I was saddened to learn early this morning of the death of my old friend and colleague from Time Magazine, the great Robert Hughes. Bob was the primus inter pares of the distinguished Time cultural staff at the end of the glory years in the 1980s, a back-of-the-book gang that also featured the film critics Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss, pop music critic Jay Cocks, TV critic Bill Henry, and feature writer Gerald Clarke, all under the peerless editorial tutelage of our senior editor, the late Martha Duffy.
Although he was a big star, the darling of Manhattan’s editorial and literary salons, Bob immediately made me feel a welcome part of the crew, booming out “Hello, maestro!” in the dulcet tones of Oz whenever we’d run into each other on the 26th floor of the Time and Life Building in Rockefeller Center. Although we didn’t interact much socially — in those days, either Bob or I or both were on a plane to somewhere in the country or the world pretty much every week — we, like our other colleagues, were bound by our love for the magazine and the great editors we worked for, including Ray Cave, our managing editor, and the legendary Henry Anatole Grunwald, the editor-in-chief.
Stories about Bob abounded, some of them possibly even true, such as his first meeting somewhere in Italy with the distinguished Austrian emigrant Grunwald, to which Hughes showed up wearing a black leather jacket and riding a motorcycle. He never lost his love for classical culture (his last book was about Rome); or for pantsing a phony, literarily speaking; or his intellectual gusto. Alas, he apparently never quite recovered from a near-fatal 1999 car crash in his native Australia, and it’s disheartening to think that the last years of his life were spent under physically diminished circumstances.
A fellow member of the Irish diaspora — “Bob Hughes was not some Irish pub brawler, and although he might be mistaken for Crocodile Dundee in Belgravia, in Sydney there was never a question: he was patrician,” writes Peter Carey today in the Guardian – Bob was unapologetically pugnacious when it came to articulating and defending what he believed in. The Daily Beast has a nice roundup of Hughes-isms. Here’s one that pretty much sums him up in his own words:
I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist s***, no matter how much the demos love it.
Rest in peace, Bob, and many thanks.