John Simon, Fiery Arts Critic Who Loved to Lacerate, Dies at 94

John Simon OBIT - Photofest - H 2019

The "most poisonous pen on Broadway" wrote for New York magazine from 1968 until he was fired in 2005.

John Simon, the theater and film critic known for his lacerating reviews and often withering assessment of performers' physical appearance, has died. He was 94.

His wife, Patricia Hoag Simon, said her husband died Sunday night at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. She said the couple was having lunch at a local dinner theater when he fell ill.

Simon served as the chief theater critic at New York magazine for nearly 40 years before being dismissed in 2005. "I expected it," he said when asked if the decision took him by surprise. "Then again, my birthday is coming up, so I didn't think it was a very good birthday present."

Simon then worked at Bloomberg for five years before being fired in 2010. In his later years, he worked for several newspapers outside New York City.

Some might call him tart and unsentimental. Others might say curmudgeonly or belittling. Either way, it was a rite of passage in the theater community to find your work butchered by Simon. Time magazine called him "the most poisonous pen on Broadway."

He called 2000's Jesus Christ Superstar "a production so stillborn I defy God himself to resurrect it." In another bit of snark, Simon attacked the lead in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999: "Hard as it is to define charm, I can define its opposite in two words: Anthony Rapp."

Few got a pass. In a 1998 production of Twelfth Night, he wrote of Helen Hunt: "She wears a permanently befuddled expression, scrunches up her eyes as though under a barrage of grapefruits, and always leads with her head as if to butt her lines into an enemy goal." He once compared Liza Minnelli's face to a beagle's and Kathleen Turner to "a braying mantis."

Sylvia Miles famously dumped a plate of food — said to contain quiche Lorraine, steak tartare, brie and potato salad — on his head in 1973 after he called her a "party girl and gate-crasher" in a negative review of her off-Broadway performance as a loopy ad exec in Nellie Toole & Co.

"This incident was so welcomed by the Simon-hating press that the anecdote has been much retold," Simon once recalled. "She herself has retold it a thousand times. And this steak tartare has since metamorphosed into every known dish from lasagna to chop suey. It's been so many things that you could feed the starving orphans of India or China with it."

He angered the powerful, including legendary producer and director Joseph Papp — who once asked in a 1972 letter to New York magazine, "Why the hell doesn't he grow up?" — and playwright Edward Albee, who wrote in The New York Times that "Mr. Simon's disapproval of my plays has been a source of comfort to me over the years."

In 1981, an ad in a Hollywood trade appeared accusing Simon of being "racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, vicious and derisive." It was signed by 300 artists, apparently upset that Simon's review of Richard III complained that an actress in the show "should never be cast as anything but an itinerant gefilte fish with a nervous condition."

He also hated Star Wars. "I feel they are so bad because [the movies] are completely dehumanizing," Simon said on ABC's Nightline. "Special effects are the tail of the dog, which should not wag the whole animal. When you have a film that is 90 percent special effects ... you might as well be watching an animated cartoon, because finally, all those special effects begin to look unreal."

And he called Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford "three lousy actors." 

In response to his death, many in the theater community posted memories of run-ins with Simon, including Brent Spiner, who on Twitter recalled being described by the critic "like a good high school actor in a bad college production."

Simon defended his sharp elbows, arguing that the theater was becoming dumbed down and that critics needed to have a sense of humor. He said he was unwilling to hold his tongue if the audience lost out.

"A critic has to be as good as any writer," Simon told the American Theatre Critics Association. "A critic has to be as good as any good teacher" and a "critic should be a thinker, to know as much about the world as possible. You should think about what's going on in the world and reflect on it as it pertains to a play."

But Simon also stood for the rule of law. When other professional critics reviewed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in 2011 before it had officially opened on Broadway, he called their move "unfair" and "discourteous to other critics." Reviewing before being invited to the show, he argued, is "like grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked."

Even other critics sometimes found him distasteful. In 1969, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted to refuse him membership. The following fall, the body relented and allowed him in. (The circle also voted to keep him in the group in 2010 when he technically was no longer working for a publication published in New York City, part of the group's bylaws.)

The 2013 death of Roger Ebert prompted Simon to push back at the accolades Ebert got for believing that a common man's opinion of art was as valid as a highfalutin critic.

"I firmly believe that the film critic should have a special expertise, like any kind of art critic. Like a physician, he should know more about medicine than a layman who picks an over-the-counter drug for a cold," Simon wrote. "The opinions of common men about film may be of genuine interest, but are of no major importance."

From 1950-55, Simon taught at Harvard, the University of Washington and M.I.T. He also taught at Bard College and the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s. His articles appeared in everything from Town and Country to Esquire and the Weekly Standard.

He was the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Uneasy Stages, a collection of his reviews from 1963-73, and John Simon on Theatre, which included the next three decades. Other books include John Simon on Music and John Simon on Film.

Simon was born on May 12, 1925, in Yugoslavia, and he and his family moved to the U.S. in 1941. He received his B.A. in English, as well as his master's and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard. He was a George Polk Award winner and a Fulbright Fellow. In his last post just before Halloween, he wrote, "One person's critic is another person's crackpot."

Simon began by writing critiques for Commonweal and The Hudson Review. He also reviewed for New York's Channel 13 but was forced out in 1967 because the station considered his notices misanthropic.

After being fired by Bloomberg, he found employment at The Westchester Guardian and Yonkers Tribune and continued to file reviews. On his blog, he also continued to annoy.

In one post in July 2014, he said, "One of the worst things a person can be is stupid." He followed that thought up with, "Right next to it, as far as I'm concerned, is obesity," and then wrote a screed defending slimness that was insulting and used phrases like "a walking tub of lard."

Simon was accused of many things over his career — elitism, objectification and insensitivity. But never about not caring. In one of his blog posts in 2013, he defended his toughness because he cared.

"A critical sting is not like a slight flesh wound, treatable with ointment. If intentionally negative, it has to sting. This is the only way it is noticeable, the only way it could make a difference. That is to say if any criticism makes a difference."

His wife suggested some ways to celebrate her husband's life: "Go see a play or read a great book or poem or watch some tennis in his honor — he loved all those things."