Before age and health caused him to hole up in his West 12th Street apartment in the past few years, you could often spot Nat Hentoff trudging the Village streets, toting a huge, Santa-size sack of books and periodicals. He’d be headed home from his impossibly cluttered closet of an office wherever the Voice was then camped. Or else he’d be on his way to Bradley’s, the old piano bar on University Place where he would perch on a stool to eat, read, talk — and talk. Among the many gifts that Hentoff bestowed on the newspaper where he labored for fifty years was his eagerness for discussion and debate. If this bow-shaped man, with a face like an Old Testament prophet, wasn’t pacing the Voice‘s halls with his latest column in hand, he was deep in conversation with whoever crossed his path. It didn’t matter if it was the paper’s youngest intern or an equally illustrious columnist — Hentoff would furrow his brow, pull on his beard, and listen. And then expound. And then listen again.
Hentoff, who died on January 7 at the age of 91, started writing for the Voice in 1958, shortly after the paper was launched. As he wrote in his last column as a staff writer, in 2009, “I wanted a place where I could write freely on anything I cared about.” Born in Boston on June 10, 1925, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was raised in a tough, left-leaning Roxbury neighborhood. As he described in his 1986 memoir, Boston Boy, at the age of twelve he publicly scarfed down a salami sandwich while seated on the family porch near a synagogue. He wanted to know what it felt like to be “an outcast,” he wrote. A devotee of jazz, he ran a local radio station for several years, then followed the music to New York, where he wrote for Down Beat and other publications.
Nat Hentoff will hopefully long be known for his prodigious writing. Books, columns, criticism — my God, the man wrote album liner notes for everyone from Bob Dylan to Miles Davis. But the secret to his craft was that he was a great listener, and gave his subjects the room to stretch out. My friend David Lewis, who made a marvelous documentary about Nat, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, pointed that out to me after he had waded deep into the mighty Hentoff archive: Jazz musicians loved Nat, Lewis reported, because he was the only critic who let them speak in their own voice.
For sure, there were grand explosions at the Voice between Nat and the rest of us over stances this contrarian would embrace. Abortion was the big one. Later it was Scalia, Iraq, Bush, mosques. Irascible in every way, he was perfectly capable of picking up the argument you’d had in the hallway in his column, blasting you in public for whatever wrongheaded opinion you’d voiced. He relished the debate, loved stoking the fire.
And yet no one was a stronger, more loyal colleague. One day, as my first tour as a Voice contributor was coming to an end in the 1980s, after the editors had failed to offer a staff writer slot and I headed to another weekly, Nat presented me with a sheaf of papers. It was a petition he’d circulated on my behalf, denouncing the editor for failing to give me the job. He’d never even told me he was doing it.
His motto was one he attributed to tenor great Ben Webster: “If the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself.” But despite his solo approach to journalism and politics, the notion of solidarity was a core issue for Nat. He played a key role in bringing the union to the Voice in the late Seventies after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. And the one person he scorned, refusing for years to talk to him, was a talented writer Nat believed had whispered union secrets to management back then. When the writer passed by, Nat would sneer, “Gypo Nolan!” It was a perfect Hentoffian slur, obscure enough that few understood his devastating reference to John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer.
It was at the Voice that Nat met Margot, also a writer, his wife of 58 years. She survives him, along with five children and ten grandchildren. His son Nick said he died at home of natural causes, surrounded by his family, listening to Billie Holiday sing.
His visits to the Voice offices were fewer and fewer in his last years at the paper, but his great, resonant voice rattling through the newsrooms always announced his presence. He spoke like he wrote, in measured sentences, offered with emphatic assuredness, always laced with a quotation from Duke Ellington or Louis Brandeis. And like the jazz musicians he adored, he could never resist breaking away from the melody to deliver some delightful echo of an earlier day. It was ever a pleasure and honor listening to Nat Hentoff being out of step.