The thing to know about Terry Teachout is that he knew everything. Whether it was pop culture or high culture, from the ballet and the opera down to John Wayne pictures from the 1940s, he marinated in all of it. Theater, music, literature, movies: there is so much sublime art to consider that one lifetime can’t possibly be enough to savor it all, but Terry came as close as any of us are likely to, and consequently he lived a model life.
Terry was a superb biographer and playwright but was best known for the theater reviews he wrote for The Wall Street Journal from 2003 until his death. He died in his sleep yesterday at sixty-five. Far too young.
Such was his arts knowledge that prodigious is an inadequate adjective; encyclopedic seems nearer the mark. When I first started reading him in the 1990s, when he often appeared in The Weekly Standard and National Review, I pictured him coming from the sort of family in which Dad is the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Mom is a distinguished professor of European literature. But Terry came from a blue-collar background. A product of Sikeston, Missouri, and a 1979 graduate of that state’s Baptist institution William Jewell College, he was the son of a hardware salesman and a secretary. Scarcely daring to dream about what he would one day become, he slipped aimlessly from one job to another—now a bank teller, now a bass player in a jazz band, now a crisis-line counselor for an Illinois mental-health center. Yet he rose quickly after he started writing about jazz and classical music for The Kansas City Star in the early Eighties. By 1985, he had secured an editing job at Harper’s magazine in New York, and thence he moved to the New York paper the Daily News to write first editorials, later dance and classical music criticism. Meanwhile he wrote libretti, penned warmly received biographies of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and George Balanchine, and late in life pulled off the spectacular feat of conquering a new medium by writing the acclaimed Armstrong play Satchmo at the Waldorf (2011), which continues to be widely performed. A second play, Billy and Me, about the playwright William Inge, followed six years later.
I didn’t know Terry well, except as a reader—my favorite of his works was his astute 2003 book The Skeptic: A Biography of H.L. Mencken, which explored the gap between Mencken’s public persona as a rakehell and his quiet, bookish existence in Baltimore—but he continued to amaze and delight me with his warm appreciations of everything under the sun, not only in the Journal but also in his monthly column in Commentary, in his contributions to The New Criterion, and especially on his nimble blog About Last Night.
In the seventeen years I’ve been a professional critic, I have often rolled my eyes at the self-aggrandizing follies and superciliousness and grinding sanctimony that seem to be the occupational hazards of the trade, but Terry was the opposite of pretentious. Rather than turn his back on his modest background, he capitalized on it by never forgetting (as many others do) that there is much more to the theater than the offerings in New York. His Journal columns celebrated productions from other cities and even small towns such as Spring Green, Wisconsin, whose American Players Theatre he frequently praised.
In the last couple of years I had the occasional chat with Terry on Twitter, where he wrote with great sorrow, but also great beauty, about the relentless health crises of his late wife, Hilary. Hilary (who didn’t wish to be a character in the public eye and so was referred to while alive only as Mrs. T) suffered from a horrendous disease that required her to undergo a double lung transplant and died in March of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. Mourning her, and suffering additionally from the loss of human contact, Terry wrote honestly and powerfully about his emotional state and continued to champion theater even as the medium was forced to reinvent itself for streaming media.
Terry was an amateur in the original sense: one who loves. His columns were all about sharing his love for the arts, but lately his blog posts informed readers that he had found a new love in life as well: Cheril. In a New Year’s Eve post two weeks ago, he wrote, “Six months ago Cheril Mulligan and I fell in love, and though I’ll always miss Hilary, my life is once again full and joyous.” He looked forward to taking her soon to a favorite vacation spot he’d visited with Hilary, Sanibel Island in Florida, and said, “I know she’ll love it—but for now I’m more than content to live in the present and revel in the return of good fortune to my once-charmed, twice-blessed life.” He added, “I don’t need to know what’s to come next, which is a blessing, since it’s not given to any of us to know that.”
He concluded with a benediction that exemplified his gregariousness, his joy, his warmth: “If like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that chance is in the saddle and rides mankind, then I hope the year to come treats you not unkindly, and that your lives, like mine, will be warmed by hope and filled with love—and if you feel otherwise, then I wish for you the very same thing. We all deserve to be loved on New Year’s Eve.” And always. The world of letters has lost one of its great men, and one of its kindest.