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Nat Hentoff takes Voice firing in stride

By A. James Memmott

January 7, 2009 at 10:27am

The firing of Nat Hentoff by the Village Voice last week after he had been with the paper for 50 years posed a problem for reporters and headline writers.

Just how, they must have asked themselves, do you sum up Hentoff’s varied career in a phrase or two.

Is he jazz critic Nat Hentoff? Is he First Amendment champion Nat Hentoff? Is he columnist or author Nat Hentoff? Is he abortion-opponent Nat Hentoff?

National Public Radio solved the problem on its website with the headline “Iconic Journalist Nat Hentoff is Laid Off.”

For sure, Hentoff, 83, is iconic. His list of interview subjects is a Who’s Who of music and politics. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be anyone or anything he can’t write about.

A native of Boston and former associate editor of Down Beat magazine, Hentoff began working for the Voice in 1958, three years after the weekly publication’s founding.

Hentoff celebrated jazz in his Voice columns, but over time he also began to turn to politics and to free speech and human rights issues.

He also wrote for other publications, including The New Yorker magazine.

Hentoff’s choice of New Yorker subjects reflected his wide range of interests.

Among others, he profiled Bob Dylan, Maurice Sendak, former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, John Cardinal O’Connor of New York and the William O. Brennan of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some of these profiles became books, part of Hentoff’s impressively long list of titles.

Counting works he has edited or co-authored in addition to his solo efforts, Hentoff has more than 30 books to his credit. And he has at least one book (on jazz) coming out this year.

“I’ve never been more productive,” Hentoff told
The New York Times
after he was fired by the Voice.

Hentoff continues to write a nationally syndicated column that appears in The Washington Times and other publications.

In the column, Hentoff has opposed torture and totalitarianism. At times he is on the left of an issue, at other times on the right.

In May of last year, he was far ahead of the Republican curve in suggesting that John McCain consider Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

“She would be a decided asset,” Hentoff wrote, “an independent Republican governor, a woman, a defender of life against the creeping culture of death and a fresh face in national politics.”

In addition to his syndicated column, Hentoff contributes to The Wall Street Journal and writes for Jazz Times.

With all that’s going on his life, it’s not surprising that Hentoff seemed to react calmly to his dismissal from the Voice.

“I can’t say it’s exhilarating, but I’ve been through this before,” he told NPR. “I’ve been fired from some of the more prestigious publications over the years, so I can understand the tone of voice when I get the call.”

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