John Leonard dies at 69; erudite critic was early champion of Toni Morrison and other writers

The Associated Press

Literary and cultural critic John Leonard, an early champion of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other authors, and so consumed and so informed by books that Kurt Vonnegut once praised him as “the smartest man who ever lived,” has died. He was 69.

Leonard died Wednesday night at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City of complications from lung cancer, said his stepdaughter, Jen Nessel.

John Leonard obituary: The obituary of literary critic John Leonard in Friday’s California section omitted his mother, Ruth Smith of Lakewood, from the list of his survivors. —

A former union activist and community organizer, Leonard was an emphatic liberal whose career began in the 1960s at the conservative National Review and continued at several other publications, including the New York Times, the New Republic, the Nation and the Atlantic Monthly. He was also a TV critic for New York magazine, a columnist for Newsday and a commentator for CBS News’ “Sunday Morning.”

Leonard had the critic’s most fortunate knack of being ahead of his time. He was the first major reviewer to assess Morrison’s fiction and the first major American critic to write about Marquez. As the literary director for radio station KPFA in Berkeley, Leonard featured the commentary of Pauline Kael before she became famous as a film critic for the New Yorker. Leonard was also an early advocate of Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and other woman writers.


His good work was appreciated. When Morrison traveled to Stockholm in 1993 to collect her Nobel Prize, she brought Leonard along, “one of the most incredible experiences of his life,” Nessel said.

Studs Terkel, who died Oct. 31, once called him “a literary critic in the noblest sense of the word, where you didn’t determine whether a book was ‘good or bad’ but wrote with a point of view of how you should read the book.”

Vonnegut, one of Leonard’s good friends, once noted: “When I start to read John Leonard, it is as though I, while simply looking for the men’s room, blundered into a lecture by the smartest man who ever lived.”

Literature was sweet madness to Leonard, who treated his subjects like lovers -- to be protected and embraced.

He once estimated that he would have read 13,000 books by the time he died. “Thirteen thousand in a lifetime, about as many as there are new ones published every month in this country.”

Leonard’s own books included “Black Conceit,” “This Pen for Hire” and “Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures.”

Leonard was born in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 25, 1939, and was raised by a single mother. He grew up in Washington, New York City and Long Beach. He dropped out of Harvard University, then attended UC Berkeley and was taken on by William F. Buckley at the National Review, where other young writers included Garry Wills and Joan Didion.

“At one point, his job was monitoring the left-wing press,” Nessel said.

Wills, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” remembered Leonard as a “terrific stylist” and an obvious talent at the National Review, where Buckley prized quality as much as politics.

“He was extraordinarily knowledgeable about literature. He always knew everything,” Wills said Thursday.

Although gravely ill, Leonard did make sure to vote Tuesday, for Sen. Barack Obama, requiring a chair as he waited at his polling place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“That was very important to him,” Nessel said.

In addition to Nessel, Leonard is survived by his second wife, Sue Leonard; two children; and three grandchildren. A public memorial is planned for February.