Regular readers of Terry Teachout’s blog, About Last Night, knew his place of birth as “Smalltown, U.S.A.” In reality, that burg—population roughly 16,000—was Sikeston, Missouri. If Terry, who died unexpectedly on January 13, enjoyed calling it by a generic name, I suppose it’s because the life he’d lived there was, as he remembered it, small-town American boyhood at its idyllic best. His family, about whom I never knew him to breathe a negative word, had been, by his testimony, a gloriously happy one, and if, as Tolstoy maintained, “all happy families are alike in the same way,” then Sikeston might just as well have been Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life or Grover’s Corners in Terry’s favorite play, Our Town.
In 1991, only three years before he began writing monthly for COMMENTARY, Terry published a charming memoir, City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy, about his Sikeston boyhood. He might gladly have spent his life there, one gathers, except for one thing: He fell helplessly in love with writing and music, with culture and the arts. He played violin in the junior-high-school band, but after hearing jazz, he borrowed a bass from the band room, took it home for the summer, and taught himself how to play it. In his teens, he took the role of the Artful Dodger in a Sikeston Little Theater production of Oliver and performed Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light” at Sikeston’s First United Methodist Church as part of a local country-music combo.
But much as he enjoyed all this activity, he knew there were places out there where the possibilities for a life centered on culture far outstripped what was on offer in and around Sikeston. At first, he enrolled in St. John’s College in Annapolis, then as now famous for its Great Books program. But deciding after a single semester that he wasn’t yet ready to live that far from home, he transferred to William Jewell College outside Kansas City. He stayed in Kansas City for years, performing in jazz joints and, like Hemingway before him, writing for the Kansas City Star. In what turned out to be another dead end, he went to the University of Illinois to study psychology. But after two years, he relocated to the city where he would spend the rest of his life: New York.
I met him not long after that. Working first at Harpers as an editor and then as an editorial writer at the Daily News, which was then a populist big-city paper (and which he would later call “my graduate school for writing”), he organized a salon at which relatively novice writers for the Wall Street Journal, COMMENTARY, New Criterion, and other right-leaning publications (and think tanks) could get to know one another. The salon, called “The Vile Body,” met every month for drinks and snacks at the elegant Upper East Side townhouse that was then the headquarters of the Manhattan Institute. Yet for all the panache of the address and the sophistication of the reference to Evelyn Waugh’s novel about dissolute youth—and the Paris-in-the-Twenties feel of the very idea of a “salon”—the idea of forming such a club was that of a neighborly small-town boy who simply felt that relatively like-minded young people working in the same profession in the same city should get to know one another and have the chance to make friends.
Friendship was one of the many things at which Terry was gifted. From “The Vile Body” right up until this past January 4, when we exchanged Facebook messages, I considered Terry one of my closest friends. But I also knew that there were boatloads of people—and the number of them grew like Topsy as the years went by—who felt the same way. As far as I know, he never lost a friend, either. If you’re a politico-literary intellectual type, you eventually start falling out with at least some longtime comrades. But not Terry: He was one “Vile Body” member who decades later was still on amicable terms, I think, with everyone. Case in point: his first marriage. When I first knew him, he was married to the delightful Liz Cullers, a respected voice coach for opera singers. When they divorced, I was surprised (he’d never breathed a word to me against her). When they remained good friends (which they still were at the time of his death), I wasn’t.
That was Terry. Beneath the urbane surface he was the quintessential decent small-town gentleman. He had good manners and always dressed presentably. I don’t remember him ever cursing, even mildly. Or being in a foul mood. Or expressing anger at anybody. Or talking down to a waiter or bartender. Or snubbing someone at a party. By the same token, he had self-respect; he wouldn’t let his kindness be mistaken for weakness or let himself be taken advantage of. He valued his time. Unlike many other writers, newspapermen, and jazz musicians, he wouldn’t hang out and shoot the breeze for hours over endless drinks. (Never mind drugs: I can’t even imagine him smoking pot.) He had a pioneer purposefulness about him. No matter what his social obligations, he had to get up in the morning and get the job done.
When I first knew him, I thought of him mainly as a political writer. During the week, he wrote editorials for the Daily News; on weekends he took the train down to Baltimore to research his H.L. Mencken biography at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. For a while there, it felt as if those Baltimore trips would never stop, and indeed, it took 10 years of library work before The Skeptic came out in 2002, to terrific reviews. But it turned out he’d just begun rolling up his sleeves—and politics was about to yield, in a very big way, to culture.
In 2003, he became drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. Over the following 11 years, even as he kept up his grueling theater-reviewing schedule—traveling every other week to see plays all over the U.S.—he contributed long monthly cultural pieces to COMMENTARY; published solid, important biographies of George Balanchine, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington; staged the first of his two plays, Satchmo at the Waldorf; and even knocked off libretti for the first three of four operas on which he collaborated with composer Paul Moravec.
It took me a while to realize just what a marvel Terry was. At one point he started going to the New York City Ballet and mentioned that he wanted to make a serious study of dance; next thing you knew, he was an expert. Later, it wasn’t enough for him that theater companies around the country were staging Satchmo; he also decided to direct it, and made a side career of that, too. In addition, he became a committed, if small-scale, collector of modern-art pieces, which he displayed proudly on his living-room wall, a.k.a. the Teachout Museum. And he took on other obligations, serving for six years on the National Council on the Arts and accepting heaven knows how many invitations to give talks and lectures—apropos of which, if you watch his talks on YouTube, you’ll see that (a) he spoke, off the cuff, in fully formed sentences, (b) he’d have been a marvelous teacher, and (c) he had one of the great speaking voices, right up there with Orson Welles and James Earl Jones.
At some point I started worrying that Terry never really relaxed. When he did, he put effort into it—finding, for example, some remote house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that could be rented for a couple of nights. Just hearing about his schedule was exhausting. Why was he always so restless? Of course, to make even a half-decent living as a writer, you can’t be a slouch. But when it came to productivity, Terry was in a class by himself. (Moravec introduced him once as “the hardest-working man in show business.”) Did he feel on some level that his life in New York was a gift for which he was obliged to toil away without surcease? Or was it that he never really lost that newcomer’s excitement at living in the Big Apple and woke up every morning as determined as an adrenaline-soaked tourist to cram as much into the day as possible?
Ultimately, his body rebelled against his workaholic lifestyle. At 44, he was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital with what he called “an undiagnosed case of work-exacerbated pneumonia.” Five years later, he was readmitted with congestive heart failure. He almost died. On his blog—the first to be started by a print-media arts critic—he declared his unwillingness “to give up without a fight.” He wrote, “I have music to hear, plays to review, paintings to see, etchings to buy and treasure, a book to finish writing, a blog to keep, dozens of friends who claim quite convincingly to love me, and many, many memories, a few dark and desperate, far more full of light. In the last few days alone countless things have happened, small and large, that make me want to cling as fiercely as possible to whatever time remains on the ticking clock whose face I cannot see.”
Thankfully, he survived that crisis, and life went on. But now, as it happens, he wasn’t alone—and the medical problems were just beginning. Just before his second trip to Lenox Hill, he’d met and fallen in love with a woman named Hilary Dyson, who’d recently been diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension and been given two or three years to live. Her only hope of salvation lay in a lung transplant.
Terry and Hilary married in 2007, and for the next few years they strove to make the most out of the time they had together and the increasing physical limitations under which Hilary labored. After she grew sick enough to be listed for a transplant, there were a number of false alarms—lungs that turned out not to match—and several close calls. Online, Terry apprised their friends of every new development, and from far and near we all followed along anxiously. Finally, in February 2020, Hilary received her long-awaited new lungs. There was a brief moment of exultation and hope. But it didn’t last. The lungs didn’t take. Her system collapsed. I can’t imagine how many people wept when Terry reported her death.
I frankly don’t know how Terry got through the roller coaster of those last couple of years with Hilary—all the while keeping up a busy work schedule—not to mention his cruel and sudden widowerhood. After her passing, many of us shared his fear that he’d never love again. He did manage, in another stunning accomplishment, to write a short, candid, and heartbreaking book (which has yet to be published) about his life with Hilary (it appeared in chrysalis as “My Gallant Gal,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of COMMENTARY). Then, in mid-2021, to everyone’s surprise, Terry, now 65, fell in love again—this time with a woman named Cheril Mulligan. At the end of the year, he gave thanks on his blog for “the return of good fortune to my once-charmed, twice-blessed life….I rejoice…to tell you that my star has risen again.” He looked forward, he said, to the “surprises [that] await me in 2022.”
Terry’s gratitude for his “good fortune,” both personal and professional, was sincere and lifelong. “I have the best job in the world,” he often declared. And that job, in his view, was to bring pleasure and insight to ordinary readers, never to impress fellow intellectual elites. He took his motto as a critic from a line spoken by Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good.” It’s no coincidence that his favorite song was the wistful “Some Other Time” from On the Town (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green): “Where has the time all gone to? / Haven’t done half the things we want to / Oh, well, we’ll catch up some other time.” For although he could, at first blush, seem the merriest of souls, there was always that constant undercurrent of melancholy, that keen awareness of the ephemeral nature of even life’s most cherished joys. Perhaps that was why he kept moving so fast: He was driven to bask in the light, and keep the darkness at bay, for as long as humanly possible.
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