Terry Teachout: The Most Generous Person I Never Met

 

Terry Teachout, longtime theater critic for The Wall Street Journal and all-around culture expert for Commentary magazine, has died. Already, those who knew him are celebrating his life and many accomplishments. I never met him. Nor did I have one of the stimulating conversations about all things arts and culture he seemed to have had with so many, judging by the tributes. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have a profound, deep, and wonderful impact on my life.

When I was serving in Afghanistan in the winter of 2009-2010, I worked the overnight shift in the tactical operations center for my medevac unit. As anyone who knows anything about the war in Afghanistan knows, not a lot happens during the winter there. So I filled up my 12-hour shifts with books and movies and anything else. With my time, I decided to pick up Terry’s (I feel like I was on a first name basis with him, you’ll understand why in a second) biography of Louis Armstrong, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.”

At that point, I had been reading Terry’s writings for a decade or so. Ever since I first picked up a copy of Commentary in the college library, when I was a freshman. I devoured “Pops.” Armstrong’s abiding good humor, warm personality, and, not to be too pretentious, joie de vivre leaped off the page from Terry’s biography. In the long cold nights in Afghanistan, it was sheer pleasure to read about Satchmo.

So I did what anyone would do, I used my military email address to write Terry a fan letter. I knew that when you tell someone you’ve enjoyed their work while you’re deployed, they’ll be grateful, and maybe it will make their day. I figured I might get a sincere “Thank you for your service” email back. What I got was so much more. Literally.

First, he wrote on his blog, About Last Night, a post about how my email was the nicest he’d ever received from a reader. (I sincerely hope someone in later years, especially after the death of his beloved wife, Hilary, has taken that distinction away from me.) Then he wrote back, saying he wanted to send me some Armstrong CDs. Now I had mentioned that his book made me kick myself that I hadn’t loaded up my iPod with Armstrong’s music before I left for deployment, but I had only done so to make kind of a light-hearted almost joke, along the lines of “Argh! deployment is terrible, I don’t even get to listen to jazz all day!”

So I reluctantly gave him my APO address and maybe expected a greatest hits CD, or something like that. Terry sent four CD box sets! The four box sets that any Satchmo fan salivates over! He basically sent me everything there was to listen to by Louis Armstrong.

Terry’s gifts to me

Over the years, these have remained prized possessions of mine. Not just for the wonderful music, but for the profound generosity Terry showed by sending them to me. I always dreamed that he’d come through my town on a book tour, maybe for a new biography he’d written about another great American artist, and I would take my now old copy of “Pops” and see if he would sign it. Then I’d ask him if he remembered the Joe in Afghanistan whom he sent all that wonderful music to.

Terry was a true critic, teaching me so many things I would never have otherwise known or not fully appreciated without him. In this regard: Whit Stillman movies and Stephen Sondheim musicals are up there, and of course the greatest gift he gave me was a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s music. When my wonderful wife and I were deciding what song we wanted our first dance to be at our wedding, I convinced her to do Armstrong’s “La Vie en Rose.” I don’t think that would have been chosen had it not been for Terry.

So although I never got to meet him and thank him in person for his wonderful generosity to me, a more or less total stranger, I will miss him terribly.

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  1. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Damn.

     

    Outstanding post.

    I’m a big fan, too.

    Thank You for sharing. 

    • #1
  2. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    I dropped Terry a note once — and was astonished to quickly receive a note back.  After that I occasionally corresponded with him on various subjects.  And just like you, I always found him friendly and gracious.  At the time, I thought it was just professional courtesy (I was writing guest op-eds for the WSJ about the time he joined the paper as theater critic).  I’ve since learned — just now from you — that he was this way with everyone.  I don’t know how he found the time.

    One year — it was either for my ABC column or my PJM blog — I stated that he should win that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.  He laughed it off on his web site . . . but I really meant it.  Year after year, he proved himself America’s finest critic, theater or otherwise.  And yet, other than a Guggenheim Fellowship to write his Armstrong play, he never received that Pulitzer ,or anything else.  And now he’s gone — I suspect from a broken heart over the death of his wife, even though he seemed to putting his personal life back together.

    The future is going to wonder what we were thinking; why we didn’t honor Terry Teachout more.  I know that I’m going to miss him:  in Commentary, AboutLastNight and on the pages of the weekend Wall Street Journal.

    • #2
  3. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    He was a big fan of the Irish Repertory Theater group in New York. Perhaps a donation to them in his memory would be apt. If I ever get back to NYC, I plan to catch one of their productions. 

    • #3
  4. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    I had no special connection to him, didn’t even know his name and I’m not sure if I read any of his reviews, but your tribute was lovely and heartfelt and now I do know his name.  

    • #4
  5. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    I have been a longtime fan of Terry’s writing, and was terribly moved by his column about a year ago on his wife’s passing. He was an inspiring and humble man. A lot of people are going to miss him. I’m getting too old; my contemporaries are all passing, it seems.

    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    I never met him either, but have enjoyed his reviews.  It’s thanks to one of those reviews that I discovered the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Theater, a great venue in a beautiful setting.

    • #6
  7. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    I dropped Terry a note once — and was astonished to quickly receive a note back.

    He was like that. And perhaps he was piqued by your name: it was on the marquee of the movie house in the town where he grew up. The Malone.

     

    He wrote a lot about his love and respect for Smallville, as he called it. Not one of those guys who goes to the big city and preens about the rubes he left behind. I have my own version, and as rough contemporaries, we had a shared affection for the era of our upbringing and the grown-up culture that came right before, and waned before our eyes.

     

     

    The theater’s space today:

     

     

     

    I’ll miss our chats.

    He was irreplaceable.

    • #7
  8. JohnOldrndurt Coolidge
    JohnOldrndurt
    @JohnOldrndurt

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Damn.

     

    Outstanding post.

    I’m a big fan, too.

    Thank You for sharing.

    How lucky are you?  An amazing story!

    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I didn’t know a lot about him, but I thought I first heard about him (and perhaps read him) in the pages of National Review. Is that possible? His wikipedia page says nothing about National Review.

    • #9
  10. JohnOldrndurt Coolidge
    JohnOldrndurt
    @JohnOldrndurt

    I think if you really care about this guy, look at the @SteveMartinToGo Twitter feed. He didn’t like SM’s work, but it didn’t matter. Steve liked his work….Can we, as a society, understand that  No we can’t, we care about nonsense culture war stuff.  

    • #10
  11. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    I dropped Terry a note once — and was astonished to quickly receive a note back.

    He was like that. And perhaps he was piqued by your name: it was on the marquee of the movie house in the town where he grew up. The Malone.

    James:

    Thanks for the info and photo from “Smallville” — I aways enjoyed Terry’s memories of the place.  That said, I think I can guarantee that none of my brawling, shanty Irish, Malone ancestors ever had a theater named after them.

     

     

    • #11
  12. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Thanks for the post. We had just finished his article about Clark Gable from the January issue of Commentary, and Pohoretz’s obit for him was in my feed first thing this morning. He will be missed.  

    • #12
  13. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I did not know him, but I reviewed his books while at the Daily News of Galveston County. Pops was a favorite. Memory eternal! Terry. You were younger than me.

    • #13
  14. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    Who mourns the passing of a critic? In the case of Terry Teachout, we all do, which says something about the man. Despite his accomplishments (how many critics were jazz musicians who also wrote plays, biographies and opera libretti?) he still seemed like a kid from Sikeston, Mo who somehow made his way to the big city. And he was always great fun to read.

    • #14
  15. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    He was always great to listen to on Ricochet discussing film with Titus.

    • #15
  16. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    Here’s a great YouTube clip of Teachout giving a Ted Talk. It provides a glimpse of why people loved him (despite being a critic).

    • #16
  17. Nick Plosser Coolidge
    Nick Plosser
    @NickP

    Great post Dan and a moving tribute to Mr. Teachout. Like you, I profited from his writings for years. Your letter to him and his gift in return makes me think even more highly of him. Thanks for writing and sharing! 
    Proverbs 9:9

    • #17
  18. Dan Pierson Coolidge
    Dan Pierson
    @DanPierson

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    He wrote a lot about his love and respect for Smallville, as he called it. Not one of those guys who goes to the big city and preens about the rubes he left behind. I have my own version, and as rough contemporaries, we had a shared affection for the era of our upbringing and the grown-up culture that came right before, and waned before our eyes.

    What I really liked and learned so much from was his deep respect for the mid-20th Century middlebrow culture. For generations NY based culture critics sneered at the middlebrows (they still would, if there was such a thing as a “middlebrow” anymore), but Teachout respected and paid homage to the suburban Moms and Dads who saved to buy Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World or a subscription to Time Life’s Great Men of Music.

    Could you even imagine such a thing as a “Great Men of Music” series today?!

    • #18
  19. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    What a nice story.  When I was in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, the generosity of the people back home was amazing.  My dad’s employer bought us a digital projector for our staff meetings, I recall it cost over $700, and he sent another to the Azerbaijani unit attached to us.  A college friend sent me a large camp table, which I greatly appreciated.  A lawyer colleague’s family owns Royer’s Pies and they sent hundreds of pecan pies to my battalion.   The local Marine society in Houston bought each of us a Bench Made switch blade, which I still love dearly.  I couldn’t even begin to list all the generosity we were shown.

    It highlighted to me that the biggest danger to the American military is not the enemy, but the lack of support from the American people.  As soon as they figure out that we’re not fighting to win, they want out.  They’ll accept any number of casualties, so long as they think we’re in it to win.

    The American public loves its military, and it was very appreciated by us.  I’m only sorry that our leaders don’t know how to win wars anymore.

    • #19
  20. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I didn’t know a lot about him, but I thought I first heard about him (and perhaps read him) in the pages of National Review. Is that possible? His wikipedia page says nothing about National Review.

    Yes. He was a long time critic with National Review; that’s where I first read him.

    • #20
  21. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Franz Drumlin (View Comment):

    Here’s a great YouTube clip of Teachout giving a Ted Talk. It provides a glimpse of why people loved him (despite being a critic).

    This video exemplifies many lessons for life: make it worth it. Do something you’ll be proud of having attempted, even if it fails. Aim high – don’t start out by settling. 

    Lessons for love, business, and life.

    Thank you for posting! I knew I loved his writing, but there is so much here that resonates with me personally.

    • #21