Prolific, erudite and caustic in his wit, he surveyed the
entire cultural landscape — films, plays, books, art — and saw little that he
The critic John Simon in 1975. He said that his mission was to
raise standards through unflinching criticism.
Collection, via Getty Images
John Simon, one of the nation’s most erudite, vitriolic and
vilified culture critics, who illuminated and savaged a remarkable range of
plays, films, literature and art works and their creators for more than a
half-century, died on Sunday in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 94.
death, at Westchester Medical Center, was confirmed by his wife, Patricia
era of vast cultural changes, Mr. Simon marshaled wide learning, insights and
acid wit for largely negative reviews and essays that appeared in New
York magazine for nearly 37 years, until his dismissal in 2005,
and in The Hudson Review, The New York Times, Esquire, National Review, The New
Leader and other publications.
style that danced with literary allusions and arch rhetoric — and composed with
pen and ink (he hated computers) — he produced thousands of critiques and a
dozen books, mostly anthologies of his own work. While English was not his
native language, he also wrote incisive essays on American usage, notably in
the 1980 book “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.”
Born in Yugoslavia and educated at Harvard, Mr. Simon
was an imperious arbiter who, unlike daily press critics, foraged widely over
fields of culture and entertainment at will, devouring the Lilliputians with
relish. He regarded television as trash and most Hollywood films as
superficial. His formula for an ultimate triumph on Broadway: “A loud, vulgar
musical about Jewish Negroes.”
long gaze, the arts in America were in decline, or at least in a state of
perpetual confusion, and he insisted that his mission was to raise standards
through unflinching criticism.
greatest obligation is to what, correctly or incorrectly, I perceive as the
truth,” he told The Paris Review in 1997.
“Kästner says, in essence, ‘All right, the world is full of idiots and they’re
in control of everything. You fool, stay alive and annoy them!’ And that, in a
sense, is my function in life, and my consolation.
can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I
think I do a reasonably good job of that.”
Many readers delighted in what they considered Mr. Simon’s lofty
and uncompromising tastes, and especially in his wicked judgments, which fell
like hard rain on icons of culture: popular authors, Hollywood stars, rock and
rap musicians, abstract artists and their defenders in critics’ circles, for
whom he expressed contempt.
But Mr. Simon was himself scorned by many writers, performers
and artists, who called his judgments biased, unfair or downright cruel, and by
readers and rival critics with whom he occasionally feuded in print. They
characterized some of his pronouncements as racist, misogynist, homophobic or
denied being any of those things, and argued that no person or group was above
criticism, especially those who, in his view, lacked talent and covered
themselves in mantles of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity and used
them to claim preferential treatment in the marketplaces of culture.
not like uniforms,” Mr. Simon told the author Bert Cardullo in 2008. “I do not
like people who are a professional this, that or the other. Professional
writers, actors and singers are O.K., but I don’t like professional Jews,
professional homosexuals, professional blacks, professional feminists,
professional patriots. I don’t like people abdicating their identity to become
part of some group, and then becoming obsessed with this and making capital of
High (and Rare) Praise
Simon liked the plays of August Wilson, John Patrick Shanley and Beth Henley.
“From time to time a play comes along that restores one’s faith in our
theater,” he wrote of Ms. Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart,” which won a 1981
Pulitzer Prize. He said Mr. Shanley’s “Doubt” (2004), about Catholic school
scandals, “would be sinful to miss.”
invited readers to see the world through the literary works of Heinrich Böll,
Jane Bowles, Alfred Chester, Stig Dagerman, Bruce Jay Friedman, J.M.G. Le
Clézio, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Ferenc Santa and
B. Traven, andthrough the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini or Kurosawa
— but only “at their best.”
In The Times, he hailed the 1971 film “Hoa Binh,” a story of two
Vietnamese children by the French cinematographer Raoul Coutard. “‘Hoa Binh’
should be seen by everyone, but especially by those who don’t want to see it,”
he wrote. “They should come and be surprised, for they will leave, I promise
them, filled with gratitude.”
such praise was a rarity. In “Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films”
(1982), he recommended only 15 of the 245 films he discussed.
attacks on actors were often meanspirited. He likened Liza Minnelli’s face to a
beagle’s and said Barbra Streisand’s nose “cleaves the giant screen from east
to west, bisects it from north to south.” William F. Buckley Jr., the publisher of
National Review, once said Mr. Simon “reviewed movies in the same sense that
pigeons review statues.”
generally admired Impressionist painters but castigated abstract art. “Why
should I consider something art if I, a non-artist, could do it just as well?”
he demanded on his blog, “Uncensored Simon,” in
2014. “Or if a small child or chimpanzee could do it too?”
Simon welcomed comparisons of himself to H.L. Mencken, the iconoclast who
denounced political phonies, organized religion and chiropractic medicine. “Now
the point is not whether Mencken is right or wrong, but that we have here a
person perfectly willing to offend,” he wrote in “Acid Test” (1963), his first
collection of essays. “Not wanting to offend, mind you, just willing.”
Mr. Simon did. In “Movies Into Film: Criticism, 1967-1970” (1971), he wrote of
the Beatles: “Particularly grubby are John Lennon and his worse half, Yoko Ono,
who sits, smug and possessive, almost always within touching distance of him.
Flouting, it would seem, even minimal sanitary measures, their hair looks like
a Disneyland for the insect world, and their complexions appear to be portable
Rival critics were frequent targets, even posthumously. After the film critic Roger Ebert died in 2013,
Mr. Simon scoffed at A.O. Scott’s positive evaluation in The Times. He took
particular issue with what he called “the whole thumbs up, thumbs down critique
Ebert practiced,” adding, “Except from the palsied or mentally defective, it
takes no dexterity whatsoever, let alone art.”
“Charlie Rose” in 2001, Mr. Simon accused The Times’s drama critic Ben
Brantley of favoring plays by homosexuals because he was gay, a
motivation Mr. Brantley rejected. “To my misfortune,” Mr. Simon said, “I’m not
homosexual, and therefore I’m a kind of odd man out in the theatrical world.”
critics responded. “There are merrymakers at every party who can do John Simon
imitations, and with a few drinks I can do the Count Dracula of critics
myself,” Andrew Sarris, the longtime film critic for The Village Voice, wrote in The Times in 1971. “If the careers of
the late Joe McCarthy and Dr. Goebbels have taught us anything, it is that the
Big Lie only thrives on the proud silence of its victims.”
Simon was barred from some film screenings. An advertisement signed by 300
people in Variety in 1980 called his reviews racist and vicious. At the New
York Film Festival in 1973, the actress Sylvia Miles dumped a plate
of food on his head after he described her in print as a “party girl
and gate crasher.”
incident was so welcomed by the Simon-hating press that the anecdote has been
much retold,” Mr. Simon recalled. “She herself has retold it a thousand
times. And this steak tartare has since metamorphosed into every known dish
from lasagna to chop suey. It’s been so many things that you could feed the
starving orphans of India or China with it.”
Simon was born Ivan Simmon on May 12, 1925, in Subotica, Yugoslavia,
to Joseph and Margaret (Reves) Simmon. By 5 he was fluent in three languages,
learning German and Hungarian at home and Serbo-Croatian in the streets of Belgrade. He later learned French and English, and studied for a year at The Leys, a
British private school at Cambridge.
In 1941, the family moved to the United States, and Mr. Simon
Americanized his name. He attended Horace Mann School in New York and then
Harvard, where he wrote plays, fiction and poetry. After service in the Army
Air Forces in 1944 and 1945, he returned to Harvard and earned a bachelor’s
degree in 1946 and a master’s in 1948. He taught literature and the humanities
in the 1950s at Harvard, Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and Bard College, and finished his doctorate at Harvard in 1959.
became a theater critic at the quarterly Hudson Review in 1960, and wrote for
it off and on for two decades. He was a drama critic for Theatre Arts in 1962,
for the New York public television station WNET in 1963, and for the Catholic magazine
Commonweal in 1967 and 1968. He wrote drama and film criticism for The New
Leader from 1962 to 1973 and again from 1975 to 1977, and he reviewed films for
Esquire from 1973 to 1975.
long association with New York magazine began in 1968 and ended in 2005, after
many years of complaints from readers, editors and targets of his criticism.
Just that year, he had likened Denzel Washington, playing Brutus in “Julius
Caesar,” to “a naïve sophomore in a college comedy,” perhaps acting “on an
overdose of Dexedrine.”
time to do something new,” Adam Moss, the magazine’s editor, said at the time.
later wrote “Uncensored Simon” commentaries online and columns for The Weekly
Standard and Bloomberg News.
Simon married Patricia Hoag, his second wife, in 1992 and lived with her in Manhattan. She is his only immediate survivor.
other books included “Ingmar Bergman Directs” (1974), “Uneasy Stages: A
Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963-1973” (1975), “Singularities: Essays on
the Theater, 1964-1974” (1976) and three collections of his reviews on films,
plays and music, all published in 2005.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” opened in 2015, New York magazine republished
Mr. Simon’s review of the original “Star Wars” film, released in 1977.
“I sincerely hope that science and scientists differ from
science fiction and its practitioners,” he wrote. “Heaven help us if they
don’t. We may be headed for a very boring world indeed. Strip Star Wars of its
often striking images and its highfalutin scientific jargon, and you get a
story, characters and dialogue of overwhelming banality.”
Repulsed, Reviled, Revered
relished reading Simon's reviews, which I found quire edifying, dictionary in
hand, though I was appalled at the inherent cruelty in many of them. Perhaps
had on rare occasions encountered John "off duty" at cocktail parties,
or in the elevator of his Lincoln Center hi-rise, and he was quite cordial and
generously interested in his fellow critics opinions. Towards the end, after he
was no longer writing for major publications but online for his own and other
sites, I always said "hello" when I saw him in a theater, and he was
genuinely humble and pleased to be recognized, which I found quite sad and
touching considering his former infamy.
do miss him; he is unforgettable.