Nat Hentoff – beloved civil libertarian, Constitution expert, author, columnist and jazz writer – whose work spanned seven decades – has died. He was 91.
Hentoff, a WND weekly columnist since 2008, offered in his writing a compelling but unique mix of Americanism, undying reverence for the Bill of Rights and an uncompromising opposition to state-sanctioned killing – whether of the innocent in the womb or the convicted on death row.
“Knowing Nat Hentoff has been one of the biggest personal blessings I have experienced through my 40-year journalism career,” said WND Editor Joseph Farah. “I admired his work tremendously, first as a young radical left-winger and later as a born-again Christian liberty lover and founder of WND.com. I was surprised that the lifelong progressive became one of WND’s staunchest defenders and advocates. That’s because Nat truly loved liberty and people who were willing to fight for it. He always championed the underdog, and that showed through his commitment to life as well as liberty. I will miss his counsel. I will miss his optimism. And I will miss his friendship.”
Born in 1925 to Jewish parents in Boston, Massachusetts – which he called “the most anti-Semitic city in the country” – Hentoff graduated from the Boston Latin School and earned a B.A. at Northeastern University. He did graduate work at Harvard and was a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris.
In the 1940s, Hentoff began radio broadcasting in Boston, hosting two programs, “JazzAlbum” and “From Bach to Bartok.” His writing career began with Down Beat magazine as he covered the jazz music scene in the 1950s. In 1958 he co-founded The Jazz Review.
Hentoff’s first book, co-authored with Nat Shapiro, was published in 1955. “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz by the Men Who Made It” included interviews with that era’s jazz leaders, including the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. He also did some jazz record producing during that time.
Also in the ’50s, Hentoff began writing a column for alternative-weekly pioneer The Village Voice, a feature that continued for 51 years, until 2008. His column, dubbed “Sweet Land of Liberty,” has been syndicated by United Media. He also wrote for The Progressive, Editor & Publisher and the Wall Street Journal, among many other publications.
Hentoff’s undying support of education, and specifically civics classes in public schools, is evidenced by the titles of two of his books, “Does Anybody Give A Damn?: Nat Hentoff on Education” and “Our Children Are Dying.” He lectured at schools from the elementary to university level and taught courses in journalism and the Constitution at Princeton University and New York University.
Wrote Hentoff in January 2015: “I don’t know whom I’ll vote for president in 2016. But if any candidate convinces me that he or she has believable plans for increasing students’ love of learning, I – despite arthritis – will be at the polls early.”
The author or co-author of at least 20 books, Hentoff’s latest was “Boston Boy: Growing up with Jazz and Other Rebellious Passions,” published in 2012. Also published that year was his book “The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America.”
Defying pat ideological labels, Hentoff passionately fought battles across the political spectrum, always stressing liberty and the Bill of Rights.
Explained Kurt Loder in Reason magazine: “Although he started out on the political left, Hentoff developed points of view over the years – especially during his long tenure at New York’s Village Voice – that alienated many leftists. Usually antiwar, he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a humanitarian enterprise. And his unflagging opposition to capital punishment ultimately led him to oppose abortion as well.”
Indeed, Hentoff’s pro-life stance got him in trouble with the left on more than one occasion, including with some colleagues at The Village Voice. His conversion to an opponent of abortion occurred in the 1980s when he was reporting on the case of Baby Jane Doe.
Wrote Mark Judge for RealClearReligion in 2012: “Hentoff dug into the case and the abortion industry at large, and what he found shocked him. He came across the published reports of experiments in what doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital called ‘early death as a management option’ for infants ‘considered to have little or no hope of achieving meaningful “humanhood.”‘ He talked with handicapped people who could have been killed by abortion.”
Speculated Judge: “By accepting the truth about abortion, and telling that truth, Nat Hentoff may be met with silence by his peers when he goes to his reward. The shame will be theirs, not his.”
In February 2009, Hentoff joined the libertarian Cato Institute as a senior fellow.
Hentoff – who often preceded a statement of fact in his writing with “Dig this:” – was awarded the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award in 1980 for his columns on law and criminal justice. In 1985, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by Northeastern University and in 1995 the National Press Foundation’s Award for lifetime distinguished contributions to journalism. In 1999, Hentoff was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary.
In 2004, the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts named Hentoff Jazz Master, the first non-musician to win then award, and the following year he was honored by the Human Life Foundation at its annual “Great Defender of Life” dinner.
Hentoff worked with the Jazz Foundation of America to support the needs of the nation’s elderly jazz and blues musicians.
Regarding the possibility of retiring, Hentoff in June told WND a story about a conversation he once had with bandleader Duke Ellington:
“I said to him, ‘Duke, you don’t have to keep going through this (touring, etc.). You’ve written a lot of classics. You can retire on your ASCAP income.’
“Duke looked hard at me and responded, ‘Retire? To what?’” – a question Hentoff vigorously reiterated in relation to his own future.
Farah summed up Hentoff’s inestimable impact: “There was no greater defender of the First Amendment than Nat Hentoff.”