Nonconformist Conservative

Article excerpt

Ralph de Toledano, 1916-2007

I NEEDED A REVIEWER for Robert K. Landers's An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell. This was early 2004, and I was the assistant editor overseeing TAC's book pages. Landers's volume, about an important writer-author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy-who had an interesting political life, merited a review, but none of my literary contacts felt familiar enough with Farrell to take on the assignment. What was I to do?

I resorted to an old journalist's trick: I googled "James T. Farrell" and "conservative." Ralph de Toledano's name popped up. By then 88 years old, Toledano had known Farrell personally. ("A pleasant guy to drink with," he recalled in 1997, "unless you wanted to stay sober.") But was Toledano still writing, and would he even take a call from a 26-year-old assistant editor?

He was and he did. Toledano wasn't ready to be put out to pasture, and as I soon discovered, he could still write better than most journalists a quarter his age. Not only did he accept the Landers review, soon he was sending more pitches and completed articles than I could handle. The day in 2005 that Mark Felt was revealed as Deep Throat, Toledano called me to pitch a piece drawing on his own history with Felt-he had ghosted Felt's 1979 "autobiography," The FBI Pyramid. Toledano's energy was tremendous, and it extended to book projects as well: last year he published Cry Havoc!, an account of the Frankfurt School's influence upon American culture, and he was shopping around both a volume on Mark Twain and a memoir provisionally titled (after Lionel Trilling's book on E.M. Forster) Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

In the late 1930s, Toledano had been a student in Trilling and Jacques Barzun's legendary senior colloquium at Columbia University. His peers were as illustrious as his professors. Thomas Merton, later a Trappist monk and author of the spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain, was a friend and classmate-and a fellow aficionado of jazz. Toledano's first book, published in 1947 and still in print today, was the influential anthology Frontiers of Jazz. He would make his career as a political journalist, but perhaps his finest writing was as a music critic. He had the aptitude for it: a teenager he had for a time attended the Juilliard School.

His talent as a music critic may have been matched by his elegance as a poet. As a student, he twice won Columbia's elite Philolexian Prize for Poetry. Collections of his mature verse include Poems: You and I and The Apocrypha of Limbo. The latter title reflects the deeply religious grounding of Toledano's aesthetic sensibilities, a quality abundantly displayed by his music journalism as well. He was a man caught in creative tension between his Sephardic Jewish heritage-he was descended from an eminent line of rabbis-and the Christianity, particularly Catholicism, that he so much admired. In faith as in politics, Toledano's thought was marked by reflection, not dogma. He truly was, as he once described himself, a "nonconformist conservative" in the very best sense.

But his literary and spiritual works are easily overlooked since it is as a political journalist that Ralph de Toledano is best known. He started out as a member of the near-communist Left, though he was never a Party member. The Hitler-Stalin pact put paid to his red sympathies, and as the 1940s progressed, he journeyed rightward. By 1948, he was an assistant editor at Newsweek and a well-known anticommunist-one of only two then at Newsweek, the other being Karl Hess, whose own political odyssey would take him from the Goldwater Right to the libertarian side of the New Left.

Newsweek assigned Toledano to cover the perjury and espionage scandal surrounding former State Department official Alger Hiss, an assignment that changed Toledano's life by bringing him into contact with Hiss's accuser, the ex-Communist and then-Time senior editor Whittaker Chambers. …