BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nat Hentoff, author of "Speaking Freely: A Memoir," can you remember
in your lifetime when you were the maddest about anything?
Mr. NAT HENTOFF (Author, "Speaking Freely: A Memoir"): Well, it
happened so frequently. I think what I was most maddest about--and
it's in the book--when the House and the Senate, back in 1984, were
debating a bill that would --at least delay and maybe stop some of
the ex--summary execution of disabled children--infants. And the Down
syndrome kids and other kids had been, in some cases, routinely let
die, to use the euphemism. And I saw the debate on the floor of
the House. And I considered myself, at the time, a liberal; I don't
know what I consider myself now. And here are the leading liberals at
the time Geraldine Ferraro, Don Edwards, who I'm--I admire
enormously, Henry Waxman--saying, `You can't do that. That's an
interference with the doctor-mother'--not the doctor-infant, but
And I figured, `My God, these are --the--this isn't fetus time. This
is--they're born children.' And--and as Harry Blackmun said when
he wrote Roe v. Wade, `Once a child is born, the child has basic
constitutional rights: due process, equal protection of the laws.'
And they were acting as if you could just dispose of these kids. I
LAMB: You said that you thought yourself to be a liberal. What would
that mean to you?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I grew up in a household in which we had a clock
that we won at Revere Beach during the Depression--one of those brass
clocks that didn't work--but it showed Franklin D. Roosevelt standing
at the wheel of the New Deal. Even though the clock didn't work, we
kept the clock because of how we felt about FDR. A lot since then I
knew about FDR I wouldn't have been so enthusiastic.
But a liberal was somebody who expected and hoped that government
would help the poor--you know, that whole routine.
I did not know then and I've learned since that in an area that
means a lot to me, free speech, liberals are as bad as many
conservatives in trying to censor speech. The whole politically
correct movement, if it--if that's what it is, was spawned by
liberals. So I try to avoid categorizing myself.
LAMB: How did you get to the memoir?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I had written a book called "Boston Boy" some
years ago, and that took me from the time I could speak, I guess, in
Boston through the time when I finally left to come to New York. And
a lot--that book had a number of sort of rites of passage for me. One
was understanding and coping with anti-Semitism. Boston, at the time,
was the most anti-Semitic city in the country. And I found out
when I was an adolescent that you have to be crazy to go out after
dark all by yourself; you'd get your head bashed in. More
fulfilling, I was introduced to jazz, and that's become a basic
concern and passion of mine ever since.
This book, "Speaking Freely," starts when I came to New York. And the
first chapter is about a man who became a friend of mine, much to our
mutual surprise, Malcolm X. And it goes through other rites of
passage, I guess you'd say, including the--what I just spoke about,
the learning that liberalism isn't quite as liberal as it
pretends to be. And it goes through my adventures with the
FBI during the anti-war period and the civil rights period. And a
particular moment--and I'm not, to this day, quite sure how I feel
about it--I had always wanted to be in the law books--you know,
Hentoff vs. something or other. And then Congressman Icord headed a
House on American activities committee. It was called the House
Internal Security Committee. And he put out a report, and he named a
number of very destructive people who lectured at colleges
and left arson in their wake and did other terrible things. And he
mentioned me and he ascribed to me three organizations to which I'd
never belonged, and I decided I would do something about this.
When the ACLU took my case and we got a ruling I think, for the first
time, they could--the Congress could put out the report internally
but they couldn't put it out at taxpayers' expense around the country.
And I felt odd about that because I, in a way, I was interfering
with free speech, but then, you can't always win.
LAMB: When has a liberal been the most upset with you to your face?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, well, the most controversial subject-issue I've
ever gotten involved in to this day was when I became pro-life. And
liberals are very--many liberals are very angry at me because of that.
In part, because--they could understand it, they say, if I came to it
from a religious kin--a Catholic perspective. But I'm still a Jewish
atheist, and that really bothers them. And I come to it entirely from
the point of view of biology. And what Roe v. Wade has
led to, I--what I did in the 1980s--I tracked all of the state Supreme
Court decisions concerning people who wanted to have their
relatives--their husband, their wife, their child--taken off of
feeding tubes or respirators.
Every time the Supreme Court of a state would say, `That's OK,' they
based it on Roe v. Wade. And it turned out when--the--in terms of
the physician-assisted suicide, the first federal district judge
in the history of the United States out in Washington--state of
Washington--came to the same conclusion, basing it on Roe v. Wade.
And around that time, I met the angel of death, Derrick Humphrey, who
introduced the whole concept of assisted suicide, and he
was exultant. He was talking about things that had happened to him
for the good. He said, `When I came to this country, I couldn't get
my ideas across to anybody, practically, but then a wonderful thing
happened and the door opened.' I said, `What was that?' He said, `Roe
v. Wade, because when Roe v. Wade said that you can remove a fetus
for privacy, and privacy is the safeguard of that, then it
was extended through the courts to, "You can take the respirator off
your husband's--your husband," or whatever and, finally,
physician-assisted suicide.' So when I say I'm pro-life, I mean
pro-life across the legal board.
LAMB: How do you make your money today?
Mr. HENTOFF: I write a syndicated column for The Washington Post
that goes to about 200, 250 papers. I write a column for The Village
Voice, which I've done since time immemorial, and occasionally--and
books. And I occasionally write minor notes for record albums and
LAMB: You wrote some liner notes for Bob Dylan once.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. I've always been amused by Dylan; I don't think
he's been amused by me. When I first knew him, he lived in the
Village. And for a man who, years after, would disdain publicity or
any attempts at interviews, whenever I'd write something about him,
he'd be on the street corner saying, `When's it going to run? When's
it going to run?' But I must say that album that was--it was the
second album he did, and though I've never been a fan of his
guitar-playing, he did--I have to admit, he did catch the Zeitgeist of
LAMB: But what made him mad with you? And what kind of relationship
do you have with him today?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, that was--he was really mad with my wife. I had
asked by Rolling Stone--the only assignment I ever had
for them--to do a story on the Rolling Thunder Review, which was Bob
Dylan, Alan Ginsberg, Joan Baez and a host of stars. My wife, some
weeks before, had written in The New York Times that The Kid wasn't
The Kid anymore and he wasn't all that winning anymore.
So when I approached one of his secretaries for an
interview, I was told that Bob didn't want to see me anymore because
of what my wife Margot had written. So I went ahead and did the piece
anyway. A reporter is never put off by somebody not wanting to be
interviewed. And I got Joan Baez to talk and Alan Ginsberg and some
of the guys in the band. And by the end of the piece, another
emissary came and said, `Bob is willing to speak to you now.' And I
said with great pleasure, `No, thanks. The piece is over.'
LAMB: When was the last time you talked to him?
Mr. HENTOFF: That--well, I guess I haven't talked to him since
before then. I follow his career. And...
LAMB: When was the date of that? Do you remember?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, gosh, my chronology is not always very good. That
was at least--let's see--at least 30 years ago, maybe more.
LAMB: Where do you live today?
Mr. HENTOFF: I live in the Village right near NYU, which is taking
over most of the Village. I've lived there for most of my
time in New York. One of the things I like about the Village is, it's
considered the kind of area where you can't have skyscrapers or,
actually, many tall buildings. So you can see the sky which, I think,
is a benefit.
LAMB: You say that Margot is your third wife?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. The first one--a very nice person--that didn't
last terribly long. We'd lived together before then. The second
LAMB: What was the--how long were you married the first time?
Mr. HENTOFF: Where?
LAMB: How long?
Mr. HENTOFF: How long? About eight months, I think.
Mr. HENTOFF: That was back in 1951--'50, '51. Then the second
wife--the best part of that union, our two daughters, and that lasted
about five years. And I've been married to Margot now for about 38
LAMB: And does Margot have a byline somewhere regularly?
Mr. HENTOFF: I wish she did. She used to write regularly for The
Voice, for The New York Review of Books, for Harper's Bazaar, and she
really had the most distinctive writing style, even more than
mine, than I've ever seen in this business. But she
stopped. She decided that she had nothing more to say. And yet,
every day, she has a whole lot to say, and I wish she'd write it down.
LAMB: Where are you two politically now together?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I think one thing we share is a complete
bottomless disdain for Bill Clinton. My--mine is based on the fact
that he has done--and I'm--this sounds like hyperbole, but he has done
more harm to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than any
president since John Adams. And he outshines John
Adams in that regard. Margot dislikes him because he's totally
untrustworthy, and you really ought to have some faith in whoever's
going to be your president.
LAMB: What proof do you have that he's done harm to the Constitution?
Mr. HENTOFF: All right. To begin with, when John Adams--when-- James
Madison was writing--pretty much writing the Constitution, he got a letter from
Thomas Jefferson, who was
then-ambassador to France. And Jefferson said--I am paraphrasing--`Do
not forget to keep habeas corpus and strengthen it.' That--in--that's
the oldest English-speaking right. It goes back to the Magna Carta in 1215.
LAMB: What's it mean?
Mr. HENTOFF: But in our country, it means that if you've been
sentenced and convicted in a state court, either to death or to
some other kind of sentence, you have the right to petition a
federal court to review what happened to you. Was it fair? Did you
get due process? Was there prosecutorial misconduct? There are any
number of things that could happen. And until Clinton, you had three,
four, five, even more years I collect records of people who
have been on death row for eight, 10, 12, 14 years--this is before
Clinton--who finally got a decent lawyer, usually a pro bono lawyer,
and an investigator, and were able to find out--they--they're but
approved that they're--that they were innocent. And now, these
days, with DNA, that happens even more often.
But under Clinton--under this part of the anti-crime bill that
he-- had passed with the Republicans--they're just as bad, but
he was the power. Under Clinton, you're limited to one year. You
have one year to petition. If the court doesn't want to hear it, too
bad. And that is outrageous.
LAMB: Do you think he's doing this consciously?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, I think--I don't think he does anything--I don't
think it's ill will. I don't think he's evil in the sense that he
hates the Bill of Rights. He does what he figures will help him
politically. It's like when he was running for president. I'll never
forget this one. He was running in New Hampshire. He was not doing
well. And he suddenly, over a weekend, rushed back to Little Rock to
execute a guy who had killed a cop, but in the process, the policeman
had shot him in the head and he was out of it. He didn't know today
from tomorrow, good, evil, whatever. His lawyer begged--his lawyer
was an old friend of Clinton. He begged Clinton not to have this guy
executed. It was absurd. But he did it anyway.
And that was to show that he wasn't tough on crime. And the
habeas corpus business, that's to show that he's not tough on crime.
And you have an electorate that wants to see people who are not
tough on crime.
Oh, and other things he's done. The immigration bill--the new
immigration bill--he has stripped the courts, which Congress
can do under the leadership of the president, so that people who had a
right to asylum or to petition --for asylum who were legal residents
are now unable to go through because that part of the bill has been
taken out. I mean, he has called for expanded wiretaps for the
FBI. I mean, he goes on and on and on. And he was the man, as a
matter of fact, who, in terms of the Communications Decency Act, which
would have made the Internet, the whole concept of cyberspace,
vulnerable to rampant censorship--he pushed that bill, and I know the
man in the Justice Department whom he persuaded -- the guy
didn't want to lose his job--to write the bill. And, of course, the
Supreme Court, 9-to-nothing, said it was unconstitutional.
I mean, did this happens on a regular basis. And
what--the crucial part of it to me is, I--the press is practically
uninterested in this. In the last campaign, the '96 campaign, I can't
remember this coming up in any of the television interviews
that were done, the presidential debates that Jim Lehrer
held and the like, except for Tony Lewis of The New York Times and
maybe one or two other people. Now that is dangerous, when the people
don't know what's happening to their Constitution.
LAMB: Go back to your wife, Margot. You agree on Bill Clinton. Do
you disagree on politics and anything right now?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, we disagree heavily on abortion. She
thinks--first of all, she --this I hear from a lot
of people beside her. She thinks that men have no business getting
into this argument at all unless they're going to be pro-choice. But
it turns out that a fair number of fetuses are male, and besides that,
we are all one part of humankind, it seems to me.
LAMB: Where'd you meet her?
Mr. HENTOFF: We had--well, I met her on Fire Island when I had
a house there many years ago. And then I was co-editor of the
magazine called The Jazz Review, which was a pioneering magazine
because it was the only magazine, then or now, in which all the
articles were written by musicians, by jazz men. They had
been laboring for years under the stereotype that they weren't
very articulate except when they picked up their horn. Anyway, she
was the--I guess, the coordinator or the production manager, and we
got to know each other and we married.
LAMB: How many children have you had with her?
Mr. HENTOFF: Two boys. One, Nicholas, is a criminal defense
attorney in Phoenix in which he --gets into --a lot of very
controversial cases. He has sued Sheriff Arpaio, the famous sheriff
who keeps people in tents, gives them green bologna and the
like. My other son Tom is with Williams & Connolly in Washington,
where he does intellectual property defamation cases.
LAMB: You say in the book he fights political correctness?
Mr. HENTOFF: Tom?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, yeah. Tom--it started when he was the editor of
the paper at Wesleyan and the--members of the staff. This was
the first wave of political correctness. The editors of
the staff members came and said he must--he must, from
now on, stop using `freshmen' and--in-as part of the policy
of the paper. It had to be `freshperson.' Therefore, you
don't--you're not discriminating against males or females. They were
very fervent about that, and he was equally fervent about not
politicizing language. So until he left, `freshmen' stayed. It is no
longer in use there.
LAMB: What about Jessica?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, Jessica is--she is a--one of the great
risk-takers in --my experience. When she was at
State University of New York at Purchase, they had a 4014 system.
You go to --you have four semesters. Then, in between the other
four semesters, you can take whatever courses you want. And a pied
piper came along, a circus performer--a professional circus
performer--and Jessica found her vocation and she became, to my great
alarm, a trapeze artist with a friend. She
played all over the United States. I boycotted her for a while. I
couldn't stand it because--for example, I'd say, `Why don't you use a
net?' `Oh, we don't use a net. Europeans don't use a net. We don't
use a net.' And I said, `But people come and expect you to break you
neck.' And I bought her a net, which, of course, was never used. But
then I figured, after all, I have my obsessions; she's entitled to
hers. And I did --see her perform, and she was very good.
Fortunately, however, she now has three small children; she's now on
the ground. She runs her own everyday circus in St. Louis.
LAMB: Who got her interested in being a circus performer?
Mr. HENTOFF: The pied piper.
LAMB: I mean, is there anything in your background or your wife's
Mr. HENTOFF: No, not at all. No. She's singular in that respect.
I mean, in terms of the boys, I always wanted to be a lawyer and would
often talk law with them, but I certainly never wanted to be a trapeze
LAMB: What about your daughter Miranda.
Mr. HENTOFF: Miranda is a complete musician. She's a composer, a
singer. She writes scripts along --with her projects. And
she's a superb teacher. Her teaching pupils have ranged from Itzhak
Perlman to Sting. And, it's one of the great, great
pleasures of my life--I mean, talk about vicarious satisfaction from
--your kids. She was teaching once at Lincoln Center, and the hall
was full of other professionals--musicians, professors, teachers. And
she was explaining how Bartok composed his second piano concerto. And
she explained how the music was interwoven with the rhythms and what
he had in his mind. And I was just stunned. This is a kid who used
to work --on a piano with a cracked keyboard.
LAMB: Four children.
Mr. HENTOFF: Four children.
LAMB: Go back to someone you talked about in the book by the name of
Mr. HENTOFF: Ah.
LAMB: Who is he? Is he alive?
Mr. HENTOFF: No. A.J. was a--as he likes to say, a radical
pacifist; that is, he never engaged in violence but he believed, as
Gandhi did--and he knew Gandhi slightly--he believed that a pacifist
had to be active in the community. And in that respect, Martin Luther
King, whom A.J. advised in the civil rights movement, was also
a radical pacifist. He--A.J. never got much credit, never got
much attention. For example, I wrote a biography of him and nobody
ever heard of it. But he was very influenced--in--influential in the
peace movement, in the civil rights movement. And he was
extraordinarily calm--the most--I couldn't--I've never known a man who
would go through--I mean, the cops would be arresting him. There'd be
turmoil around him. And he was just watching and...
LAMB: Where'd he live? Where was he from? How old was he when he
Mr. HENTOFF: He was from Michigan and he grew up in the
Dutch Reform Church there, which is a fairly strict church. He later
came to New York. He was the minister of a labor temple in the--on the East
Side. Then he founded, to my knowledge, the first, maybe the only, labor school;
that is, Cornell has a labor department
and other schools. But this was a school for--entirely for labor
organizers, and he was the--the chairman.
He was--and this was funny in a way. Trotsky found out about
him--Leon Trotsky--because A.J. worked. He was an activist. And he
organized the first sit-in strike in Toledo in a factory. And Trotsky
was very impressed with that. And...
LAMB: What year would that have been?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, '33, '34, something like that.
LAMB: When did A.J. Muste die?
Mr. HENTOFF: A.J. died in the late '60s, I think. He was 81, something like
LAMB: And you knew him?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, I knew him very well. I tried for a while
to be like he was, and that is a total pacifist. But then
Margot hit me hard in the stomach one day to prove to me that I
wasn't as perfect a pacifist as I thought I was.
LAMB: Tell more about that story, 'cause it's in the book. She literally hit you?
Mr. HENTOFF: She literally hit me as hard as she could, which is pretty hard.
LAMB: Did she surprise you?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah, that was the whole point. And I didn't-- hit back, but I
knew that if it had been anybody else, I would have hit back, and that was the
point of her metaphorical blow.
LAMB: Is she not a pacifist?
Mr. HENTOFF: No.
LAMB: And you said that when she was at The Voice, she had a
contrarian attitude about some of these political issues?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, yeah, The Voice--to begin with, The Voice has been
politically correct in many of its aspects since before that term was
ever used. It's always been--well, I'll give you an example. I found
out--the paper used to go to bed on Tues--on Monday. I found out that
on Monday nights, the editors would cut out--literally cut out
passages, sometimes whole paragraphs, of some of the writers that
might possibly offend blacks, lesbians, gays, radicals. And I wrote a
couple of columns about that. And they're--of course, they
were annoyed that I had written about it, but, I mean, it
--another example--and she always also conjured that. She was
an editor there for a time as well as a writer.
But Jules Feiffer once wrote a strip. He was then, as now, a
syndicator. Of course, he's not at The Voice anymore. But his strip
would come to The Voice first. And the strip showed an Archie
Bunker-type sitting in the kitchen--speaking of stereotypes--with a
can of beer, saying, `I can't say "kike" anymore. I can't say "fag"
anymore. About the only think I can say anymore is "nigger."' There
was an uproar at The Voice. Great pressure was put on the editor,
David Schneiderman, to not run the strip. It was offensive. It was
racist. And nobody apparently read the strip and saw what it was
about. And I wrote a column about that.
So the --obviously, the--there have been other very
good reporters at The Voice. We've done good muckraking stuff, good
political stuff. But the--spirit of the paper, until
fairly recently, with a new editor who doesn't go on that
route, has been, well, politically correct.
LAMB: What was the story about the column you wrote about Clay Felker
when he ran The Voice?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, Felker took over The Voice...
LAMB: Who is he, by the way?
Mr. HENTOFF: Clay Felker was then--he had--to his credit, he
had created New York Magazine, which was the first of the city
magazines that covered the city and gave all kinds of
advice and all that sort of stuff. And there were copies all
over the country by the time he left. He had, however, a view
of journalism that was very much, I must say, like Tina Brown's at The
New Yorker. You hit 'em hard, fast, give 'em something to talk about
the day after the paper comes out, as contrasted with William Shawn,
who gave them something to talk about two or three years from then.
LAMB: Who was William Shawn?
Mr. HENTOFF: William Shawn was the editor of The New Yorker and for
whom I worked for, God, 27 years; a man I respected enormously because
of what he did, --what the magazine was about. Anyway,
I got a letter. He took over The Voice and tried to
turn it into New York Magazine--very glitzy covers that promised
practically nothing in terms of what was inside, very rushed paper
anymore. You--not very contemplative, thoughtful or whatever.
So I got a letter one day from somebody saying, `You're always
criticizing the press. Why don't you talk about what Clay Felker is
doing to your own paper?' And my 10-year-old son Tom, now with
Williams & Connelly, put in a legal opinion, not --an opinion from
the back of the car saying, `You know why? What are you, afraid?' So
I wrote the column. I--you know, --the column simply said that
Felker is destroying this paper. And I heard that he was about ready
to fire me, but two other people on The Voice interceded and,
fortunately, he had a very short attention span, so I wasn't fired.
LAMB: Any of that being done today?
Mr. HENTOFF: The...
LAMB: Being that contrary with your own publication where you're...
Mr. HENTOFF: Did I do...
LAMB: Where you being paid--no, anybody. I mean, were you being paid
at the time, by the way...
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, yeah. I was...
LAMB: ...because --there was a time when The Village Voice didn't pay.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah, but I was getting a big fat $100 a week at
that time. No, it's being done--I mean, the most recent example and
the most, I think, appalling example was when Martin Peretz, the
owner--and I stress owner--of The New Republic fired a journalist who
I think was uncommonly skilled and full of integrity and passion and
all that stuff. But he had criticized regularly the former pupil and
friend of Martin Peretz, Al Gore, so he was fired. That's
contrarianist that went around--that did--that was not rewarded.
LAMB: What's wrong, though, with an owner of a publication like that
firing somebody that won't support his views?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, it's perfectly within his rights. It's a
private--you know, th--it's not censorship. The First Amendment
doesn't come into play because it's a private magazine. What's wrong
with it is, it lowers, to say the least, the credibility of the
magazine. And if I were writing for it, I would feel diminished
because the owner had done such a thing.
LAMB: What does it mean to you to be an atheist?
Mr. HENTOFF: It means that I was never able--I mean, I really envy,
in some respects, some of the people of faith I've known--A.J., for
LAMB: What was his religion?
Mr. HENTOFF: He was--he--I don't know what he finally came out
believing in, but it was some kind of higher being. But
Kierkegaard said it for me a long time ago. He said, `You can't
really think yourself into a faith, into a religion. It's
something you have to make a leap into faith.' And I've
never been able to do that. I wish I could. Then maybe I could
believe in an afterlife.
LAMB: What was it like in your family growing up?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, we were--I mean, my parents were Orthodox Jews
but not very regular Orthodox Jews. I was bar mitzvahed and all that.
But God was hardly ever mentioned in my family. Franklin D.
LAMB: They liked him.
Mr. HENTOFF: They liked him a lot.
LAMB: And what about your kids? What are they?
Mr. HENTOFF: I think at least two of them--and I'm--I better not
speak them by name because I'm not sure where they are these days, but
at least two of them believe in some kind of higher force.
The--another is an atheist and the other is still pondering.
LAMB: You had a friendship or still have a friendship with John
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, I like him a lot. He--I started a--to know
him--when I asked William Shawn at The New Yorker, `Sh--can I do
a profile of Cardinal O'Connor?' He said, `All right. Find out what
he's like.' So I went to his office, and I heard somebody--and it
turned out to be O'Connor--yelling outside, and I've never heard him
since raise his voice.
At the time there was a hospital strike in New York and the Catholic
hospitals were part of a general consortium, and the head of the
consortium had decided that they were finally going to replace some of
the striking workers. And I hear O'Connor yelling, `Over my dead body
will you replace any of those workers! They have a right to strike.'
So I figured, `This is interesting.' Here is a guy who's supposed to
be the Genghis Khan of the church, the pro-choice people hate
him, and I don't know about his labor background so I figured
there must be more to him, and there is. I wrote a book about him.
My favorite story about O'Connor--one of them--is I was in Toronto at
a pro-life conference. And I was --I had a session before he was to
come on, and I was explaining--I thought very moderately, calmly--that
the best way to not have unwanted abortions was to have much more
research on contraception. And two very large, true-faith
people came out of the audience, wrested the microphone out of my hand
and said, `That is im--inappropriate, improper. Pro-lifers do not
believe in contraception.' And O'Connor's watching this. I get up
again and introduce him, and O'Connor said, `I want to tell you I'm
delighted that Nat is not a member of the Catholic Church. We have
enough trouble as it is.'
LAMB: How close did you get to him?
Mr. HENTOFF: I guess pretty close. He had Margot and me over
for drinks a couple of times. That was something I never could have
envisioned back when I was a kid in Boston, that a cardinal and I
would be, if not breaking bread, at least breaking Scotch. And I've
I call him from time to time and he calls me. And when I think
there's something he ought to think about doing, I call him and he
usually does it.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, counting the ones I've co-edited, I guess about 28 or 29.
LAMB: Can you make a living off of doing...
Mr. HENTOFF: No.
Mr. HENTOFF: No. I--this sounds corny, but I once told a
kid when I was in a the library conference, the best--not
the best, what I really hope for is that someday 20, 30 years from
now, some kid, 12-year-old, 15-year-old, in Des Moines will be going
through the stacks, if they have stacks anymore--they probably
won't--and find a book of mine and get something from it. But in
terms of money, no.
LAMB: Have you been able to make a living--a decent living writing?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, it depends on what you mean by decent. I'm--you
know, it's comfortable. We live in the village. We have a summer
place in Westport, Connecticut. We don't spend a lot on all kinds of
things. But I have no complaints.
LAMB: Has your wife worked anymore since she left The Voice?
Mr. HENTOFF: No. Again, I wish she would because--especially now
the kind of--I mean, honesty is hardly the word. She
writes with a ferocity of clarity that--nobody else around has
LAMB: So you're the breadwinner?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. And she has some investments and stuff.
LAMB: Where did you go to school originally? What did--how did you
train to be a writer?
Mr. HENTOFF: I read like everybody--like every other writer. I've
been reading since I could read, which was about four or five years
old. And I'd pick--my father would bring home about six
newspapers. We had 10 in Boston at the time. I went to the library
as soon as I could walk. So the training came from reading all kinds
of people, from fairy tales and later on to--I don't know
why--Schweitz's "Life of Christ."
And the book that really, really shaped my politics and has forever is
Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," which is a novel based on
terrible fact about what it was like in Russia during Stalin's time
when people actually believed that to get to the point where the
Proletariat would triumph, anything that was necessary to be done
should be done; the means didn't count. And, of course, that's
not--that's just not Russia.
But I went to school at a place that also shaped my life, Boston Latin
School. Sandra Day O'Connor--once she said that there are--there were
no public schools in America until the 18th century, and she
overlooked my alma mater because we started--I say we--in 1635. And
among the people who went there--and they're on--the
walls in the auditorium, the names are: Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, except he split when he was 10 years
old to go to work. But it--Santiana, all that sort of--but
the marvelous part of that school was all kinds of kids went.
It was a competitive examination. Poor kids, Brahmans, middle-class kids. The
masters, as the teachers were called, didn't give a damn about --how we felt,
things like at home. I mean, this goes against the current grain.
All they thought about was: `You're here. You made the exam. You
can do the work. And if you can't, we'll throw you out.' And it was a
great lesson because I found out, and as the other kids did,
that I could do the work.
LAMB: But what about your parents? What were they doing then for a living?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, my father--my mother's always been--well, my
mother, when she was younger, worked at Filene's in Boston. And she
was chief cashier. And I always wondered why she never went back to
some kind of work 'cause that was a very responsible position. My
father had always been a traveling salesman--New England, the South,
whatever. He was very impressed when he saw "Death of a Salesman," I
must say. He recognized himself to some extent.
LAMB: In your life, how many different publications have you worked for?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, that's hard to figure.
LAMB: How about the main jobs?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, the main jobs would be The New Yorker, The
Village Voice, The Washington Post and--I'm thinking of the--stray one...
LAMB: You did The Reporter.
Mr. HENTOFF: The Reporter when Max Askeli was there, but I got
fired from The Reporter. Max Askeli was a very courageous, principled
man up to a point. He had left Italy before he was thrown in jail by
Mussolini. And he started this very good magazine. In fact, Meg
Greenfield, who's now the editorial page editor of The Washington
Post, was one of the star reporters there. I was in the back of the
book doing music. I once did a--the first piece on Malcolm X that
anyone had ever seen in the-- white press.
But I was very much against the Vietnam War, and Max Askeli was
visiting Lyndon Johnson in the White House cheering him on, writing
editorials. And in The Voice one day I once referred to him as
Commander Askeli. And I called in to The Reporter to go over the
galleys of a music piece I had written, and the editor whispered to
me, `It's not gonna run. You're not gonna run. Max Askeli has fired
you because of what you said about him.' You see, the person who has
the strong ownership of free speech is the one who owns the press.
LAMB: Why did you--you did that more than once in your life where you
had--we just talked about a couple of them.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah.
LAMB: What makes you do that?
Mr. HENTOFF: I don't know. It seems to be the thing to do. I
don't like to feel intimidated by where I make a living.
LAMB: Have you ever pulled your punches?
Mr. HENTOFF: I suppose I have. I think it--yeah, I must have. I
can't remember, but it'll come to me later.
LAMB: And, again, --did you have people in your life, in your
family at all that were like this: always kind of flaunting authority
Mr. HENTOFF: My father was pretty independent. He was--he was
arrested once in Nashville when he was on one of his sales trips
because he had a black -- guy to lunch. So that took a fair amount
of courage at the time. Otherwise, no, I guess not. But I don't...
LAMB: Did you ever regret doing it?
Mr. HENTOFF: Did I ever...
LAMB: Regret doing that, like criticizing--calling him Commander
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, I thought it was funny. I mean, I'm sor--I was
sorry I lost the gig, but, I mean, I felt better about myself that I
did it, rather than have--rather than thinking it and not writing
it for being afraid of what might happen to me.
LAMB: You do a chapter on William Shawn, and he comes up all the time
over the years.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah.
LAMB: When did he die?
Mr. HENTOFF: Again, you can see my chronology is terrible. It must
have been about seven or eight years ago. It was after he was fired
by Newhouse. After New--when Newhouse bought The New Yorker, he said
in one of those grand press conferences that `Bill Shawn will stay
here as long as he wants to be here.' Well, he wanted to be here until
he died, but he wasn't allowed to.
LAMB: What was he like?
Mr. HENTOFF: I've never met anybody quite like him. He
created--and I'm sure it was conscious--an aura about him of quietude.
But inside that quietude there was the firmest of wills. He knew
exactly what he wanted to do. He--I mean, he didn't, at least
in my case and I think most of the others, he didn't edit the
writers very strongly, but he knew what he wanted. And if he liked
the piece, then he would run it. But he wanted the magazine to be
something that was more than just a weekly event. And as a result you
could pick up a New Yorker under him, as I mentioned before, a
year from then or 10 years or 20 years and there would always be
something worth reading in it.
LAMB: You say that you had something to do with getting him fired.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. I've--that I regret. That was stupid and
ignorant on my part. I went to a party as a guest of a friend of
mine, a lawyer. And he had a client who I didn't know, except--maybe
I'm pretending I didn't know, but he was a big investor in The New
Yorker. And as I found out later in a book about The New Yorker, this
guy was very unhappy about Shawn. He thought Shawn was spending
out--spending too much money on writers.
And then I told him--I was complaining the way writers
complain. You know, I said, you know, `He pays very well, but a lot
of my pieces don't get in,' and that was true of most of the writers
there. And then he--but he pays you for them. That's very--that was
very nice of him. This guy didn't think it was very nice of him. He
figured, `Oh, my God, that's more of my investment gone,' and paying
money to writers for not printing them.
So that became, apparently, one of his weapons against Shawn when
he--in the corporate skirmishes that went on. It was a bad mistake on my part.
LAMB: But you ran into Mr. Shawn later.
Mr. HENTOFF: That was--he had been fired. And he had
always been in The New Yorker immaculately dressed--quietly,
immaculately dressed, very soft-spoken. On the phone I could hardly
hear him sometimes. And after he was fired, I was going to the YMHA
on the Upper East Side to do a talk on free speech.
LAMB: What's YMHA?
Mr. HENTOFF: Young Men's Hebrew Association. YM--yeah. And I went
into a coffee shop to get a piece of pie and a coffee, and I was reading a paper
and I hear a voice. And it was -it was not a voice I was familiar with, but I
looked across the table and I saw Lilian
Ross. Lilian Ross was a --veteran writer for The New Yorker. She, in fact,
brought me to The New Yorker many years ago. And sitting next to her was
William Shawn--no tie, needed a shave. His voice was
kind of coarse and rather loud. He wasn't drunk, but I was just stunned.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. There wasn't mu--much said, but I was thinking,
perhaps unkindly--not unkindly, but on--inaccurately of Theodore
Dreiser's "Carrie," when the main character in "Carrie" has been
brought down by Carrie and his--he-- dress is disheveled and
all that sort of thing. And that's the last I ever saw of him.
LAMB: Who was Carl Armstrong?
Mr. HENTOFF: Carl Armstrong was one of those people in the anti-war
years who had been so convinced of the righteousness of their cause
that he and some friends decided they would blow up a building at the
University of Wisconsin, in which they said research was being done to
help the war against the Vietnamese. What they blew up at three or
four in the morning was a young scientist, who was married and had a
couple of kids, who wasn't working on war stuff at all. And he was
And I was less angry at Armstrong, though I was angry at the
people who came to his trial: Dan Ellsberg, who ordinarily I
respected a lot; Philip Berrigan; the guy who teaches at Princeton
still--I can't remember his name. And they were saying--well, they
were saying, really, what Arthur Koestler had people saying on
"Darkness at Noon." The means were unfortunate and, sadly, someone
died, but the end is what is important and this was a great
symbolic--something or other--sign against the war in Vietnarm--nam.
And I thought that was utterly disgusting. Fortunately most of the
people who were involved in anti-Vietnam activity did not
con themselves into being like the violent people they didn't want.
LAMB: You mentioned Arthur Koestler again. When did he live?
Mr. HENTOFF: Let's see...
LAMB: And did you ever know him?
Mr. HENTOFF: I went to a lecture of his once, I never met him.
I'm trying to -- I know he--he fought in the Spanish Civil War. He
was in prison, I think, in Spain and in--and in Russia. He came to
the United States; that's when I saw him in the mid-1940s. Then he
went to England where he lived and died, but I'm not sure of the dates
of his death. He wrote some other very interesting books, but that
book--I mean, if I were teaching, I don't care what the course is, I
would say you really have to read "Darkness at Noon."
LAMB: And is it still available?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. It's in paperback.
LAMB: You remember who gave you the book?
Mr. HENTOFF: I gave me the book. I saw it lying around somewhere. In the
library, I guess.
LAMB: Just read it?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. Sure.
LAMB: You also once decided you wanted to look at your FBI file.
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. I was writing--at least beginning to
write Boston Boy and there were a lot of holes in my so-called
research. I didn't know the towns my mother and father came from in
Russia. I didn't know the name of the clothing store I went to work
for when I was 11 years old. I didn't know a lot of things. So
I called for my FBI files, not expecting to have that stuff
there, but I wanted to know what they had on me. And--but they did
have the towns my mother and father lived in in Russia. They
had the grocery store I worked in when I was 11 years old.
Then they had a lot of clippings, a lot of articles I'd written. And
to me the--the funniest one was--I had done a piece
for Playboy about J. Edgar Hoover. I had not been very kind to J.
Edgar Hoover. And the field agent had written on --it was sent
directly to Hoover--that--the director should see
this--`And, besides, Hentoff is a lousy writer.' And I thought that
went a bit far.
LAMB: Can anybody see their FBI file?
Mr. HENTOFF: I think you can apply under the Freedom of Informa...
LAMB: How did you do it?
Mr. HENTOFF: I went through the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr. HENTOFF: You know, then they re--as they say, they redact it.
If they don't want you to see something, it comes out black. Then you
can appeal. If you have enough money, you can appeal again. But they
showed me a lot of stuff.
LAMB: And what year did you do it?
Mr. HENTOFF: Let's see, I guess 1980, something like that.
LAMB: You have a lot of other people that you talk about in the book,
including William Brennan, the former justice of the Supreme Court.
Mr. HENTOFF: Right.
LAMB: What did you think of him?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I never expected to get to know him
as well as I did. I called his chambers once. I'd gotten
the go-ahead from Shawn to do a profile of him. I didn't even know
if he'd agree because most of the justices do not sit for profiles.
And he answered the phone and he said, `Sure, come up.'
Gave -a date. And I saw him quite often from time to
He--I mean, my two heroes are Brennan and, even more so, a man I
didn't able--wasn't able to write about, but--at least then was
William O. Douglas because they both really--they lived the Bill of
Rights. They believed, you know, as if it were religious faith, that
everybody had the right to speak, the right to assemble; all those
things that Clinton has a very dim view of.
And he was--the thing that impressed me about Brennan, he'd been on
the court a long time; he had really shaped the jurisprudence of our
times until the last 10 or--years or so, and yet he had, as the
British say, no side, no pretentiousness, very easy guy. He laughed a
lot. He could take criticism. Very impressive fellow.
The one thing he did that I never--I understood it, but I didn't like
it. There was a case against Ralph Ginsberg. Ralph Ginsberg edited a
magazine called Eros. Eros was about --erotic material, both in
print and pictures, etc. I wrote a piece for it on Sam Hyakowa and
his very useful distinction between the lyrics of the blues--the black
blues and popular lyrics. Black...
LAMB: Who was Sam Hyakowa?
Mr. HENTOFF: He was a semanticist who later became a rather
sleepy United States senator. But he was a good semanticist. And all
of a sudden at my door one day, at my office, there appeared a
detective from the district attorney's office carrying a gun. And I
was to go forthwith to an interview in the DA's office about Eros
magazine. I was not hip then to the task--I mean, you know,
`Where's your warrant?' and all that sort of stuff.
So there was a real press on to get Eros. And finally, Ginsberg
himself was indicted and convicted of pandering. And Brennan, of all
people, read the decision from the bench, and Brennan had been the key
man on the court to get away from obscenity, let alone pornography,
and to say that it also--it's also subjective it oughtn't to be
justicable. And as he read the decision, his neck grew
redder and redder and he was furious. I mean, he could have hit
Ginsberg, I guess, except he wasn't that sort of fellow.
And I asked a clerk, `What is this all about?' And he said, `Oh,
well, Justice Brennan has a daughter, and she's of the age where he
feels she might have been shaped in some way by this magazine.' So
even Brennan at a crucial point--and it didn't last beyond
that decision--succumbed to his visceral feelings rather than his
LAMB: How do you, in your opinion, stay consistent with--I mean,
we've started talking that you thought you were a liberal, you're not
sure what you are today, and you find yourself, you know, being
opposed by the different sides at strange times and being on all
different sides of the issue. How do you stay, in your mind,
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I --first of all, I do believe that everybody,
including people I abhor, have the right to speak and not be censored.
LAMB: How far can they go?
Mr. HENTOFF: As far as you want. I can--the only exceptions, I would think, is
if someone were to threaten somebody--specifically, a person and say, `I'm
gonna see you at
dawn and I'm gonna knife you.' That's not protected speech.
LAMB: Any language, any words you want to use?
Mr. HENTOFF: Any words at all. Words are--I mean, there is a
great--there was a great scene in New York once when Lenny Bruce, who
was a friend of mine, was on trial for his words. And Richard Cue,
the assistant district attorney, was making a name for himself trying
to blast all of the witnesses for the defense. And he got Dorothy
Kilgallen, who was a very famous then syndicated columnist, a devout
Catholic, a conservative and a great admirer of Lenny Bruce. And he
con--he strung together, Cue did, all of the words in Lenny's
monologues that could be considered terribly offensive, and he hit her
with them. It was a barrage. `What do you think then, Ms.
Kilgallen?' `Well,' she said, `they're words. They're words. That's
all. Words.' That's the way I feel.
LAMB: You resigned from the ACLU.
Mr. HENTOFF: I did, indeed. I had differed with the ACLU in the
past, as most of the people in the ACLU do from time to time. But
I had a lot of respect for much of what they're doing, and I still do.
I still call the affiliates from time to time to get stories. But
they did one thing that was beyond the possibility of my staying.
The Centers for Disease Control, since 1988, had been testing infants
at birth for various diseases--sickle-cell anemia, syphilis, whatever,
and HIV that leads to AIDS. HIV was not allowed to be the
results of that test was not told to the parents or the physician--the
attending physician because of political reasons. The gay groups
and the feminist groups didn't want that sort of violation of privacy
to go on. And the ACLU went along with that.
And, finally, a very brave assemblywoman in New York, who was
pro-choice, Nettie Mayersohn, finally got a bill through that made
this testing mandatory so that people--for example, if a woman took
her child home and the woman was infected and didn't know it, but the
child was not, the child--the woman would breast-feed the child and
the child would die. And I kept saying to the people I knew in the
ACLU, `How can you allow people to die for the sake of an utterly
rigid, wrongheaded principle?' And they wouldn't budge, so I left.
LAMB: They ever try to get you back?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, they wouldn't try to get me back. Like
Cardinal O'Connor, I think they're delighted I'm not there. I'm too much trouble.
LAMB: I'm gonna name a bunch of folks in the time remaining. I just
want you give us a little, short snippet of what you think of them...
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and how you knew them. Stokely Carmichael.
Mr. HENTOFF: Stokely was a very bright young man who was active in
the Southern civil rights movement, took over SNCC and became what I
call a tribalist. He is all for blacks and is a--become a terrible
anti-Semite and I think is one of those people who has done a lot of
harm not only -- to integration, but to the whole sense of possible
communality between whites and blacks.
LAMB: How well did you know him?
Mr. HENTOFF: Not well. Too well. I didn't know him, hardly.
LAMB: Murray Kempton.
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, Murray Kempton was, you know, perhaps the most
singular journalist of our time. He was another person who
wrote beautifully with great understanding of jazz, as well as
politics, as well as what it was like to live.
LAMB: Why was he your mentor?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, one of the things he told me, the way Izzy Stone
did, was, `Don't go to press conferences 'cause it's a PR thing to
begin with. Anything you want to know, they're not gonna tell you.'
That's why they have a press conference is not to tell you things.
And also Izzy then said, `Go see some middle-level bureaucrat whom
nobody ever asks about--asks to see, and then you'll find out things,'
which was true. But I liked Murray 'cause of his personality. He
--he was quirky and continually interesting.
LAMB: Adlai Stevenson.
Mr. HENTOFF: Adlai Stevenson--you know, I--when he was running
for president, I thought he was going to be the hope of our time. But
then when he became part of the Johnson administration and was UN
ambassador, --our ambassador to the UN--and lied. He lied again and
again on the basis of policy that was set for Washington. And a bunch
of us went to see him because we wanted--we were trying to get some
people of stature to come out against the Vietnam War. And he was
marvelously graceful, charming and dishonest. So I didn't like him.
LAMB: Martin Luther King.
Mr. HENTOFF: I hardly knew him. I interviewed him once.
I--the thing about King that--that I especially admire--I mean,
obviously what he did in the South. But when he decided to expand
his influence to go against the Vietnam War, and this went
against the advice of Roy Wilkins and other black leaders and
naturally a lot of white politicians, he said, `No. That's--that's
what I have to do. I mean, that's the thing we have to talk about.'
LAMB: Dizzy Gillespie.
Mr. HENTOFF: Dizzy was a very warm, brilliant trumpet player,
general wise man. I mean, --I don't mean that in a derogatory sense.
It sounds funny, but the thing I most remember about Dizzy--I hadn't
seen him for several years, and I went to a rehearsal of his at
Lincoln Center. And as he came down the hall he was talking to
somebody, and then he saw me and he gave me a big embrace. And he
said to the guy, `It's like seeing an old broad of yours.' I thought,
LAMB: Duke Ellington.
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, Duke was--I was--I-- got to know him
quite well, but I was almost always in awe of him, first because he
was the most original composer this country's ever had; I think
Charles Ives is a close second. But there was--the-- presence of
the man, the-- grace, the steel behind the grace--he
was an extraordinary person.
LAMB: Was there a difference between Father Coughlin and Louis Farrakhan?
Mr. HENTOFF: Not so it matters to me. And they're both pre-eminent
anti-Semites. Father Coughlin perhaps had a wider range of hatred and
bitterness. I mean, he--although now that I think of it,
when--I remember when I was a kid I listened to Coughlin, and Coughlin
would say that the Jews are the international bankers who take away
the widows' might. At the same time, the Jews run the Politburo in
Moscow, which made us very busy. And Farrakhan says pretty much
the same thing: `The Jews run the Federal Reserve Board. The Jews
get us into wars. The'--I mean, the fact that Farrakhan was named by
Time magazine last year as one of the 25 most influential Americans I
LAMB: You missed anything in your life that you wanted to do?
Mr. HENTOFF: Yeah. Play the clarinet well so I could be in
Duke Ellington's band, but that's now impossible. And the other thing
I miss is teaching. I did teach for awhile and I love teaching 'cause
that's the fun of getting interplay of ideas, not just talking to your typewriter.
LAMB: Do you have another book you want to write?
Mr. HENTOFF: Well, I'm working on one now. It's called "Living the
Bill of Rights," and it's about people--well, it starts with
Brennan and Douglas as people who not only live the Bill of
Rights, but try to shape the reason for that. But then--the--these
are people who--there's a valedictorian in a high school in
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a born-again Christian, who got into a lot of
trouble because she wouldn't let her principal--this is a public high
school--censor or see her valedictorian speech. She said, `No.
That's First Amendment right. I'm gonna do that.' And the whole
school closed against her almost physically.
Then there's a black lawyer in Galveston, Texas, who was the
unpaid NAACP general counsel in Texas. He had a great record in
housing discrimination, labor discrimination. He decided to take as a
client a member of the Ku Klux Klan because the state wanted to get
the membership lists of the Klan to find out if they could get
something on the Klan. And he said, `I got to take you. I despise
you. But we, the NAACP, won that case; NAACP vs. Alabama in the
1950s. Nobody has the right to get your membership lists.' He was
fired from the NAACP. He became a pariah, until he stopped his
practice and went around the state talking to black church groups and
other black groups explaining why he had done what he had done. To
me, he's a hero.
LAMB: Where was this picture taken?
Mr. HENTOFF: That was taken at the studio of a photographer in Chelsea.
LAMB: What year?
Mr. HENTOFF: Oh, about--let's see, this year, I think. Yeah,
earlier this year.
LAMB: On that note, Nat Hentoff, we're out of time. "Speaking
Freely" is the book. It's a memoir. And we thank you for joining us.
Mr. HENTOFF: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.