My friend Terry Teachout, a theater and arts critic, a biographer, playwright, and librettist in his own right, first known to me as a blogger, died suddenly last week. I’ve struggled to express what a shock and loss his absence is.
Terry loved to laugh and was a delight to laugh with. He loathed pretension. He enjoyed wit. When we first met, I think he thought I was witty, which (he surely soon realized) I’m not, though I can be funny sometimes, and he enjoyed that. He also seemed to appreciate my candor and my ardency for art I appreciated. For years, every six months or so, we’d meet up to go to a play and dinner. On occasion, the play was his own. Though we disagreed on many things, many of which we never discussed in detail, we usually had similar reactions to the shows we saw together. He was deeply knowledgeable about literature, theater, and more, but wore his knowledge lightly. He described himself as a “well-informed amateur.” We may not have had too many tastes in common, but we both loved Henry James and Freaks & Geeks.
When he died, Terry and I still emailed from time to time, but I hadn’t seen him in many years, not since I retreated in 2014 from almost everything but my writing, my (other) full-time job, and my home life to write the book that would become Ancestor Trouble. He never pressured me to leave my desk, but encouraged me along while making clear he’d be glad to get together whenever my work allowed me, as he gently put it, to surface. I regret not surfacing before the pandemic, before his wife (also my friend) Hilary died after a lung transplant in the spring of 2020, before he found new love last year. Until his new companion entered his life, he was lonely and sad. I wanted to visit, but COVID made that feel impossible, even though I live in Queens, an hour or so away by subway.
I met Terry in the early days of blogging. He was the sort of person who believed art and politics didn’t need to mix, and we became friends before I understood that he had been, as the New York Times obituary puts it, a protege of William F. Buckley. He would be disappointed in me to know this, but I almost definitely would not have gone to lunch with him when we first met through our blogs if I’d realized he was steeped in Reagan-era conservative politics. Once I did realize, we were already friends, and our friendship was important to me. Terry told me at dinner once, years into our friendship, that he shared a birthday with Ronald Reagan. Then he waited to see my response. As he undoubtedly knew from reading my many posts railing about Reaganomics and much more, I was not a fan. “Well,” I said, “I just think it was so nice for him that he shared a birthday with you.” He threw back his head and guffawed so that people at the other tables turned to look. “That’s the most southern thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he said.
Way back in 2004, I interviewed Terry about the art of criticism and biography and how they differed, about subjectivity in reviewing, and more, including his thoughts about the intersection of politics and art. The New York Times obituary includes this part of what he told me: “’Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any important artists whose works I would shun solely because of their politics,’ he said in 2004. ‘Whether or not I’d accept a dinner invitation from them is another story.'”
I have trouble re-accessing some of my own thinking about criticism from that era, and our interview also pre-dates some of Terry’s own most creative work, his plays and librettos. It’s interesting now to remember how he saw the limits of his own talents back then: “I’m responsive to poetry, but I have no poetic streak of my own. I’ve been quite surprised to see myself metamorphosing into A Biographer, a midlife transformation I never expected. It might be that I’ve finally found my metier, after years of wanting to be a novelist and settling for being a critic.” Years after this, after writing his play Satchmo at the Waldorf, he described another play he was working on, a more personal one. I always believed it would be his best work yet, and that I would one day get to see it. I find myself hoping it’s among his papers.
In our last email exchange, I mentioned that I’d added him, as a gesture of friendship, to the list of people to receive a copy of Ancestor Trouble from my publisher, because of all his support for my writing over time. “I don’t really think the book is your thing,” I wrote. “I can imagine it getting on your nerves in about eighteen different ways.” “Oh, piddle,” he replied, “you know I’ll like it—and I’m so proud of you for writing it! I can’t wait. Thanks for the kind words about [his new companion], whom I also know that you’ll like.” The latter, I’m sure of. The former, hmm… unfortunately, I’ll never know.
Terry’s 2021 year-end post ends with characteristic optimism and gratitude, and anticipation of the new year: “for now I’m more than content to live in the present and revel in the return of good fortune to my once-charmed, twice-blessed life. I don’t need to know what’s to come next, which is a blessing, since it’s not given to any of us to know that.” I will miss him. I’m glad to have been his friend. And I send my deepest condolences to his companion and his closest friends, especially Laura Demanski, and also to all the fellow fans of his blog, About Last Night. For those of us who counted him as a friend, his memory can’t help but be a blessing.
For more recollections of Terry, I suggest Sarah Weinman’s Farewell to a Good Friend, Laura Lippman’s memorial, Ted Gioia’s tribute, a gracious and self-deprecating tweet from Steve Martin, Chelsea G. Summers’ tweets, Jeet Heer’s A Candle for Terry Teachout, and Scott Simon’s memories.