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John Leonard: His Own Worst Critic

Adam Bernstein

The cultural critic John Leonard died Nov. 5 in New York. He had been many things, including book editor at The New York Times, author of a monthly column on books for Harper's Magazine, a television critic for New York magazine and a media critic for "CBS News Sunday Morning."

While at The Times, he was named chief cultural critic and his weekly column "Private Lives" offered social commentary through his lens as a divorced father in Manhattan. Sixty-nine of the columns were rounded up in book form as "Private Lives in the Imperial City" (1979).

Reviews were generally kind, each singing out his skill as a wordsmith, but critic Dennis Drabelle in The Washington Post found a "too-muchness." A reviewer for the Atlantic magazine found that Leonard's columns "sing variations on a single theme: the honor of parenthood, the courage of domesticity, the glory of ordinariness. Which is fine, and more than fine, except that the repeated celebration of one's own humility in the daily New York Times is a chancy proposition. It is not easy to be the Erma Bombeck of the Upper East Side."

But it was the learned and witty Mr. Leonard who managed to trump his critics with his own review in the Nation magazine.

"And so the Erma Bombeck of the Great Pickle Section of the New York Times sees fit to inflict on a hapless public sixty-nine of his Wednesday morning thumb-suckers," he wrote. "It was hard enough for some of us to work up much interest in his cats and his stoop and his coffee grinder and his fondue pot and his qualms on the first go-round; a book-length rerun is an exacerbation. One is tempted to suggest that he be sensitive on his own time, not ours."

By Adam Bernstein  |  November 7, 2008; 11:37 AM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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I was not familiar with John's columns, but I will always remember him on CBS Sunday Morning. He was the highlight of the show for me. His reporting was more varied covering than other TV media critics. I trusted his opinions.

For several years I've been away from Sunday Morning. I'm coming back to the program. Many new faces but I see some of the old ones I knew earlier. It is sad however John will not be coming back. Doug

Posted by: holste42 | November 9, 2008 10:35 AM | Report abuse

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