Nat Hentoff’s Giant Steps


I think Nat loved reporters almost as much as he loved musicians. He recognized his own place in the ecosystem of journalism, and he was keenly aware of the failings of the profession — especially the institutions and conventions of what today we call the mainstream media. That’s what made him a pioneer of what came to be known as alternative journalism.

But for a man with so many opinions, Nat was remarkably respectful of rank-and-file journalists. While we were making the documentary The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, he never once told me who to talk to or who not to talk to; what to say or how I should say it; what I should ask or what I couldn’t ask. He never asked to approve anything we did, and he never expressed disapproval. He never pulled rank.

One afternoon, we spent three hours talking about jazz at the Nola Recording Studios on 57th Street — the same studio where, during a stint as a record producer, he recorded classic albums by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Abbey Lincoln. He hadn’t stepped foot inside the place in forty years, but he had jazz in his bones. When we were finished, I asked him how I had done. “Well,” he said, fixing me with an authoritative gaze, “you asked the right questions.”

Another day, we were discussing his opposition to abortion rights, and I asked him, without warning, about his own wife’s decision to have an abortion back in the day. I had given my crew a heads-up to be on their toes, because I didn’t know how he would react. But Hentoff didn’t miss a beat. Whether you agree or disagree with his answer (it’s in the film), it was all fair game to him. He was in the arena. He knew how sharp his own sword was, and he welcomed the battle.

Cameras were a different matter. It took some convincing for him to allow us to shoot at his supremely cluttered office, down the hall from the living quarters he shared with his wife, Margot, on 12th Street. What you don’t see in the film is that the whole apartment was like that. Stacks of books, piles of records and CDs, boxes of papers and overstuffed file cabinets rising shoulder-high from every square foot of floor space. It seemed that his whole life was spread out in that apartment. Who knew what treasures were contained therein?

We wanted to spend some time shooting this living testament to a life of learning, to use the footage as a visual thread through the film, tying together the different parts of his life. The night before the shoot, Nat called and canceled. He was worried, it seems, that the neighbors would think the space was a firetrap, and he would have to answer to the co-op board. We could only shoot in his work space. The cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, squeezed in and delivered some beautifully intimate footage of Nat, who was composing a column on his IBM Selectric as if he were composing on another kind of keyboard entirely.

It’s a challenge to make a film about an 85-year-old writer — there aren’t a lot of action sequences. It took a full six months to convince Nat to let us shoot another simple scene, at the Village barbershop where he got his hair cut for decades. It was in the garden apartment of a townhouse on 12th Street, just a couple of blocks from Nat’s home.

At first, Nat told me the proprietor wouldn’t allow it. But the owner, Eugene Rubino, seemed to love Nat, and Nat’s beard, and Nat’s stories. He signed the release, and when I showed it to Nat, there were no further excuses. So I booked my crew and made my arrangements. And the day before the shoot, as if on cue, Nat called and canceled. It was one of the few times he got angry with me. “Why do we have to do it? I don’t want to do it!” he shouted at me.

I wheedled and cajoled, explaining to him that I was the filmmaker and he had to trust that I knew what was needed to make the film. I finally shouted back at him through the phone, “You have to do it!” That worked. He spent an hour telling stories about his father, and Lenny Bruce, and the jazz clubs that used to dot the Village landscape. And then he called me a few days later. “I’m so glad we did that,” he said. And then, politely, “Thank you.”

Once, as I was going through family photos with Margot, she went to a dresser drawer in the living room. I left the apartment with four reel-to-reel tapes in CBS Records boxes. They contained a lengthy interview Nat did with Bob Dylan for Playboy magazine that had never been published.

I clutched my briefcase under my arm like a football, looking over my shoulder and around corners as I strolled through the Village, just blocks from where it all began. I got home and let them sit on my shelf for months before I got them digitized, swearing the engineer to secrecy. As it turned out, like everything Dylan recorded, portions had already circulated among Dylanologists for years. It was still a thrill, and the story behind the interview made it into the film.

But over the course of six years, I never showed Nat a single frame of footage, and he never asked. The Pleasures of Being Out of Step premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina in April 2013, and Nat couldn’t make it. So the week before, we rented out a theater at the Anthology Film Archives, over on Second Avenue, and invited Nat and his family to a private screening.

He sat way up front, and I sat in back, and the rest of the small audience sat in clumps scattered around the other seats. “Well,” he said, when the lights came up. “I’ve written two volumes of memoirs, but nothing has brought my life back to me like that.” It was the images and sounds from his past that made the difference, he explained. Which still strikes me as a pretty profound thing to say about the power of film, coming as it did from someone who was the ultimate man of words. But what do I know? I’m just the reporter.

David L. Lewis is the producer and director of The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, a feature-length documentary on Nat Hentoff. He is currently the metropolitan news editor for WNYC/New York Public Radio.