You asked for memories of John Heilpern. I thought you and some members of FOBS might be interested in this obituary of him I wrote for the Daily Telegraph. I don’t know if it has appeared in the paper yet, because we don’t get UK papers in Majorca any more.
JOHN HEILPERN, who has died of lung cancer in New York aged 78, was a talented feature writer, critic and interviewer for newspapers and magazines in Britain and the United States and wrote bold and entertaining books about Peter Brook and John Osborne.
He interviewed many theatrical giants, first for The Observer, where he worked for ten years and then, after he moved to New York in 1980, for Vanity Fair and the New York Observer.
He won a British Press Award for a memorable double interview over lunch with the great theatrical knights, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, when they were appearing together in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in 1977. Richardson arrived on a motorbike and Heilpern looked on in semi-detached amusement as both men acted out (perhaps over-acted) their parts in what he presented as a short comic play, complete with stage directions.
For The Observer, where he was much admired by the editor, David Astor, the people he interviewed included Rudolf Nureyev, Graham Greene, Henry Moore and Vanessa Redgrave. He would report progress on the interview as it went along, making readers feel they were part of it all.
He left The Observer in 1976 to become assistant director to Peter Hall at the newly opened National Theatre in his revival of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, starring Albert Finney. He was to continue theatrical work on Broadway, working as a librettist for Michael Bennett, the musical theatre director and choreographer of A Chorus Line.
For his column, “Out to Lunch,” in Vanity Fair he interviewed the likes of Tom Stoppard, Glenn Close, Jackie Collins, Stephen Daldry and thriller writer Michael Connelly. For many years he wrote a weekly column in the New York Observer that was much admired and closely followed. Michael Coveney, the doyen of British theatre critics, wrote on Heilpern’s death:
“As a writer of zest, erudition and verbal felicity, he compares only to Kenneth Tynan and John Lahr.”
John David Heilpern was born in Manchester on April 3 1942, the younger son of Maurice Heilpern, a bookmaker, and his wife Rachel (nee Berkovitch). He was educated at the Stand grammar school in the city before reading law at Hertford College, Oxford. Even after living abroad for more than half his life, he remained a devoted supporter of Manchester City.
For his classic book, Conference of the Birds, he travelled with the director, Peter Brook, on a marathon tour of Africa in search of the roots of theatre and new dramatic forms, accompanied by a troupe of actors that included Helen Mirren. Starting in Algiers, they crossed the Sahara desert and worked with tribal villagers in six West African countries. Published in 1977, it was described by the Sunday Telegraph as “one of the best books on theatre ever written.”
In 2000 he published a collection oof his best pieces, How Good is David Mamet?
His other major book, a biography of the misanthropic playwright John Osborne, A Patriot for Us, was published in 2006. It was authorised by Osborne’s widow, Helen Dawson, whom Heilpern had known on The Observer. She provided him with the playwright’s diaries and notebooks and some hilarious anecdotes. It was named theatre book of the year in Britain and hailed by Duncan Fallowell in the Daily Telegraph as “mind-boggling” and “sensationally enjoyable” and by other reviewers as “compelling,” “masterful” and “what a literary biography ought to be.”
He was married three times. First, from 1968-77, to Ruth Myers, a costume designer for theatre and films, then to Joan Juliet Buck (1977-88), a writer on Vanity Fair and later editor-in-chief of French Vogue. He met Sydney Weinberg, an architectural historian, in 1995 and they married in 2016.
A former Observer colleague said of Heilpern: “He was a big man, quiet with a gentle manner that was sometimes pierced by shafts of dry humour that took his listener by surprise.” His wife said: “John’s incisive writing and sharp wit were laced with a healthy dose of cynicism and profound warmth.”
He leaves her and a daughter from his first marriage.
John Heilpern, born April 3 1942, died January 7 2021
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