Nat Hentoff. Interview with a Boston original

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IN ``Boston Boy'' (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, $15.95), Nat Hentoff tells of the time, as a teen-ager, he slipped and fell on the ice on Elm Hill Avenue. When he looked up, a gang of Irish kids were standing around him. Was he Jewish, they wanted to know? Desperate, the decidedly Jewish Nat decided to pretend he was Greek. After all, this was Boston around the late '30s, a time when gangs of Irish toughs stalked the neighborhood like wolf packs, looking for Jewish prey; a place where Father Coughlin's newspaper, Social Justice -- sold each Sunday throughout the city -- warned constantly of the Jewish conspiracy to take over the world.

Later, Nat was less fortunate and had a tooth punched out when Irish youths caught him unprotected. But this time his Greek tactic allowed him to escape unscathed. What's more, a pop-music record he was clutching somehow remained unbroken.

Potent vignettes like these -- recalled from a mellow distance by a clear-eyed journalist -- trace the roots of Hentoff's social views as he tells of his life in Boston until the time he left for New York at age 28 to write about jazz in Down Beat magazine.

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Hentoff's name was later to become virtually synonymous with fiercely independent stands -- on First Amendment rights, Middle Eastern politics, and many other social issues -- taken in his Village Voice and Washington Post columns, his books, and elsewhere. And that pop record he was clutching was an early sign of his other lifelong interest -- jazz -- which, in ``Boston Boy,'' serves as a frequent metaphor both for life and for the freedom of expression that means so much to him: Hentoff became a renowned jazz critic whose pieces are seen on the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal and in other publications. Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and other jazz greats strengthened his ``life as heretic, a tradition I kept precisely because I am a Jew,'' he says in the book. These jazz musicians were ``my chief rabbis for many years.''

``Boston Boy'' unfolds like a series of slide projections -- vivid, sharply focused, and cumulatively documenting the making of a civil libertarian. Most of the episodes in this composite picture are less violent than the Elm Street incident. Many are warm, funny, and full of turbulent little patches of ethnic Jewish life in the Roxbury area. Some are recalled in a faintly wistful tone: the herring man standing next to his barrel, the brilliantly described Jewish religious services, the famous Boston Latin School that Nat attended, or the ethnically neutral ground of the public library. Survivor's subterfuge

But there was nothing fond about many of the memories, as Mr. Hentoff explained to me when we chatted at ``Village Voice.''The time he slipped on the ice, for instance: ``I know what they [the Irish kids] want. They want to beat me. There was nothing fond in that remembrance, that kind of fear, and worse than that, the anger at knowing that I had two choices: I could get up and get beaten to the ground again, and be a hero; or, I could lie as I did and say I was Greek and try to swivel out of it. No, there's nothing fond about that remembrance.''

The recollection of this survivor's Greek subterfuge is extra-bitter in light of how highly Hentoff has prized honesty and outspokenness throughout his career, and how joyously irreverent the book shows Nat was of almost everything he disagreed with -- Christian or Jewish, liberal or conservative. In an early scene, he brazenly eats a huge salami sandwich on Yom Kippur, a Jewish day of fasting. This unspeakable offense is one of many anti-establishment acts Hentoff commits throughout the book.

``For years I have tried to avoid labels,'' Hentoff pointed out to me, with the look of a bemused sage on his fully bearded face. ``I remember when I was growing up in Boston, the Boston Herald was a very conservative paper economically, long before Murdock bought it. It was very good on civil liberties. So I learned back then that you can't generalize about a newspaper or person. In my experience there are many conservatives who are much more dependable on civil liberties than most liberals. I don't find liberals trustworthy on civil liberties because they generally go where they think the people should go in terms of their own priorities for the elections. In the last couple of years, I've gotten a lot of ideas from a lot of people who are anti-abortion, whom I never would have thought of talking to or reading before.''

Such independence has earned him harsh criticsm from all directions. The book actually begins, in fact, with a description of how three rabbis tried to excommunicate him, in 1982, because he signed a poltical advertisement in the New York Times which protested the invasion of Lebanon by Israel.

Before starting the book, he hadn't been ``quite sure,'' he told me, that he ``could find the right tone and the rhythm without sounding self-serving or pompous . . . .

``It came really when I got the beginning,'' he explained. ``Sometimes, you get a lead late, but this one came right away. It was still fresh in my mind . . . . First of all, rabbis have no such authority, not in the United States. And then, for what I did! I mean, what did I do? I was disloyal to the establishment, the Jewish establishment, even though many people in that establishment were privately opposed to the invasion of Lebanon because they could see, as anybody else with any sense could see, including Abba Eban, who was very public -- that this would tear Israel apart. Tone of his career

``So I thought: Where did this come from, this defiance? Then I thought of the sandwich, eating a salami sandwich in the open air with people on the way to the synagogue. And that sort of got the tone going. It was kind of rueful, but also with some fun.''

That tone, in fact, has characterized his career. ``For example,'' he said, ``I'm doing a piece now on what I consider the cowardice of WNET [in New York] and WETA in Washington in being among the very few public television stations that refuse to air that three-part program on Israel and the Palestinians. But what most angered me was that the American Jewish Committee -- who should know better, it's never done this before -- sent out internal memoranda to its affiliates around the country saying, `Try to get it off the air.' Now, that's outrageous. You don't like it, say so. Picket, demonstrate, but don't say, `Get it off the air.' ''

Such current Hentoff causes are like natural extensions of the ``ceaseless political debate in our ghetto'' with which Hentoff grew up. The book describes a Byzantine pattern of often-internecine conflicts with ``more different flavors of socialists than ice cream.''

As a distinctly nonconforming thinker, Nat once had the na"ive audacity to ask Ch'e Guevara when they were going to allow opposition parties in Cuba. Communist party faithfuls, in fact, called Nat a ``bourgeois individualist,'' and a hopeless one at that, since he was congenitally opposed to their party line. He actually admired that symbol of anticommunism, Arthur Koestler, and read his ``Darkness at Noon,'' an act as offensive to communists as eating the salami sandwich was to devout Jews. His aversion to the communist party was as strong as that described by the young Richard Wright in ``The God That Failed,'' but with this critical difference: Wright at first embraced their doctrine, then learned through troubled experience to discard it. Nat, on the other hand, shunned it from the start. It seemed inborn.

Was that kind of independence inborn?

``It's hard to know with any kind of precision, in retrospect, about that,'' he says, ``but I was always distrustful of -- and when I could get away with it, defiant of -- authority. . . . I guess I always rebelled.'' Boston's influence

Was there something unique about Boston as a city that shaped his views?

``Like all Jewish neighborhoods I know anything about, there was a lot of involvement in and discussion about politics,'' he points out, ``not only local -- although local politics had a lot of flavor -- but national, international politics. After all, this was the time of Hitler, so we listened a lot to the international news. But whether there was a specific tone or texture to Boston Jewish life, I doubt it . . . . Except for the underlay of that anti-Semitism which was so pervasive and so continually potentially dangerous. I mean, you didn't think about it all the time, but if you went out after dark alone, it crossed your mind, you hoped you got home OK.''

Would his approach to life have been the same if he'd grown up in another city?

``Oh, I think so. The thing about Boston though -- and I didn't know this at the time, but I was back there last week and began thinking about it. I said this at the [Boston] Women's City Club and some people took umbrage, and some did not. Every city has bigotry, but in terms of the depth and sometimes viciousness of this territorial aggressivness, during the anti-Catholic, and particularly the anti-Irish cycles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Boston was worse than any other city.''

Was the anti-Catholic feeling as violent as the anti-Jewish?

``Yes. I don't think they beat up Catholics, but they made them feel terrible. There were signs in the better lodging houses, `No dogs, or Irish.' The jobs were limited to very menial jobs. The contempt of the Brahmins for the Irish, more so than for the other immigrants, was such that James Michael Curley capitalized on that for his whole long career. . . .''

More recently, Mr. Hentoff continued, ``A friend of mine mentioned, when I was in Boston last week, that she had rented an apartment in the North End, the Italian enclave, and the landlady said, `I hope you don't have black boyfriends.' When my friend said `No,' the landlady said, `Well, that's good, otherwise I couldn't let you have it, there'd be a massacre.' Then she and her friend, another white woman, were walking down the street near her apartment and a bunch of Italian kids began to stone them. She said, `You know what they're yelling? ``Liberals! Liberals!'' '

``There's nowhere in the United States that I know of where kids stone somebody because they think they're liberals! But it shows, they were strangers, they were the enemy.''

``Boston Boy'' takes Hentoff through student days at Northeastern University, where he edited the newspaper. Among many episodes, it describes, at times hilariously, his work as an on-mike jack-of-all-trades at radio station WMEX, and recounts some journalistic lessons learned while he worked on the Boston City Reporter. There were a few instances when he couldn't speak his mind. And a few things he feels guilty about. During World War II he anxiously sought and obtained a 4-F draft deferment as physically unfit. Didn't he want to join the fight against that great censor, fascism? Ambivalent feelings

``I should have put in the book -- now that you mention it -- the nightmares I had for a long time afterwards, at least a year, which were nightmares of guilt. As I remember, they had to do with Japanese coming after me. I felt very guilty. As relieved as I felt, I felt very guilty. Because after all, Jews had -- everybody else did too -- but Jews had a particular interest, let's say, in the extinction of Hitler. I had very ambivalent feelings about that.''

About the state of music today, though, he is unequivocal. ``Some of the stuff that Jerry Lee Lewis does, where the beat is very strong -- that has a kind of tradition that goes back to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and the country swing. And that goes back to black jazz. . . . In the '60s I liked some of the Jefferson Airplane stuff because it was clever. But heavy metal is ridiculous. Whatever kick kids get out of it is beyond me. Not only do I not hear much rock that means anything to me, but I think the whole notion of fusion, which is supposed to be the amalgam of jazz and rock, is fraudulent because it's neither. It's a formula, like wallpaper.''

Hentoff sees danger to free speech today in the libel laws.

``It's putting a real sense of self-censorship on the part, not so much of reporters, but on editors,'' he explains, ``because more and more people are suing for revenge. They may not expect to win, but if they have the money, they'll sue.

``All the big libel suits have either very wealthy people, like the president of Mobil, or people like [Gen. William] Westmoreland, who have people backing him. So that even if you win a suit, it will cost you $20,000 to 30,000 for legal fees, and you've got to figure out if the story's worth that.

``The prevalence and continuous threat of libel suits probably has had some impact on making journalists more careful about facts. There was a very good movie that came out a few years ago with Paul Newman, `Absence of Malice,' which every journalist except me disliked intensely. I thought it was a very good analysis of what we do wrong. One of the points the Paul Newman character made was that you can have the facts right, but if you don't have them all in there, then what you write is not true. . . . There is a tendency among journalists to go into a story like a prosecutor goes in, except the journalists are not bound, except by libel laws, by any kind of legal strictures, nor should they be. A prosecutor has to be careful in making his case. But if you go in with that kind of prosecutorial preset, you are in danger of deciding which facts don't fit your thesis and leaving them out. That's as bad as having wrong facts.

``The means and ends still have a lot of meaning to me. If your means are distorted, the ends are not going to work out. You can do a perfectly good muckraking job, exposing all kinds of skulduggery, by sticking to the rules of fairness. Not `objectivity,' because I don't know what that is. But fairness, that's what you go after.''

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