Critic was champion of great authors

Literary and cultural critic John Leonard, an early champion of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other authors, and so consumed and informed by books that Kurt Vonnegut once praised him as “the smartest man who ever lived,” died Wednesday night at age 69.

His stepdaughter, Jen Nessel, said Thursday that he died at the Mount Sinai Hospital from complications from lung cancer.

A former union activist and community organizer, Leonard was an emphatic liberal whose career began in the 1960s at the conservative National Review and continued at countless other publications, including The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly. He was also a TV critic for New York magazine, a columnist for Newsday and a commentator for “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Leonard had the critic's most fortunate knack of being ahead of his time. He was the first major reviewer to assess Morrison's fiction and the first major U.S. critic to write about Marquez. Leonard was also an early advocate of Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and other female writers.

His good work was appreciated. When Morrison traveled to Stockholm in 1993 to collect her Nobel Prize, she brought Leonard along, “one of the most incredible experiences of his life,” Leonard's stepdaughter said. Studs Terkel, who died Oct. 31, once called him “a literary critic in the noblest sense of the word, where you didn't determine whether a book was ‘good or bad' but wrote with a point of view of how you should read the book.”

Said Vonnegut: “When I start to read John Leonard, it is as though I, while simply looking for the men's room, blundered into a lecture by the smartest man who ever lived.”

Leonard's own books included “Black Conceit,” “This Pen for Hire” and “Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures.”