I can think without hesitating of two dozen writers who owe their tenure at the Voice to him, and even more whose careers wouldn’t exist without the opportunities Ross gave them. In his quiet way, he was a decisive influence on the form and tone of this paper over the past three decades; without his eye for young talent, it could hardly have sustained its freshness.
That freshness was most visible, every May, in the eternal, joyous craziness of the Obie Awards. Typically, Ross always took care to point out that Jerry Tallmer, this paper’s first drama critic, had invented the Obies. True, but they would never have survived, burgeoned, exploded into an annual celebration of our theater’s life, if Ross hadn’t been there. He chaired the committee, he hosted the ceremony, he acted as liaison to the publisher, the producer, the promoter, the presenters, and the performers. He was there to beam in approval when the recipients were first mentioned, and there to hand them their certificates and steer them down the steps as they staggered from the podium.
His genius was as evident in the judges’ meetings as in his editing sessions. Guest judges were always flabbergasted by his ability to steer so calmly through the babble of contentious voices—my own not the least noisy. His gift for compromise, for knowing when to broach a controversial topic and when to table it, was a quintessence of his inherent goodness of soul. He emerged at these moments as the epitome of everything intelligent and benevolent in the literary bohemia of the Village, liberal and moderate in the best sense of those words.
He was my friend and colleague for 27 years, my editor for 17. Without him there is less to my life, to this paper’s, and to New York’s.