Donald “Don” Forst, the former editor of the Village Voice, who also helmed New York Newsday and the Boston Herald during his 50-year career as a journalist, has died at the age of 81. The New York Times obituary didn’t cite a cause of death, but Peter Nessen, the friend who confirmed Forst’s death to the paper, said Forst was undergoing treatment for colon cancer.
Forst wrote and edited at 14 papers over the course of his career, and was editor of the Voice from 1997 to 2005. He joined the paper after New York Newsday was shut down by its parent company and he ended a brief stint as the metropolitan editor at the Daily News. At the time, the NYT called Forst the “oddest choice” to edit the Voice, given his long run at more right-leaning outfits, as well as the fact that he was a 64-year-old white guy picked to helm a staff of “famously cantankerous writers, a youngish rainbow coalition of color and sexual preference,” as the paper put it.
Forst, too, acknowledged that he was a strange fit, giving the NYT this unforgettable quote:
‘Why did I take this?” Forst asked, rhetorically. ”Because it was insane. It’s what Karl Wallenda said: ‘Life is on the wire. All the rest is waiting.’ Yeah, this is a very exciting place. It’s got heterosexuals, homosexuals, lesbians, carnivores, vegetarians, Stalinists, Trotskyites.”
However, the NYT added, Forst’s joining the top of the masthead didn’t cause as much ruckus at the paper as one might have expected: “So far, the clash of Forstian tabloid culture with Voicean leftist and identity-based politics, such as they are these days, has not resulted in a staff sit-in or an office fistfight, other events in the history of the weekly.”
Forst was an odd duck long before he got here; David Pokress, a Daily News staffer who worked with him in the ’70s, remembers him chiefly for his unforgettable fashion sense, telling the News: “Don was quite a character. In the early ’70s, he would come to work on Saturdays wearing overalls — and he had a Dutch-boy haircut.”
In his long tenure at the Voice, Forst garnered both accolades and outrage. He helped the paper to win a heap of awards; on the eve of his departure in 2005, then-publisher Judy Miszner noted that he’d helped the paper win prizes from the NY Press Club, Deadline Club, Livingston, Mike Berger, Front Page, IRE and a Pulitzer for International Reporting, for a eight-part series by Mark Schoofs on AIDS, “The Agony of Africa.”
But in 1999, he angered transgender advocates for his choice of cover art for a feature on a transman who underwent transition surgery. As the paper wrote at the time:
Specifically, they objected to the cover graphic of a Barbie doll with sewn-on breasts and a penis, use of female pronouns to refer to a transsexual man, and the “constant implication that a person is more real before gender transition than after transition.”
Forst apologized, sort of, saying, “No malice was intended in the piece nor was any malice rendered. If we were insensitive in our language, we will certainly endeavor to avoid that in the future. While the cover image was a strong graphic illustration, it was not inappropriate.”
As the news of his death spread, a long line of journalists who’d worked under him paid their respects. Edmund Lee, a former Voice staffer, wrote a particularly fond send-off in Capital New York :
I came to admire him for his unequivocal manner, his famously unapologetic sexism and racism, which really was a form of affection on his part. Don was formerly the editor of the now-defunct New York Newsday that won two Pulitzer Prizes under his reign, and the Voice’s merry band of freaks I think amused him more than anything.
Other journalists praised him for his toughness, eye to detail and sterling writing advice:
one of the tragedies of modern journalism: young reporters never worked for editors like don forst thank God i did: http://t.co/OpCXgw8waC
— Charles Gasparino (@CGasparino) January 5, 2014
Don Forst’s main point he’d drive home to his students (in between war stories from his tab days): Find real people to put in your stories
— Nick Reisman (@NickReisman) January 4, 2014
On my 1st day of work, as Don Forst’s assistant at The Village Voice, he said to me: “Exploit us, because we’re going to exploit you.” Love.
— Jen Snow (@jensnow) January 4, 2014
Forst married twice, first to Gael Greene, a food writer, and then to Starr Ockenga, a photographer, who he lived with in a Tribeca loft for his duration at the Voice. Greene also offered her remembrances on Twitter:
Don Forst,my lst love,my husband 13 years (10 good ones).In past few weeks we spoke often.He planned to live forever. pic.twitter.com/Hggf1FRLuk
— Gael Greene (@GaelGreene) January 4, 2014
When Forst decided to leave the Voice in 2005, his resignation letter gave no hint of the colorful character behind it. He wrote, simply, “A number of prospects have presented themselves and I think this is an opportune time to explore them.”
From then until his death, Forst taught journalism at the University at Albany. His companion, Val Hynes, told the Times that Forst sorely missed the newspaper life: “When he left The Voice, for the first year and a half, every morning he woke up and designed the front page of a broadsheet. Every single morning. Newspapers were his life.”
In a twist that a die-hard tabloid guy like Forst probably would’ve appreciated, the media-hungry and always classy Westboro Baptist Church has glommed onto his death as their latest cause celebre, tweeting the following:
MT @nytimes: Donald Forst, Feisty Newspaper Editor Dies @ 81.
— Westboro Baptist (@WBCSays) January 5, 2014
In other words: he may be gone, but he’s still pissing off all the right people. Rest easy, Mr. Forst. Our condolences to his many friends and loved ones.