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Author and Critic John Leonard, 69; Supported Early Work of Top Writers

Mr. Leonard was once praised as "one of the two or three best literary critics in America." An anti-Vietnam War activist, he was criticized for his candor.
Mr. Leonard was once praised as "one of the two or three best literary critics in America." An anti-Vietnam War activist, he was criticized for his candor. (1974 Photo © By Jill Krementz)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008

John Leonard, 69, a critic, editor and novelist of learned and witty style known for his early championing of future Nobel laureates Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez, died Nov. 5 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He had lung cancer.

A native Washingtonian, Mr. Leonard was both an intern with the conservative National Review and an anti-Vietnam War activist before his sensational rise at the New York Times in the late 1960s.

In 1970, the year he became editor of the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Leonard was praised by Time magazine as "one of the two or three best literary critics in America. To virtually any book, Leonard can apply intellect and language without sacrificing either."

He transformed the stodgy pages of the book review with a pyrotechnic writing style and developed a strong following. But at the same time, his outspokenly liberal political views attracted criticism when he devoted an issue of the review to books with an unflattering view of the Vietnam War.

A Times editor, Arthur Gelb, reportedly told him: "The Times is a centrist institution. And you are not a centrist."

Mr. Leonard was a steadfast promoter of many literary friends, including Morrison. He also was credited with launching Márquez's reputation among American readers after the Colombian writer received mixed reviews in France for his masterwork, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

"You emerge from this marvelous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire," Mr. Leonard began his review in 1970. "A dark, ageless figure at the hearth, part historian, part haruspex [an ancient Roman diviner], in a voice by turns angelic and maniacal, first lulls to sleep your grip on a manageable reality, then locks you into a legend and myth."

About other writers, he was more concise. Gore Vidal, he wrote, "chooses merely to bite his betters on their kneecaps."

In 1976, Mr. Leonard was named the Times's chief cultural critic, and his weekly column "Private Lives" offered social commentary through his lens as a divorced father in Manhattan. Singles bars, he wrote, were "service stations of the libido."

He left the newspaper in 1983 and began freelancing for publications ranging from the New York Review of Books to TV Guide. He also wrote a monthly column on books for Harper's Magazine, was a television critic for New York magazine and a media critic for "CBS News Sunday Morning." For many years, he was a literary critic on NPR's "Fresh Air" program.

Along with books, Mr. Leonard placed an equally intense focus on television, film and culture in general. His essay collections, while filled with references to classic literature, also displayed a fondness for such "disposable culture" as TV sitcoms.

John Dillon Leonard was born Feb. 25, 1939. After his parents divorced -- he later called his father a "gentle Irish drunk" -- he grew up with his mother in Southern California. The younger Leonard also became a heavy drinker but later quit.


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