Fred Siegel’s death is a great loss for the intellectual life of New York City—the city that Fred loved and did so much to help revive. In his intense intellectualism and personal style, one might say that Fred was among the last in a long line of Jewish New York writers and thinkers that started with the famous group at City College in the 1940s and 1950s—Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol. He had much in common with them.
Born and bred in Brooklyn, Fred read everything by pretty much anyone on history and politics and knew the city and state’s political players. But he wore his learning lightly, remaining grounded in the nitty gritty of American urban politics.
Anyone who has read him knows that Fred had a sharp pen. He delighted in argument. He was relentlessly curious and was willing to revise his views. But he was also a compassionate and charitable man—even to those with whom he disagreed. One of the great tragedies of our intellectual life is that we no longer seem to be able to argue civilly with one another. By contrast, Fred rarely seemed to take umbrage at criticism and had a New Yorker’s thick skin.
Even as he moved to the right politically in the 1980s and in the early 1990s, working with the New Democrats and the Clinton administration in Washington and advising Rudy Giuliani in his run for mayor in New York, he never lost touch with his friends on the left or stopped writing for publications across the political spectrum. I recall chatting with Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect at an event that Fred hosted at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Meyerson told me (I paraphrase), “even if I disagree with Fred on many things these days, I still come out when he asks me.”
I first met Fred at Cooper Union in the late 1990s, when I was in graduate school and teaching in a public-policy summer institute for high school students. I was already familiar with his book, The Future Once Happened Here, and his writings for the Progressive Policy Institute and City Journal. We got into one of those brief but wonderful conversations that one could only have with Fred. Sometime later, he asked if I’d be interested in doing some research for him for a book he was planning on the reform-oriented mayors of the 1990s—Giuliani in New York, Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Ed Rendell in Philadelphia, among others. Much of the material I collected was left on the cutting room floor (or used for other projects), but I got much more out of our arrangement than he did. Ultimately, the book became his justifiably lauded study of the Giuliani mayoralty: The Prince of the City.
Fred and I stayed in touch as I finished my graduate studies. He was a wonderful mentor, and our occasional phone conversations would refresh my sometimes-lagging spirits. When I took a job at City College and returned to New York City in 2008, he helped me make connections and start writing for various publications, including the New York Daily News, New York Post, and Commentary. We co-authored an essay or two. I don’t know if he brought my name to the attention of the Manhattan Institute, but I’ve always assumed that he did.
Fred was an inspirational intellect, a supportive mentor, and ultimately a dear friend. The acuity of his mind was matched only by his kindness of heart. He will be missed.
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