Terry Teachout, b. February 6, 1956; d. January 13, 2022.
I met Terry Teachout at a restaurant in mid-town Manhattan in late 2010. I do not remember which restaurant. A book of mine had been nominated for an award, and I was there to attend the award lunch. Terry was one of the judges. I had almost cancelled my trip, because my team and I had a client scheduled to be executed the following month. We had already filed what we intended to file, but I'm superstitious about traveling in the shadow of an execution date. My wife told me I was being ridiculous (an observation she has frequent occasion to articulate), so I went. Lucky for me. It was the beginning of a dear friendship that, as of yesterday, has ended too soon.
When I arrived at whatever the restaurant was, my agent and editor were already there, talking to Terry in the foyer. I walked over and we introduced ourselves. I had recently finished reading his biography of Louis Armstrong, and I had been a regular reader of his essays in Commentary magazine. (A post from John Podhoretz, Commentary's editor, reports TT had more essays published in Commentary than any other author.). He wrote about music, theater, literature, and culture. He was a polymath, yet a modest, down to earth polymath who was at home in Manhattan as he was in one-light towns on the plains. I do not believe it is only in hindsight that I can say I perceived his humility on that first day we met.
On that day in 2010, I knew some of his work, but I had never met him, did not know he was a judge, and did not recognize him. When he held out his thick hand and said his name, I was awestruck. If you've read Pops, or seen his play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, you will probably understand why. I told him I had just finished reading his biography of Armstrong. I sounded like a kid in middle school with a crush, I think, and it only got worse. I had also recently read his Commentary article on Thelonius Monk. I loved Monk (and still do), but I thought TT's essay had been unfair to Oscar Peterson. I do not remember exactly what I said, or what he did in response. What I do know is that conversation about music was the first of dozens we would have over the next decade. We talked too about movies, novels, and politics, but never theater, as I've never been much of a theater-goer.
But that did not stop my wife, son, and me from seeing Satchmo when it was produced at Houston's Alley theater. I sent him a message saying how much we enjoyed it, and how impressed we were by Jerome Bates, who played Armstrong. That brief observation was all Terry needed to write two paragraphs about how amazing Bates was. He was an expert at pivoting a conversation about him to the subject of his writing.
Terry came to Houston to direct the premier. It was his directorial debut. By that time, his wife Hilary, whose years-long battle with pulmonary hypertension Terry wrote about on his blog, was too sick to travel, so Terry was in Houston solo. We had Tex-Mex food at El Tiempo, and Mexican food at Hugo's. (He did not distinguish, as best I could discern, between fancy food and plain, but between a good meal and not. He once sent me a note about a bag of hamburgers he had savored in his Manhattan apartment.)
When his biography of Duke Ellington was published a few years ago, he was in Texas again to promote it at the annual Texas Book Festival. I drove to Austin so we could visit. He wanted to go to breakfast and so I asked him the essential question when one goes to breakfast in Texas: American or Mexican? He couldn't decide, so we went to the Magnolia Cafe. This was back in the day when most Austin restaurants still started diners off with a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa -- in other words, it was in the dying days of when Austin really was still weird, before it had lost its essential character had become another example of unaffordable urban sprawl. (You can read Evan Mintz's take on that tragedy here.) Terry handed me a signed copy of Duke. He then handed me bound galleys of a book of mine scheduled to be published in the coming months. I had asked him to read it and write a blurb if he was so inclined. It was perfectly on brand: a nod to himself, and then a shift to another topic. In that blurb he had written: "Sooner or later, death touches every life. Sometimes, though, it comes in legions."
Terry and his wife Hilary thought they had finally won. She needed a double lung transplant, and she managed to live long enough to get to the top of the list. She went into the hospital at the dawn of the pandemic, got her two new lungs, and died days later without ever leaving intensive care. Like many of Terry's friends, I was worried he would not last long, because if it is possible to die of a broken heart, Terry's life was in danger. I began to check in with him much more frequently than I had before.
And then, the day after my birthday, in the summer of 2021, I got a message from Terry that began: "I have wonderful news, David: I'm crazy in love." He had met Cheril. The list of adjectives he used in that very long message describing her seemed to have no end. She is, he wrote, beautiful and "EXTREMELY smart." I stopped worrying. He was in love, and he was saved.
Less than six months after he sent me that text, he died. NPR described him as "one of the great cultural critics of the past half-century." I think that is true. He was also one of the greatest friends a human being could have. He was sixty-five years old.