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American historian, novelist and music critic Nat Hentoff at a Mobil taping at Cinema Sound recording studio on July 30, 1974 in New York City. (Waring Abbott/Getty Images)
Nat Hentoff (Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Love and Rage

Lee Smith

Nat Hentoff—columnist, music critic, jazz lover, civil libertarian, atheist, pro-life intellectual opposed to abortion and the death penalty—was prolific and productive up until the end of his life. He died last week of natural causes at the age of 91. He was so expansive in his interests and enthusiasms and commitments that there were aspects of his long career in journalism that even many fans and colleagues were unaware of, like the fact that he was a boxing writer early on. “He used to talk about it all the time,” a former colleague of Hen-toff’s 50-year tenure at the Village Voice remembers. “Nat was very proud of it.”

Nat Hentoff knew so much about so many things that he forgot more than most people will ever know. Really!

A friend who was writing a book on Eisenhower relates how he called Hentoff to ask him about an article the longtime Voice columnist wrote years ago about Ike. “I’d never spoken to him before and called out of the blue,” my friend says. “Hentoff picked up the phone and I asked him my question. ‘Hmm,’ said Hentoff, ‘it sounds like I’d write that, but it was so long ago I really don’t recall.‘ ” And then, says my friend, “we talked for another 20 minutes about a bunch of other things. He was a really good guy.”

That is what I think, too. I worked with Hentoff during my brief stay at the Voice in the 1990s. He was one of the alternative weekly’s legends—I’d grown up around the corner from the paper and stuck my head in his office my first day to say hello. I told him I’d been reading him since I was a kid. And then I wanted to retract it immediately. Here was a man who over the course of a lifetime in journalism had taken on virtually everyone, regardless of party or political disposition, and in doing so had earned a reputation as one of the country’s most fearsome intellectual brawlers. And I had basically asked him to sign my Mickey Mouse ears.

He looked up from his desk and smiled. I don’t recall what he said—partly I’m sure because it was a boilerplate welcome to a much younger colleague, but also because I was struck by what I can only describe as a kind of presence, maybe repose is a better word for it. He was the most self-contained person I’d ever seen. I don’t mean that he was cut off from the rest of the world, far from it, as his work makes abundantly clear. What I mean is that he didn’t seem to need the external stimulation or approval that most of the people who work in the world’s second-neediest profession—right after acting—typically require. He was a man under his own direction, which is why his opinions and positions issued not from the fear that typically manifests itself as orthodoxy, but rather from the character of the man himself.

Hentoff, in one striking example, came to his antiabortion stance late, in the mid-80s. “I became aware, very belatedly, of the ‘indivisibility of life,‘ ” he wrote. He had been reporting on a series of “Baby Doe” controversies, he explained, and he “came across a number of physicians, medical writers, staff people in Congress and some members of the House and Senate who were convinced that making it possible for a spina bifida or a Down syndrome infant to die was the equivalent of what they called a ‘late abortion.‘ ” But, as Hentoff wrote, “These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row—due process, equal protection of the law.”

Hentoff revered the Constitution and became “pro-life across the board.” The indivisibility of life must extend not only to the born and the unborn but to those the American penal system intended to execute, and also the victims of cruel foreign regimes, which is why he supported toppling Saddam Hussein. And for the same reasons, he went after the George W. Bush administration for holding prisoners at Guantánamo. He gave no quarter to the other side either. The Obama administration, Hentoff said in 2014, was the first that had scared him. The president, he said, “is a man who is causing us and will cause us a great deal of harm constitutionally and personally.”

It strikes me that Hentoff’s attack-dog temperament is typically misunderstood—and perhaps was misunderstood even by Hentoff himself. In his last column for the Voice, he wrote that “my advice to new and aspiring reporters is to remember what Tom Wicker, a first-class professional spelunker, then at the New York Times, said in a tribute to Izzy Stone: ‘He never lost his sense of rage.‘ ”

I don’t think it was rage at all. I think it was his love of so many things that moved him to protect them. It is fitting that he died surrounded by his family, listening to Billie Holiday.

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