Jerry Tallmer, Giant of New York Arts Criticism, Dead at 93

Jerry Tallmer at his 2012 induction into the Players Club Hall of Fame. | THE VILLAGER

Jerry Tallmer at his 2012 induction into the Players Club Hall of Fame. | THE VILLAGER

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | An oversize presence in the world of New York journalism for six decades, Jerry Tallmer, died on November 9 — a month shy of his 94th birthday — at the Dewitt Hospice on the Upper East Side.

Tallmer was a founding editor of the Village Voice in 1955, serving as its first film and drama critic and its associate editor. In later years, he was a regular and prolific contributor to Gay City News’ family of newspapers, including the Villager, Downtown Express, and Chelsea Now.

While at the Voice, Tallmer founded the Obie Awards to honor the best in Off-Broadway theater. During his lengthy career, Tallmer interviewed literally everyone who was anyone in theater, as well as countless figures in film, jazz, literature, politics, and even sports.

A driving force in Village Voice’s early years, Obies founder ended career at the Villager, Gay City News, Chelsea Now, Downtown Express

According to his daughter, Abby Tallmer, a freelance editor and writer who lives in the Village, he reviewed and brought widespread attention to the first ever of Jean Genet’s “The Black,” and the first US staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Her father, Abby added, played a similar role when doing the first write-ups on the work of Edward Albee and on Tom Stoppard’s work in the US.

When Stoppard first came to New York and had nowhere to stay, Tallmer arranged for him to sleep on a cot in the Voice’s office.

But after seven years at the fledgling alternative weekly, Tallmer, a new father of twins, moved to the New York Post — then under the liberal leadership of publisher Dorothy Schiff — to make decent money.

Starting the Voice was the idea of Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf. Norman Mailer was an early financial backer of the paper and had a weekly column. Tallmer was quickly brought on board. He had honed his newspaper skills early on in the Ivy League as an editor of the Dartmouth.

“Jerry was somebody very special,” Fancher said. “A great loss… Jerry was a wonderful person.”

Tallmer and Mailer famously feuded, in large part because the bombastic Mailer would always turn in the copy for his column, “An Advertisement for Myself,” so late on deadline and sloppily written. Mailer would then get furious and blame Tallmer if it wasn’t proofread perfectly.

“Norman would come in very late with his copy,” Fancher said. “And Jerry was working 20-hour days… Norman was crazy in those days, nutty.”

Tallmer worked such long hours that he would sometimes just abruptly plop down on the Voice’s floor and catch a much-needed nap.

Mailer, in a closed-door meeting, told editor Wolf and Fancher that it was either him or Tallmer — that one of them had to go. They told Mailer to take a hike.

“He was very important to us,” Fancher said of Tallmer. “I don’t think we could have put the paper out without him.” Had Tallmer stayed at the Voice, he added, he would have succeeded Wolf as the paper’s editor.

“Dan was nine years older than I was,” Fancher said. “He wasn’t well. Once we began to make a little money, Jerry would have made a better salary.”

Jules Feiffer, the famed cartoonist, who was discovered by Tallmer, recalled the Voice’s beginnings — and how Tallmer helped create what came to be known as New Journalism.

As they were moving ahead with the idea of starting the Voice, Feiffer recalled, Fancher, Wolf, and Mailer “looked around for someone who knew something about putting out a paper, because Ed, Dan, and Norman were intellectuals and theorists, so they didn’t know about this other stuff — like every Wednesday, your paper somehow gets on the newsstands. So they hired Jerry, who, at least, had worked on a newspaper once. And by the time I walked in the door a year later, Jerry had taught himself what he needed to know to put a paper together that didn’t read or look like any other.

“And since a cultural organ operating out of the Village must have a critic who reviews plays, Jerry took on that job, as well. And in no time, in a voice and style that was not lofty, not all-knowing, not out to prove how superior the critic was to the play under review, Jerry introduced openness to theater criticism… He helped invent the kind of voice that, within a few years, almost everyone was trying out in one form or another. Talking to the reader as if he’s a friend. He was my friend. He and his comrades at 22 Greenwich Avenue changed my life. And I am but one of many.”

Laid off from the Post by Rupert Murdoch in 1993 — when the Australian media mogul broke the newspaper’s union and fired more than 250 employees — Tallmer became a contributor to the Villager, and in time to its sister papers, as well — Downtown Express, Gay City News, and Chelsea Now.

Tom Butson, a former editor of the Villager, eagerly snapped up the renowned scribe upon hearing he had been cut by Murdoch. Butson and his wife, Elizabeth, owned the Villager from 1992 until 1999.

“We were thrilled when Jerry Tallmer joined us as a columnist for the Villager in 1994,” she said. “They don’t make them like Jerry anymore. He was the consummate columnist. You hardly had to edit his copy. Knowledgeable just about on anything on New York. His big love was the theater and New York City memories. Mention a name and he would tell you a story about that person. His prose glided and treated you with some tender turn of phrase.”

Tallmer continued writing for the four-newspaper group under their next publisher, John W. Sutter, who owned them until two years ago.

“One of New York City’s greatest writers of the past 60 years is gone,” Sutter said. “Over the years, Jerry Tallmer regaled us with his unparalleled understanding of the New York City arts scene, its lineages, its deep wiring. Jerry understood talent and wrote about it with intelligence, wit, and an unstoppable energy.”

Tallmer was married four times, with the first three marriages ending in divorce. His first marriage was to Peggy Muendel, who was an “eccentric artist,” according to Abby.

He next married Louise Tilis, a freelancer at the Voice who wrote its “Voice Feminine” column, with whom he had his children. She died in 1992, years after their divorce. His son and Abby’s twin, Matthew, of Alexandria, Virginia, is a congressional staff investigator.

Tallmer was next married for about 20 years to Marsha Levant, the daughter of Oscar Levant, a pianist and composer who acted as well, in films such as “An American in Paris.”

For the past 20 years, Tallmer was married to Frances Monica Tallmer, a dancer. They met at an art opening at Art Insight Gallery where Frances was doing PR at the time.

“He loved writing,” Frances said the day after Tallmer’s death. “He was a very kind and gentle person, really. I loved him. I miss him terribly. I can’t get over it.”

As a columnist, Tallmer deftly interwove his memories and personal experiences together with contemporary events, providing a unique perspective. His pieces were always written fluidly and beautifully. In a 2003 profile of Cherry Jones and Jeff Weiss, as they co-starred in Peter Gaitens’ stage adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s “Flesh and Blood,” Tallmer explored not only their careers but also a friendship that Weiss described as loving Jones “as much as a gay man can love a gay woman.”

In October 2012, in recognition of his pioneering theater criticism, Tallmer was inducted into the Players Club Hall of Fame, where he was effusively praised by Albee as the country’s preeminent theater writer.

Tallmer’s last piece of writing, written this past summer, was published in the Villager. “Blue Moon Johnny; I wasn’t my brother’s keeper” was a reflection on his difficult early family life. Still busy into his 94th year, Tallmer worked on a laptop with the help of Jonathan Slaff, an actor and theatrical press agent, who would assist him remotely with any computer problems.

“I installed an application on his computer called TeamViewer,” Slaff said. “If he couldn’t figure out how to make the text larger or needed to rename a file, I’d help him.”

Even while at the nursing facility, Tallmer continued to pen previews of plays — by reading the scripts.

Last year, Tallmer previewed “Daylight Precision,” a play at Theater for the New City about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. For that one, the cast members all visited his room at the nursing facility to be interviewed. The play held special significance for Tallmer because he had been aloft in a US military plane when the bomb detonated and had chillingly witnessed the horror of the mushroom cloud.

When I spoke to him two days before his death, Tallmer, bedridden and very weak, said he hoped to get his laptop back soon and start writing again. Slaff brought him the computer just hours before his death.

“He had called Friday, asking could I look up Tom Stoppard’s new play and could I bring him the laptop,” Slaff said. “Sunday, I brought it to him. I stayed for an hour, and then I left.”

A few hours later, Tallmer was gone.

“A nurse said he had called and said he knocked the laptop off his table tray and onto the floor,” Slaff said. “I think he was trying to look up the Tom Stoppard show. I think he was trying to open Google. Jerry loved Tom Stoppard — and Tom loved Jerry, too.”

Albert Amateau, a veteran reporter at the Villager who retired several years ago, said Tallmer was the tops.

“He was a consummate newspaper man, in my opinion,” Amateau said. “He could to anything. He could report, write, edit, layout, design. I loved him.”

Lacking a pension due to Murdoch’s management of the Post, Tallmer always had to keep writing — to survive as well as for his obvious sheer joy in it.

“He always needed money,” Amateau recalled, “and health insurance.”

One Sunday afternoon years back, Amateau, who faced a workweek with an especially heavy writing load, came in to this newspaper group’s office to work on an article. He found Tallmer there, writing away, as he usually did on Sundays.

“Why don’t you get a life, Tallmer?” Amateau cracked wise.

Tallmer looked up from his keyboard and, with a light laugh, said, “This is my life.”