John Beaufort: an Urbane Presence on Theater Scene

HIS first theater reviews appeared in this newspaper some 55 years ago. His last one, about three weeks ago, was a typically urbane look at two Off-Broadway shows: "The Real Inspector Hound" and "The Fifteen Minute Hamlet."

In between, the Monitor's John Beaufort, who died this week, forged a career ranging from war correspondent to arts editor to bureau chief, and its impressive duration was matched by its distinction.

Born in Alberta, Canada, he was at first a copy boy - like many noted newspaper people - starting in this paper's Boston headquarters in the early 1930s. From 1939-43, he served as New York drama critic, a post he loved and which he would leave and return to twice more.

He became a war correspondent in 1943, covering, among other things, the invasions of the Marshalls, Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

But his real love was theater, and eventually he made it to New York again as drama and film critic, staying there from 1951-58. When duty called once more from Boston in 1959, he returned as arts editor, then left to become London bureau chief from 1961-65. He came back to Boston again in 1965, this time as feature editor, where he remained until 1973.

As he filled these other posts, he talked about the theater, went to every play he could, and found it hard to stay away from the beat. I recall the glint in his eye when he had to step in and write the occasional review. He once told me he was like an old fire horse hearing the bell.

This love of theater was reflected in criticism of dependable and enduring standards, sustained and brightened by apt, lively, and sometimes memorable phrases. Through sharply changing theatrical decades - like the nudity fads of the 1960s and the ideological thrusts of the '70s - his equanimity and expert eye gave Monitor readers a bedrock of balance and clarity against which to measure the often mercurial tastes of other writers. His appraisals were realistic and pointed when that was needed, yet they were readably true to the paper's goal of rendering judgments free of rancor.

Not least, he was a mentor to young journalists, including me for a while - an exacting but kindly hand pushing you where he knew you could walk even if you didn't think so. His host of friends, in the theater and outside, recall him with both respect and affection. Veteran Broadway press representative Shirley Herz's impression is typical. "He loved the theater," she said by phone, "and we all loved him. In his unobtrusive way he was a terrific man, helpful and kind." It's a sentiment shared by all who either read or knew him.

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