The Local Lens
By Thom Nickels
Where do dead journalists go? Presumably they go where everyone else goes, but in the tightfisted, competitive fishbowl world of Philly journalism, once they disappear they are gone without a trace. Of course, there is the obituary, and/or the accompanying news story surrounding the event, but after that there seems to be a great silence. As a working journalist myself, why should I expect more? The answer to that is that I really don’t know.
I’m thinking of Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski, who died suddenly in his home in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, a couple of weeks ago. Sozanski wrote art criticism for The Inquirer for three long decades, and was a familiar face among Philly writers and reporters at press events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and other institutions. I saw Sozanski often at PMA, beginning in the early 1990s when opening press events for exhibitions were a bigger deal than they are today. In those days, press events for major PMA exhibitions included a 3 course lunch (with wine) in the museum dinning room while journalists listened to an array of speakers. At the conclusion of the luncheon, everyone went home with the official exhibition catalogue, which was often an expensive art book costing upwards of 35 dollars in the museum gift shop.
Philly journalists do not constitute one, big happy family; it is more like a disconnected, dysfunctional hierarchical family, which is to say that at those old time press events, you had Inquirer writers hanging with Inquirer or Daily News writers, while the scribes for the city’s alternative weeklies grouped together in lower cast huddles. Occasionally, writers who wrote for both publications would mix with both groups in a kind of cross pollination bliss. Magazine writers constituted their own special hierarchy, oblivious of newsprint’s "who’s who." But press event seating arrangements changed radically whenever a writer from The New York Times, or a foreign publication, visited. Suddenly the Inquirer writers would be seated off to the side, as if they wrote for supermarket tabloids. It was, in general, a good lesson in humility for all.
After Sozanski’s death, Stephan Salisbury wrote an Inquirer piece about Sozanski in which he stated that the critic was "not distracted by institutional marketing efforts or the city’s cultural boosterism." This is no small accomplishment, given the pressures to produce good reviews. Salisbury quoted Joseph J. Rishel, PMA’s senior curator of European painting before 1900. Rishel described Sozanski as being "very thoughtful and very shy." He also stated that Sozanski was "wary of institutional pressure on his critical writing."
During these press events I don’t think Sozanski and I exchanged any words beyond a cursory hello. Originally I interpreted this as an Inquirer "attitude" but that later changed. The art critic was indeed a shy person.
Going to press events and observing the habits of fellow journalists is like going to the zoo and familiarizing yourself with the habits of different animals. You learn to embrace the weirdness. At some of those early press events, I’d see Sozanski with Inquirer food critic Rick Nichols, never suspecting that years down the line people would confuse my name with his.
"You’re Rick Nichols, right?"
"Not exactly—I am an N-i-c-k-e-l-s, spelled like the Buffalo nickel. And it is Thom, not Rick."
My mind is on Sozanski because I just attended another PMA press event. Sozanski’s absence was noticeable. I last saw him over a month ago at another museum event, his last one as it turned out, and I thought to myself then that he didn’t look so good. In fact, for several months whenever I’d see him at these affairs I would think the same thing: He does not look good. And yet, I noticed that he also seemed a bit friendlier, a far cry from his former 1990s self when he would barely surface from those press event Inquirer buddy huddles.
At the latest press event, which showcased the work of fashion designer Patrick Kelly, I looked at the assembled journalists and saw quite a few faces I had never seen before. There’s always a new wave of what some veterans call kid journalists, first timers with Staples-purchased pads and pencils. The majority of them you will never see again but there will always be one or two who will go for the long haul. Among the veterans was Carol Saline of Philadelphia Magazine, who showed me her own Patrick Kelly-like suit made from buttons purchased at the museum store, and Bobbi Booker from The Philadelphia Tribune, who talked up the Pen and Pencil Club.
As I listened to Museum CEO Timothy Rub talk about Patrick Kelly, I thought to myself how nice it would have been to have heard a word or two about Sozanski, who had probably chalked up more hours roaming the halls of PMA than even the guards who have been stationed in the exhibition rooms for years. Nobody did speak of Sozanski, of course, not even "we" journalists, which struck me as noticeable, though not necessarily bad or good. This was about fashion design, after all, although it was still a press event, and because of that…I couldn’t help but think that the Sozanski spirit was near and called out for some kind of acknowledgment, perhaps a moment of silence.
The world of dead journalists is a big world. But nobody remembers a dead journalist like a living journalist, and that’s because so much of the public really doesn’t even read bylines. Most people just go straight into a column or article without bothering to see who wrote it. That’s why I can be called Rick Nichols, when the only restaurant review I’ve written in my life was the time I ordered steak tartar not knowing what it was, or at least thinking it was an off shot of New York strip steak when it was really raw steak mixed with spices and horseradish.
Sometimes I wonder if people even pay attention to journalists. Not too long ago I attended an event and happened to speak with an official and was referred to as Thom Cardwell. Now, I happen to know Thom Cardwell, but I was using T-h-o-m in my work long before Cardwell came on the scene, and yet here was another Rick Nichols moment. Of course, the minute the ID mishap occurred, I realized I knew why: I had forgotten to take off my long winter scarf and was wearing it like Cardwell is known to wear his large scarves.
While it is certainly true that nobody has control over their legacy after death, a journalist can be alive and still be called dead.
I am sure that I am not the only writer who has heard, "Are you still writing?" What people mean when they say this is that they haven’t seen your stuff in print, and so they wrongly assume that you’ve gone on to another career, like selling shoes or driving a trolley car. My answer to this question is always, "Yes, I’m still writing… are you still reading?"
As for Sozanski, I guess what I’m saying is that I wish, in an ideal world, that journalists were a little more like a close knit family, and that when one member dies there would be a reverent gesture done in their memory-- a group hug, a dance, or maybe even a howl at the moon.
But that might be too much to ask in today’s dysfunctional world.
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