Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The premature death at 69—though it would have been premature at any age—of Howard Kissel is a severe loss to everyone involved in the theater, interested in theater, and relative or friend of his. Whenever Howard was at a play, before the beginning or during intermission, a small crowd of chatty admirers assembled around him as they did around few other critics. Lovable as a human being, he managed to be so even as a critic, which, without being a milksop, is no small achievement.

An old joke has it that a pessimist sees only the holes in Swiss cheese, whereas an optimist sees only the cheese.  Perhaps there are also critics who manage to see the cheese above all, and the holes, if holes there are, only in second place. Howard was surely one of those.

He was a drama critic for some forty years, first at Women’s Wear Daily, then, for twenty years at the Daily News, and finally as a columnist at the Huffington Post. He also at various times reviewed film, opera, ballet, food, and books, the last of which he was particularly good at, and I wish he had done more often.

He also wrote books, about David Merrick, Stella Adler’s teachings, and Noel Coward, and was a frequent speaker or panelist on arts subjects. He also briefly taught Musical Theatre History at Marymount Manhattan College. Even more briefly, but delightfully, he played the protagonist’s manager in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Wherever he went, his shock of wavy silver hair was a cynosure, if not indeed a rallying point.

Politically, he became more and more conservative with the years, but did not allow this to cloud his aesthetic judgments, to the extent that it is humanly possible. He also kept up his interest in the arts, and kept exercising yet another of his talents—for friendship.

Howard Kissel was a true friend to everyone he knew: sympathetic, compassionate, and understanding. This last is important: one can be compassionate without full understanding, but full understanding helps immeasurably. And as if all that weren’t enough, he could also be very witty.

We saw quite a bit of each other. Often at restaurant meals, which was also one we shared at our penultimate get together. The cuisine was quite undistinguished, but Howard, who was also quite a good cook in his own right, enjoyed it a lot more than I did. Eating was always a serious thing for him, and here too he uttered his famous rapt: “This is delicious.” As for our last shared experience, it was a performance of the ballet Romeo & Juliet, which thoroughly pleased Howard, but I found quite deficient in Peter Martins’s choreography, its inability to tell a story in dance, and in the dreadful set by a supposedly leading Danish artist.

But one of the best things I know was chatting with Howard on the telephone. Some people, perfectly pleasant in person, are not so good on the phone. They go on too long or hang up too soon, are too discursive but do not properly listen, or simply don’t think of certain interesting things they would have brought up in a tete-a-tete.

Howard, however, was perfect on the phone, and always good for a stimulating conversation. It is a good thing that these talks, which in our earlier days could go deep into the night, were not long distance. They could have bankrupted both of us. Perhaps kindred to it was his admirably cozy way of chairing both the drama critics’ and film critics’ circles, which no one else has ever straddled.

The especially nice thing was discussing theater with him. Even though we belonged to very different schools of criticism, his tolerance made my strictness as opposed to his indulgence acceptable to him, and his unassuming way made that indulgence somehow acceptable to me. It was wonderful when we did agree, and never annoying when we didn’t. And we had terrific laughs together, many about the reviews by some of our well-paid colleagues, whereas he and I were both eventually treated shabbily by the media we had dedicated so much to.

While his initially pleasant marriage to the late Christine, violinist and ceramist, was still functional—she having later become a rather nutty recluse in the upstate country house, while he soldiered on in the city apartment so cluttered with decades-old newspapers she had amassed that even the dog had to fight his way through to the door—the Kissels and the Simons had many joyous dinners together. But out of respect for Christine, who never even set foot any more in the city, Howard kept those mounds of newspapers till the day she died, though when some utility like the fridge broke down, he felt too ashamed to let a repairman in to see the mess. And that is another good thing about him: he provided one with a veritable trove of bizarrely funny anecdotes. For example, about the leaky roof in the kitchen of their country house, which they couldn’t afford to have repaired, and merely had some sort of tarpaulin to keep the rain off their meals.

Or there was the time when he could finally afford to buy a rickety jalopy ready for the junkyard, and he proudly told us how they could now take extensive snail-speed trips to some neighboring town along sparsely traveled back roads.

But memories, alas, are not quite as good as living company. And so, sadly, I must cite yet another talent of Howard’s: the ability to be missed most intensely—perhaps more than one could miss any other friend. May he rest in the peace he brought to everyone he knew: sharing it with us, and himself enjoying it to the utmost.                
                                                                                                                                                                     It is of some comfort to recall that the final chapters of his life comprised a loving visit with his sisters in Florida, and a greatly savored class reunion in California that also involved other delightful experiences in several Western locations, and can be read about in his last Huffington Post column.

One can truly think of him as having spread and enjoyed good cheer from coast to coast. And how to sum him up, now that he is gone? Noel Coward has a little-known play called This Was a Man. Of Howard it can be said: This was a mensch.


  1. Say whatever you like about him as a person, but as David Merrick's former assistant who was actually IN the room when numerous events Kissel reports allegedly took place, I think his place as a writer is right next to Jayson Blair's.

    Jon Maas

  2. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

  3. Uncensored indeed. Did you mean to praise Howard or to bury him? How could you use this moment to comment on his wife and his marriage in such a nasty way? And how sad that you chose to violate his privacy with your tidbits on his home, to which you were invited as a friend. Howard deserved far better from you.

  4. A beautifully written remembrance, Mr. Simon. Of this portion, I can say that it echoes my own, more provincial experience: "And we had terrific laughs together, many about the reviews by some of our well-paid colleagues, whereas he and I were both eventually treated shabbily by the media we had dedicated so much to."