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

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.

He credited his acceptance at Harvard in 1956 with the college's emphasis on geographical diversity more than his academic skill, and he left school after two years.

He was writing wire-service captions in New York when a magazine story he wrote caught the attention of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. He offered Mr. Leonard a summer internship at his conservative magazine.

"I was one of what Buckley calls the apostates," he told the Los Angeles Times, noting his own liberal views. "He hired Garry Wills, Joan Didion and Renata Adler, and thought the charismatics of his personality would take care of the politics," he said. "But he had no illusion about me from the start."

He worked at the liberal Pacifica radio station while attending the University of California at Berkeley. A year after his 1962 graduation, his first novel, "The Naked Martini," was published. Reviewer Harrison Salisbury offered faint praise for "a certain wry wit."

His 1959 marriage to Christiana Morison, daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Samuel Eliot Morison, ended in divorce. In 1976, he married Sue Nessel, with whom he was a co-editor at the Nation magazine from 1995 to 1998.

She survives, along with two children from his first marriage, Andrew Leonard of Berkeley, Calif., and Amy Leonard of Washington; a stepdaughter, Jen Nessel of New York; his mother, Ruth Smith of Lakewood, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Leonard settled in New England in the late 1960s, worked alongside migrant apple pickers and handled public relations for an anti-Vietnam War group. He also had written several book before joining the Times book review staff in 1967.

He received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle but once described his job as "sorting the signals of an overheated publicity culture, manufacturing opinions instead of widgets."

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