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John Simon, Wide-Ranging Critic With a Cutting Pen, Dies at 94

Prolific, erudite and caustic in his wit, he surveyed the entire cultural landscape — films, plays, books, art — and saw little that he liked.

The critic John Simon in 1975. He said that his mission was to raise standards through unflinching criticism.
The critic John Simon in 1975. He said that his mission was to raise standards through unflinching criticism.
Credit...Michael Tighe/Donaldson Collection, via Getty Images



Nov. 25, 2019

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.

His death, at Westchester Medical Center, was confirmed by his wife, Patricia Simon.

In an 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.

In a 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.”

In his 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.

“My 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.

 “If I 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 grossly insensitive.

He 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.

“I do 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 it.”

High (and Rare) Praise

Mr. 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.”

He 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.”

But such praise was a rarity. In “Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films” (1982), he recommended only 15 of the 245 films he discussed.

His 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.”

He 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?”

Mr. 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.”

Offend 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 bacterial cultures.”

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.”

On “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.”

Some 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.”

Mr. 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.”

“This 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.”

John 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.

He 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.

His 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.”

“It was time to do something new,” Adam Moss, the magazine’s editor, said at the time.

He later wrote “Uncensored Simon” commentaries online and columns for The Weekly Standard and Bloomberg News.

Mr. Simon married Patricia Hoag, his second wife, in 1992 and lived with her in Manhattan. She is his only immediate survivor.

His 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.

When “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.”

Editor's note: Repulsed, Reviled, Revered

 I 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 intellect misapplied. 

I 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. 

I do miss him; he is unforgettable.