Terry Teachout published more pieces in COMMENTARY than any other writer in the magazine’s 76-year history. He was a monthly contributor for a quarter century—first as classical music critic and then as critic-at-large. On just two occasions in the 13 years of my editorship did he miss a month, our new issue being one of the two—he was unable to meet a deadline for an article on Buster Keaton because of a loved one’s health problem.
Just an hour ago I heard the dreadful news that Terry died in his sleep today, a few weeks shy of his 66th birthday. The loss to his loved ones, the loss to the American theatre he both championed as a critic and mastered as a playwright, and the loss to the broader American culture he knew more fully than anyone else in our time cannot be overstated.
Terry possessed an extraordinary talent, all the more extraordinary because his life’s work was a defense of the value, meaning, and profundity of ordinariness. A child of small-town Missouri, he was someone who made a study of every topic that interested him and, with his passion for completeness, achieved a greater level of expertise in matters of high and popular culture than just about anyone in America.
He was a talented professional musician whose musicianship led him to start writing about music for a Kansas City newspaper before he journeyed to New York—where, over the course of a decade, he became a magazine editor (at Harper‘s), then an editorial writer and classical-music critic (at the New York Daily News), while beginning his decades-long association with COMMENTARY.
Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal had the inspired notion of hiring Terry to be the paper’s theater critic. He embraced the Journal‘s position as a national newspaper and focused his weekly column on the work of companies across the country rather than simply waiting to see whatever New York producers had on offer. This was part of his own understanding, based on his own experience, that there could be greatness anywhere—in an unknown actor in Idaho, a great director in Oregon, a great scenic designer in suburban Chicago. And indeed, in Terry’s estimation, the single best theatrical experience of his lifetime happened in Glencoe, Ill.—an innovative production of Our Town, the American play that exemplified Terry’s most profound sense of things: He believed the everyday lives of everyday people were as fascinating and as revelatory as depictions of the great and near-great.
In COMMENTARY’s pages, Terry’s ability to bounce month to month from film noir to the crisis of the symphony orchestra to the talents of Robert Mitchum to the musicality of Nat King Cole to the ever-sticky problem of how and when and whether to separate an artist’s noxious views from his art were the ultimate testament to the breadth of his knowledge and his almost sensual love of the arts. That love led him to cross over from critic to creator, as he wrote two plays—the most-produced of which was Satchmo at the Waldorf, about the subject of one of Terry’s brilliant biographies (the others being H.L. Mencken, George Balanchine, and Duke Ellington). He also wrote three opera librettos.
His output was beyond prodigious. His love for the transformative power of art was transcendent. And his love of country, like his love of family, was as deep as the deepest of wells. Terry’s COMMENTARY contributor page can be found here. It, too, is a deep well of glory. May he now be reunited with his beloved Hillary and his beloved parents. The rest of us who knew him and loved him must soldier on.