Sunday, November 15, 2009

John J. O'Connor, 1933 - 2009

Having moved to New York from another part of the country, I've always envied the "true New Yorkers" who have lived here all their lives. They tend to have a comfort with Gotham that I doubt I'll ever completely possess, and collectively they can rightfully stake claim to having made this place what it is (and that, in my humble opinion, is the greatest city in the world). They're rarer than one would expect in a metropolis of 8 million, true New Yorkers, and if you meet one, usually just listening to them talk about their hometown is like hearing the best movie script you've ever read.

Moreover, true New Yorkers know this city, intimately, having sowed their wild oats here during adolescence, and as with any lover (ex or current) they share a bond with the city and usually some secrets that they're considerate enough to keep to themselves. To hear two true New Yorkers reminisce about how the city has changed or evolved over the years usually involves catching a series of knowing glances and amused smiles.

Listening to John O'Connor and his partner of 47 years, Seymour Barofsky, talk about New York has been simply one of the most treasured experiences of my life here. Both keen observers of the human condition, both extensively involved in writing and publishing, a trip down memory lane with them is a fantastic adventure of neighborhoods crashing into history populated by outrageous people the likes of which fiction writers would be embarrassed to try to pass off as realistic.

This past Friday, John O'Connor lost his battle with lung cancer. I met John because he and Seymour have been extraordinarily generous to Bambino since his arrival in America; Bambino considers them his "step-fathers." Bambino and I spent the last few evenings with Seymour, talking about John and their life together, a tapestry of exotic international getaways (during one of which they had met Bambino in Instanbul) and a cast of characters so much larger than life, we laughed almost as much as we needed to cry.

John J. O'Connor retired in 1997, but he had spent the previous 25 years as the New York Times television critic. He was quoted in one interview as saying how fortunate he felt for getting paid for what he loved to do. The last time I had visited John in the hospital was a few days after the World Series had ended. Having been born in the Bronx, he was of course very pleased with the outcome. I knew he had been moved around a bit during the Series though and so I asked, "Did you watch much of it?"

"Oh, all of it." he replied, placing such emphasis on the word "Oh" that it conveyed this marvelous combination of wisdom and chivalry and yet was crisply contemporary. Essentially, that was how I always saw John. He never took himself too seriously, but he somehow managed to say so much more in just a few word than anyone else I know.

In Anita Gate's lovely tribute to John in the Times today, she writes:
Mr. O’Connor shared his feelings about his occupation in a 1972 column. “Speaking for myself,” he wrote, “reviewing does not involve ‘going out on a limb,’ ” as someone had suggested. He added: “A program either impresses or it does not impress. And if it impresses me, it doesn’t necessarily have to impress my brother.”

“A reviewer is not, or at least shouldn’t be, in the game of picking hits and flops,” he wrote, adding that reviewers measure quality, not popularity. And between the two, “no correlation has yet been convincingly established.”

John talked like that all the time...concisely and brilliantly poignant. Whether we talked politics (which he knew in-depth domestically and internationally) or art (he just smiled mischievously when I asked him for insights into the workings of the Times culture desk) his charm and compassion always shined through.

I've been scouring John's writings the last couple of days, looking for something appropriate to share...something that illustrated the
élan with which he interacted with others. He clearly loved TV, but like a good guardian always encouraged the powers that be in American television to try a bit harder. Here is an excerpt from a piece he wrote in 1996 on the Star Trek franchise:

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, the ''Star Trek'' formulas are showing signs of terminal rust. The manufactured crises, the serious tough talk, the tidy lessons in civic responsibility are all a touch too pat, settling into the undemanding rhythms of a comic strip. Last week, for instance, ''Voyager'' returned to finish last season's cliffhanger as Captain Janeway (Ms. Mulgrew) and her crew found themselves on a strange planet of cave dwellers.

The ''primitives,'' of course, turned out to be masters of folk medicine and managed to save a sick baby. Meanwhile back on the good ship Voyager, the holographic doctor (Robert Picardo), muttering something about Nathan Hale and Che Guevara, was urging a psychopath (Brad Dourif) to resume his killer ways (''sometimes violence is required'') to eliminate assorted villains. Tuvok (Tim Russ) later offered the reluctant hero a Vulcan prayer: ''May your death bring the peace you never found in life.'' I could swear I've heard that same prayer on the Lower East Side.

John lived his life in such a way, so open to new people and new ideas and adventures, that there is no benefit brought to any part of the universe, and certainly not to New York, by his passing. There is only a gap. We miss him fiercely already.

There is a restaurant called Chez Josephine's on West 42nd Street in New York. Inside on the right as you enter is a painting depicting dozens and dozens of fabulous people enjoying the music and food and warmness of the place. In the first row place of honor, on the left side of the painting you will find Seymour (in an orange suit) and John (holding a menu) among the partying patrons. Should you dine there, at some point during your evening, the establishment's exuberantly charming owner, Jean-Claude, is likely to stop by your table and make sure you're having a wonderful time. Ask him to point out John and Seymour in the painting, if you would. It will make Jean-Claude's day and, watching from where he is now, I'm sure John's as well.

UPDATE: And here is a review John wrote of a TV-related art performance at the Kitchen ("New York Times television critic John J. O'Connor discusses the Kitchen's 8-monitor installation of The Continuing Story of Carel and Ferd by San Francisco collective Video Free America.")

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Cedric C said...

Thanks for this beautiful obituary, Edward. John, I didn't know you, but when I get in New York, I'll do my best to eat at Chez Josephine and have a thought for you.

People in the stars, please help us find a cure for cancer.


Party in peace,

Cedric

11/16/2009 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

People in the stars, please help us find a cure for cancer.

Indeed.

11/16/2009 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger Kristine Campbell said...

This is a very nice tribute to your friend.
I couldn't agree more with your comments about the born and raised NYers. I went to the city, from the Midwest, for the first time when I was 16. I rode the subway with other teenagers and envied how comfortable they were in such an overpowering city. When I moved to NY in the 1980s I never felt truly at home but I enjoyed every minute I was there. When I told my boss I was moving back to Michigan he said, why not take the gas pipe. Ha!

11/16/2009 04:53:00 PM  
Anonymous jimok580@yahoo.com said...

Mr. Winkleman,
Thanks so much for this lovely tribute to my uncle. I think I've learned far more about him in the last few days since his death than in all the preceding years. I cannot tell you how much it helps to know how highly regarded and loved he was.
James O'Connor

11/16/2009 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Dear Mr. O'Connor,

Thank you for the kind response to the post and please accept my sincere condolences for you and your family. Your uncle spoke so highly of you and your siblings all the time. I hope we'll have the chance to meet in person at the memorial service.

all the best,
Edward

11/16/2009 08:39:00 PM  

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