I’ve borrowed Woody Guthrie’s 1942 song to report that this is my last column for the Voice. I’m not retiring; I’ve never forgotten my exchange on that decision with Duke Ellington. In those years, he and the band played over 200 one-nighters a year, with jumps from, say, Toronto to Dallas. On one of his rare nights off, Duke looked very beat, and I presumptuously said: “You don’t have to keep going through this. With the standards you’ve written, you could retire on your ASCAP income.”
Duke looked at me as if I’d lost all my marbles.
“Retire!” he crescendoed. “Retire to what?!”
I’m still writing. In 2009, the University Press of California will publish my At the Jazz Band Ball: 60 Years on the Jazz Scene, and, later in the year, a sequel to The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance will be out on Seven Stories Press with the title Is This America? And I’ll be breaking categories elsewhere, including in my weekly syndicated United Media column, which reaches 250 papers, and my jazz and country music pieces in The Wall Street Journal.
I came here in 1958 because I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about. There was no pay at first, but the Voice turned out to be a hell of a resounding forum. My wife, Margot-later an editor here and a columnist far more controversial than I’ve been-called what this paper was creating “a community of consciousness.” Though a small Village “alternative” newspaper, we were reaching many around the country who were turned off by almost any establishment you could think of.
Being here early on, I felt I’d finally been able to connect with what had first startled and excited me as I was reading my journalism mentor, George Seldes, the first press critic. When I was 15, I saw his four-page newsletter, “In Fact: An Antidote to Falsehoods in the Daily Press.” He broke stories I’d never seen in any other paper, including The New York Times, stories that gave scientific data on how cigarette smoking caused cancer.
Seldes was also a labor man. You could find “In Fact” in some union halls, and for years, his name was blacked out of The New York Times because, in 1934, he testified about journalists’ wages before the National Labor Relations Board just as the Newspaper Guild was trying to organize the Times.
“In Fact” reached a circulation of 176,000 and included newspaper reporters around the country who fed Seldes news that they couldn’t get into their own papers.
Seldes was, to say the least, not an admirer of J. Edgar Hoover, and when “In Fact” died in 1950, one of the reasons was that FBI agents had gone into post offices around the nation and copied down the names of subscribers-and let them know they were known.
Seldes was also my hero when, after Senator Joseph McCarthy called him into a closed-door session to admit to his Bolshevism, the Great Red Hunter eventually came out of the room, looking unprecedentedly subdued as he told the waiting press that Seldes had been “cleared.” George had intimidated Tailgunner Joe.
As a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Seldes, because of his stories, was kicked out of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Russia. Years later, he and I corresponded for a while, and then I finally met him in 1985 when he was in New York promoting his book, The Great Thoughts, about a gallery of freethinkers through the centuries. Some of his other books include Never Tire of Protesting and Lords of the Press.
At 94, Seldes was no longer in the news business, but as I came into his hotel room around nine one morning, he was doing what I do every morning: tearing pages out of stacks of newspapers. Instead of saying, “Hello,” he grabbed a handful of clips, gave them to me, and said, “You ought to look into these stories!” Then, smiling, he said, “I’m getting old, yes, but to hell with being mellow.”
In 1995, he died at the age of 104 in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont.
My other main mentor, I.F. “Izzy” Stone, was inspired by “In Fact” to start “I.F. Stone’s Weekly,” where mainstream newspaper reporters also sent stories that they couldn’t get into their own papers.
One of the lessons I learned from Izzy was to avoid press conferences: “You’re not going to get the real story there,” he’d say. Instead, I learned from him to find mid-level workers in bureaucracies whom reporters seldom thought to interview. That’s how, years ago, I reported for the Voice on the accurate drop-out rate in the city’s schools.
Because of the “Seldes and Stone Journalism School” (I’ve never been in one that actually grants degrees), I got to do at the Voice something that led the late Meg Greenfield, The Washington Post‘s editorial page editor-for whom I wrote a weekly “Sweet Land of Liberty” column for some 15 years-to say on my receiving the 1995 National Press Foundations Award for lifetime distinguished contributions to journalism: “Nat Hentoff is never chic. Never has been, as those of us who have known him over the centuries can attest. Never will be. Count on it. He is not tribal in his views and is terribly stubborn. He challenges icons and ideas that are treasured in the community he lives in. He puts on his skunk suit and heads off to the garden party, week after week, again and again.”
It was here that I was able to practice, since 1958, what I learned from my non-chic mentors. And I’ll be putting on my skunk suit at other garden parties, now that I’ve been excessed from the Voice.
I was in my twenties when I learned my most important lesson from Izzy Stone: “If you’re in this business because you want to change the world, get another day job. If you are able to make a difference, it will come incrementally, and you might not even know about it. You have to get the story and keep on it because it has to be told.”
Still, there was one time when I was stunned at meeting a reader changed by what I’d written. One of my sons, Tom, is a partner at Williams & Connolly, a highly prestigious Washington law firm founded by one of my idols in the law, Edward Bennett Williams. Tom, a specialist in intellectual property and defamation, among other areas of law, once invited me to a large gathering in New York of lawyers from around the country who are also experts in those fields. Several lawyers in their thirties, it seemed to me, came to our table, and one, speaking for the others, said to me: “We’re here because of you. We were in high school when we started reading you in the Voice, and you made the law so exciting. That, as I’ve said, is why we’re here.”
Other Voice writers have had that effect on readers-the late Jack Newfield, for one-and some are still being skunks at garden parties: Tom Robbins and Wayne Barrett. Their calls get returned quickly.
Around the country, a lot of reporters are being excessed, and print newspapers may soon become collectors’ items. But over the years, my advice to new and aspiring reporters is to remember what Tom Wicker, a first-class professional spelunker, then at The New York Times, said in a tribute to Izzy Stone: “He never lost his sense of rage.”
Neither have I. See you somewhere else. Finally, I’m grateful for the comments on the phone and the Web. It’s like hearing my obituaries while I’m still here.