It is with profound personal sadness that I share the passing of one of the true great commentators of our generation. I have known Nat for decades. I knew him before he knew me. When I started to write as a columnist, Nat recognized a kindred spirit and reached out to me. I was floored to be getting a call from a man who I had so long admired. We kept up the communications on hot button sides. Nat didn’t use email (indeed he continued to use a typewriter). You would just get a call out of the blue with that unique gravely voice on the other end. He would immediately delve into something he read of mine or some idea that he had. I cherished every call. Nat was a mentor and a friend. With his passing goes one of the most authentic and brilliant minds of our generation. Many of us lost a friend but more importantly this country lost something that is becoming far, far more rare and precious: an honest voice. Nat was 91
Nat Hentoff was someone who never lost sight of who he was and what he believed in. If he simply yielded as so many commentators have done and “played the game,” he could have dominated the national syndicates. He simply had to “chose sides” as so many editors wanted. Nat didn’t have a political side. He wrote about core values and called out both the left and the right with equal vigor. We both shared libertarian views and we both tended to write as lone wolves without a political agenda or affiliation. That type of independence became more and more of a rarity in this age of formula commentary and “four-in-a-box” cable shout fests. Nat gave hope for so many that it was possible to remain both relevant and principled.
Nat was a true Renaissance man. He was a jazz critic and an author with a wide array of interests and knowledge. I knew him as a fellow civil libertarian who thought and felt deeply about our country and human rights. He wrote for the Village Voice for 50 years — a paper that I thought fit him to a tee. He was fearless, focused, and faithful to his values. He wrote 35 books, including works of nonfiction. He was a fierce defender of free speech and opposed the creeping trend from speech regulation that we saw coming from the left in this country and around the world.
From his office in Greenwich Village, Nat became a beacon of clear thinking and would call out the hypocrites of both the left and right. He was the target of the growing intolerance from the left when he came out against abortion and crackdowns on pornography and hate speech. It was viewed as an unforgivable sin by many on the left and Nat was pegged as unreliable by many in the media. That really meant that he was unpredictable and thus unacceptable in the increasingly simplistic commentary of major newspapers. With the demand for commentators to be blindly writing from the hard left or hard right, Nat refused to compromise. That cost him. Newspapers wanted to offer readers reliable, cookie cutter conservatives and liberals. He and I spoke often about that trend because we both were deemed effective nomads as commentators. Newspapers wanted round and square pegs to fit into formula commentators and Nat was a shifting polygon. That is why many of us loved him and his writing.
Nat took a special interest in young minds, particularly those who showed a willingness to break from convention or convenience in political debate. He hated orthodoxy in any form. That is why I always thought Jazz was the inevitable music for Nat (a love that he could never get me to fully embrace). In his interviews, he would sometimes revert to that jazzy lingo and, more importantly, his thinking was pure jazz. Free formed, bold, and unafraid.
Nat was the child of Simon and Lena Katzenberg Hentoff. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. Born in 1925, he found himself in Roxbury — raised in one of the most vibrant political environments in the country. The neighborhood was filled with political affiliations of every stripe from anarchists, Communists, and others. For someone with a natural bent toward philosophy, it was a a virtual shopping mall of ideas and ideology. He personally watched the crackdown on radical thinkers and organizations. Nat came out of the experience with a fascination with politics and civil liberties, particularly free speech. These were tough and mean streets. He grew up a scrapper and took that same stubborn, street-fighting attitude to his writing.
What was most striking to me was that, while Nat saw great threats to our civil liberties, he also saw a raw beauty and limitless potential in his fellow citizens. He was a witness to history and could use that to describe a horizon for a people that often seemed to be lost or confused in facing challenges. When everyone in Washington was calling for the erosion of civil liberties after 9-11 and expansion of government power, Nat stood firm — dashing off penetrating columns on the need to stand firm. You could often hear that same voice of the little Jewish kid from Roxbury — standing up to bullies without a concern for the beating that he was inviting.
I can hardly do justice to the American classic that was Nat Hentoff. This is one of my favorite interviews with Nat:
Even in his advanced years, Nat remained focus like a laser on constitutional values and history:
I cannot express my sense of loss over Nat’s passing. We all knew it would come but he was the navigational beacon for many of us — a constant reminder to remain true and unyielding to our values. It is an amazing legacy for a little Jewish kid who once stood in the mean streets of Roxbury watching a new world unfold. He left that world with a voice that will resonate through the ages. Of course, Nat would be the first to dismiss lofty or flowery or sentimental descriptions. Yes, he was a Colossus to many of us. He was fearless and brilliant and good. But Nat never went in for the accolades. It was not his style. If he is to have an epitaph, let it be this: Here lies A Honest Man.
Farewell my friend. And thanks.