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Serious Writer, Delightful Friend

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Serious Writer, Delightful Friend

Remembering John Leo May 11, 2022
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We were all out at Sag Harbor, at John Leo’s place on a Saturday night—it must have been 50 years ago, around the time of the Watergate break-in—and Wilfrid Sheed sang all the verses of “Finnegan’s Wake.”

Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake!

I sang “The Ballad of Joe Hill” in Nixon’s low, growling voice, with a ferocious wagging of the jowls at the line, “I never died, said he.”

Leo was hilarious that night. He was often hilarious—a witty man, a counterpuncher, lightning fast. John Scanlan was there, and Billy Powers, and (I think) Binky Urban and Ken Auletta, who may have been still working for Howie the Horse (Howard Samuels, the pol who took over Off Track Betting); and Margie Michaels, the ex-nun who had gone over the wall and turned journalist, and Dick Reeves, late of the New York Times, her consort.

There had been a softball game that day, the Sag Harbor game, over which Leo presided as commissioner and stats-keeper and, I believe, founder. The game would become famous, a weekend in-gathering of media stars. Mort Zuckerman and Walter Isaacson would show up.

John loved baseball and knew everything there was to know about it—his mind an infallible and formidable encyclopedia of baseball statistics and lore going back half a dozen generations. He savored the names of baseball players. For fun, he once put together a fanciful team assembled from actual players who all had the names of vegetables. I cannot recall the names exactly—but I’m sure there was a Bruccoli and a Bean and someone named Pease and maybe Cabbage and so on. After that, he put together an all-fruit team—enlisting real players named, e.g., Apple and Lemon. He did an all-salad team, as I recall, though that one must have been difficult. His greatest inspiration, prompted by the memory of Heinie Manush (the 1930s outfielder) and Heinie Wagner (shortstop for the New York Giants and Boston Red Sox in the early years of the twentieth century), was to put together an All-Tush team. There was a pitcher in the minors named Richard Rump. Leo somehow came up with eight players for the All-Tush team (it probably included someone named Bottoms), but was stumped for the ninth, until (cheating a little) he added Anus Slaughter to the lineup.

Leo’s was a valiant voice for many years against the encroaching—and too often victorious—idiocies of what would become known as the Woke, and their confederates. But who wants to talk about such people at a time like this?

John was a smart and generous and funny man with a genius for friendship. He was fun to be around. I knew him first at Time, where he wrote about ideas and culture and the early stirrings of political correctness. He invented a couple called Ralph and Wanda—Ralph being a grumpy and somewhat retrograde truth-teller who sounded a little like John, and Wanda being a feminist who more or less fell in with currently fashionable lines of cant.

A group of us would meet, every Thursday if possible, for lunch at Joe Allen’s on West 46th Street, at a round table located toward the back. Leo and Steve Kanfer (Stefan Kanfer, also from Time, and later City Journal’s all-purpose eminence) and Roger Rosenblatt (an essayist at Time for a while, then a regular on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour) were the stars. Chris Porterfield, one of the top editors at Time, would be there, and Paul Gray and Ron Sheppard, who reviewed books for Time, and Jess Korman, a writing partner of Kanfer’s from the old days, when they did TV comedy shows. Now and then, Porterfield’s friend and Yale roommate Dick Cavett would appear. The great animator Chuck Jones (creator of Bugs Bunny, the Coyote and Roadrunner, et al.) visited from Los Angeles sometimes and would doodle on the napkins. Leo and Kanfer and Rosenblatt would play rapid, three-way tennis with one another—lunchtime improv.

As I say, John’s strong point was that live-action banter—jab and response—but now and then he came forth with a set piece, as when he said, “All vodka corrupts, but Absolut vodka corrupts absolutely.”

These are trivial memories of a serious writer whose work—as a columnist at Time and at U.S. News, and then at the Manhattan Institute, where he presided over the splendid Minding the Campus—I enormously admired. But I wanted to mention what I thought about when I heard of his death: how funny he was, how interesting—delightful—he was to talk to. We were both educated in high school by the Jesuits (he at Regis in New York, I at Gonzaga in Washington, D.C.) and early on, I thought I recognized in John a veteran of the Jebbies in the old days when they were still God’s Marines—pre-Vatican II, pre-Vietnam: I mean a certain Ignatian militance of mind, an admirable clarity of indignation that I nicknamed the Ablative Absolute.

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