Nat Hentoff died recently, at the age of 91, in his own apartment, “surrounded by family [and] listening to Billie Holiday,” as his son Nick movingly wrote.
If anyone deserved such a peaceful death, it was Nat Hentoff. In his long and colorful career, he had been everything from a jazz critic to an investigative journalist, a fearless civil libertarian, an education reformer, and a powerful witness to the pro-life cause—as an atheist. He knew and wrote about everyone from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Bob Dylan and Malcolm X, and he became the biographer and friend of John Cardinal O’Connor.
Hentoff was born in Boston, the son of two Russian-born, Orthodox Jewish immigrants. He described his early life in his memoir, Boston Boy. Life was not easy then, for Boston was one of the most prejudiced cities in America, in thrall to the anti-Semitic broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin. Hentoff recalled “losing some teeth” to a gang of bullies who, under the influence of Coughlin, “recognized me as a killer of their Lord.”
That experience injured Hentoff but did not prevent him from admiring Catholics who condemned such bigotry. One was Joseph Dineen, a prominent columnist for the Globe, who constantly reminded his readers that anti-Semitism was a sin and the “cornerstone of fascism.” Even more influential was Frances Sweeney, the editor of the Boston City Reporter, who gave Hentoff his first job as a writer, and specialized in exposing corruption and uncovering anti-Semitism—including within her own Church. It was Sweeney who first taught Hentoff about journalistic principles, giving him a fierce sense of independence and of “the pleasures of being out of step.” Hentoff dedicated Boston Boy to her, and would say of her years later, “To this day, if I have an ethical problem, I sometimes think, ‘Now what would Frances Sweeney do in this case?’”
As for Hentoff’s relationship with God, he had attended shul as a boy, and he envied people with faith, especially their belief in eternal life, which he wished he could have shared. His Jewish upbringing had left a very positive impression on him. In the 1930s, he would “knock on the doors of our neighbors … to ask for donations to plant trees” for the then-projected state of Israel, to secure a safe homeland for the Jewish community. Attending religious services, he admired the cantor, a central part of Jewish life. As he told an interviewer: “They sang what is called melismatically. That is, they often would take one syllable and use a number of notes on it, and they often improvised with melodies called nigguns. It was so powerful, so viscerally powerful.” What moved Hentoff most about cantorial singing is what in Yiddish is called the krechts—“the cry.” That’s what you have in all great music, he said. “It makes you sit up and sometimes get up and shout.”
That was the feeling he experienced when, walking along the streets of Boston, he first heard Artie Shaw’s jazz classic, “Nightmare.” Hentoff fell in love with jazz and, fresh from graduating Northeastern, got two big breaks—first, by hosting a radio program devoted to jazz, and second, by being hired as a jazz columnist for Down Beat magazine. He later went on to co-found the Jazz Review—considered the finest publication of its kind—wrote a series of now-classic jazz books, and became the director of Candid Records, which released acclaimed albums by Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, and Max Roach.
Never a musician himself, Hentoff nevertheless had a special feel for the rhythm of jazz’s unique forms, demonstrated by his sensitive and eloquent liner notes for famous albums such as John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Of the latter, Hentoff wrote on Davis’s “Saeta”:
The saete, in flamencan music, is “the arrow of song.” One of the oldest religious types of music in Andalusia, it is usually sung without accompaniment during the Holy Week religious procession in Seville. It tells of the Passion of Christ and is usually addressed to the image of the crucified Christ that is carried in the march or to the Virgin Mary. … [Davis’s] performance here captures the essence of the saeta—“the heart pierced by grief.” It is a measure of Miles’s stature as a musician and a human being that he can so absorb the language of another culture that he can express through it a universal emotion with an authenticity that is neither strained nor condescending.
Hentoff became a columnist for the Village Voice in 1958, and remained there for fifty years, writing not only about jazz, but about the principles of a free society. Those topics may seem incongruous, but for Hentoff they were always interrelated. Covering the jazz scene’s beginnings, he had witnessed the evils of discrimination and how hard black musicians had to struggle to succeed; but he also viewed their well-earned success as a flowering of American democracy. What could be more American than a group of disparate musicians, from many backgrounds, coming together and arguing over a melody until they settled on a harmonious tune? Isn’t that what the democratic ideal is all about?
Hentoff certainly thought so, and he expanded that belief into a series of articles and books on the Constitution, especially the First Amendment, from which, he maintained, all our civil liberties and rights flow. His passion for free speech and disdain for political correctness led to a book whose title sums up the hypocrisy and intolerance of the latter: “Free Speech for Me, but not for Thee.”
Hentoff’s passion for the First Amendment got him into hot water with some of his liberal friends at the Village Voice, not to mention the American Civil Liberties Union, which, as Hentoff amply documented, came to support illiberal restrictions, especially against conservatives.
But nothing shocked the progressive world more than Hentoff’s decision to become a pro-lifer, in the early 1980s, at the very moment the Left was attacking Ronald Reagan for defending the unborn. What infuriated “pro-choice” liberals most was Hentoff’s assertion that he had come to his decision, not by means of any religious convictions, but by studying the very scientific and medical textbooks on conception and fetology which liberals—self-proclaimed supporters of reason and science—presumably supported.
Yet, as Hentoff pointed out in his many writings and talks on the subject, the problem for the “pro-choice” Left was—and remains—that there is overwhelming evidence that human life begins in the womb, and that the fetus is a developing human life, worthy of legal protection. Hentoff was also outraged by those liberals who openly supported infanticide and “mercy killings” for the old and disabled.
Hentoff believed his pro-life convictions were not only consistent with, but demanded by, his classic liberalism; and that it was those “liberals” who sanctioned the culture of death who were betraying their stated ideals in defense of human rights and the weakest members of our society.
Unexpectedly but providentially, he became an ally of the Catholic Church’s teachings on human life, and against the death penalty and unjust wars. So it did not seem unusual that Hentoff, though an atheist, wrote a book about a religious leader he deeply admired: John Cardinal O’Connor: At the Storm Center of a Changing American Catholic Church. Kirkus Review called the book “remarkable,” and praised Hentoff for doing something no secular liberal (or liberal Catholic, for that matter) was willing to do: rescue the cardinal from the Left’s caricature of him as the “Ghengis Kahn” of the American Catholic Church: “O’Connor emerges here as a strong, compassionate, deeply searching man. … Hentoff’s brilliant and engrossing portrait will surprise many liberal Catholics—and provoke many others into a reassessment of the man and his message.”
One of the most touching stories Nat Hentoff ever told was about his visits, with his wife, to the cardinal’s private residence: “He had Margot and me over for drinks a couple of times. That was something I never could have envisioned back when I was a kid in Boston, that a Cardinal and I would be, if not breaking bread, at least breaking Scotch.”
Nat Hentoff was a one-of-a-kind American. He is now being widely praised—and he will be missed—because we know we’ll never see his like again, at least on earth.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.