Sunday, January 23, 2005

John Hess

Passed away Friday morning, age 87. As others in the blogsphere have noted, Hess was a decidedly Old School journo fueled to the end by a passion for knowledge, justice and words. The guy wrote till he dropped, a true artist and muckraker in every sense. Go to his blog and absorb his final mortal energy. We should all check out like this.

I note Hess's passing as a kind of mea culpa. The last time I spoke to him, many years ago, we had a pretty nasty exchange. At a party for FAIR, John and I threw around countries we thought the US would hit next. A dopey parlor game, I thought. But the mere concept of the US invading or destroying another country clearly enraged John, who was, among many things, quite passionate. So when I suggested that North Korea would put up a fight and would not easily submit, John erupted, "That's fucking ridiculous! We'd crush them. Don't be so fucking stupid!" Taken aback by his anger, I countered that the North Koreans did a pretty good job the last time 'round, and while they might be poor, I couldn't imagine them simply folding under a US assault.

"That's just bullshit!" said John, his small face turning dark pink. Now I was pissed and wanted to tell him to get fucked, but instead I curtly remarked, "Whatever, John," and waved him off.

What a fun party that was!

A few years after this, someone at LBO Talk, a discussion list I belong to, mentioned Hess in a thread, prompting me to inject some really toxic remarks about his person (remarks that, mercifully, have turned to ether). I was petty and harsh, as well as being in a dark emotional place at the time, and I truly regret those comments as well as that stupid exchange in the FAIR office long ago. Because, at bottom, John Hess was generous and supportive.

When I quit the comedy scene in the mid-80s and began my political writing life by tapping out weekly blasts for the East Village freebie, Downtown, I was hired by The New York Observer on a probationary basis to create a "young, edgy" media column (as then-editor John Sicher put it to me). And there to guide me was John Hess, who shared an office with Doug Ireland (who once burst through the door and kicked my briefcase across the room, before plopping down and making numerous calls). John was meticulous with my copy, forcing me to sweat over every word, every comma. I resisted somewhat since I was in love with my rather florid prose, but John showed me how to make it tighter and punchier. After four practice columns, none of which saw print, Sicher paid me and cancelled the project. Apparently, I was too raw for those soft peach pages. I felt like a failure, but John was very encouraging, telling me to never quit, to keep writing no matter what ("Shit like this is part of the business"). I'd run into him on a semi-regular basis at the FAIR office where he'd drop by to read and chat. And then there was that party . . .

So farewell John, and my deepest apologies for being a dick. You had what it took. RIP.