American journalism lost one of its finest practitioners, The New York Times lost its conscience, and I lost a good friend and mentor last night with the death of John L. Hess, who died in his sleep at the age of 87.
John, who only recently finished a devastating and entertaining book on his years at the New York Times (My Times: a Memoir of Dissent, worked right up to the end, reading incisive and wryly witty columns on WBAI, and filing equally important commentaries on national and global events on his own website “John L Hess Dissents” (www.johnlhess.blogspot.com). His last piece on the site, “Let Them Eat Sushi,” lambasted a Times restaurant critic for swooning over the $500 sushi plate at a new sushi joint in the city, which he awarded four stars, noting that the same critic had also swooned, in a budget eating column, about the $2 sushi of another restaurant, which he gave no star to. “One might say that the stars are based on price more than on the quality of the food,” Hess wrote archly. Typically, he also noted that the restaurant that charges $500 for a plate of raw fish pays less for a weeks work to its dishwashers.
His penultimate blog column, dated Dec. 28, “Uncle Scrooge,” was about the Tsunami disaster: “I can’t get over it. We tell the wealthier countries of the world to chip in billions for the victims of this catastrophe, and then we toss three million into the kitty. No doubt we’ll shell out a bit more, but don’t hold your breath. It’s not high on our national agenda. Leaders of both parties are visible on our TV screens with their hands our – but it’s relief from taxes that they’re asking – or more federal spending in their own district. Call us Uncle Skinflint.”
John was the kind of journalist you rarely see any more-intensely committed to his craft, both as reporter and writer, and as human being. He had no interest in promotions and power-remaining a reporter all his career and shunning the chance for a private office that comes with senior editorship. He was always willing to push for the truth-a habit that ended up getting him put onto beats that were meant, probably, to drive him away. Instead, as when John was put on the food beat by his bosses at the Times, he, with his food expert wife Karen, turned exile into opportunity, going after the corruption and inanity that are endemic in the New York restaurant and restaurant reviewing complex.
As an investigative reporter, John was nothing short of exemplary. Less of a self-promoter than his contemporaries, Jimmy Breslin and the late great Jack Newfield, his expose of New York State’s nursing home scandals stands today as a model of what an aggressive and uncompromising Fourth Estate can do if it wants to, and is easily the equal in importance to anything they or other great journalists have done.
While his writing could be caustic, John in person was a warm and gentle human being with a marvelous sense of humor.
Once, when I lived in Hong Kong, back in the early 1990’s, John passed through on a trip back from Vietnam, where he had gone with his photographer daughter. He was anxious to see China, and I offered to take him for a short hop into Guangdong for an overnight stay in Guangzhou.
While there we made a quick runout into the countryside so he could see how peasants were living in the new “get rich quick” era after Deng Xiao-ping’s decision to promote entrepreneurialism, and then that night, went to a night club to see what the new rich were doing. Typically, John wanted to meet the rock band that performed that evening. We went with them back to their apartment, and got to learn a bit about the rock counterculture flourishing in the wake of all the new money pouring into such clubs.
The next day, we headed back by train to Hong Kong. As it happened, I saw our train would stop right at the station near my apartment, so I suggested that we disembark there and go to my flat for a meal and to meet my wife, Joyce and daughter Ariel, before taking John to his downtown hotel in Kowloon. He agreed.
Unfortunately, we had no phone and we were already on the train, so I had no chance to notify my wife of this change in plans. Bad idea.
When we arrived at the door, the house was a mess.
My young daughter, nine at the time, was in her underwear (it was summer, hot and muggy), newspapers were all over the floor, and she was about to cook dinner. As it happened, my wife had decided to let Ariel plan, shop for, and cook dinner that night. Her menu of choice–chicken tenders, snow peas, bamboo shoots and noodles.
John was a gentleman about the intrusion. He apologized for the surprise visit, ignored Ariel to spare her embarrassment, and waited patiently for the feast.
After dressing more appropriately, Ariel proceeded to sauté the chicken with the snow peas, and to separately steam the bamboo shoots and cook the noodles.
She delivered the plates to the table and we sat down to eat.
John, a true epicure of the first order and the bane of pretentious cooks everywhere, asked his young hostess how she’d done the “splendid” chicken. “I cooked them in their own juices,” my daughter replied proudly.
“Precisely right!” John exclaimed, “and marvelously done! And what are these?” He lifted a pointed bamboo stalk with his chopsticks.
“Young bamboo stalks,” my daughter said.
John inquired how she had shopped for them, and when she said she had selected them individually at the local wet market, asked her what the criterion was.
“They have to be young and fresh,” was the answer.
“That explains why they are so tender,” he told her. “And what are these?” He pointed to the noodles piled on the plate.
“Space noodles,” my daughter informed him seriously.
“Without missing a beat, the former New York Times food critic said, “A perfect complement to a delightful entrée!”