UPDATED WITH NEW INFORMATION: Arthur Gelb, a visionary critic, reporter and editor at The New York Times for more than four decades, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan. He was 90. His death was confirmed by his son, Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. The elder Gelb’s passion for the culture and vibrancy of New York City defined him, and he requited that passion by endowing the Times with a proprietary interest in vigorously covering the artistic life of the city and making the culture report as important to the paper as its storied foreign coverage.
Beginning in 1944 as a reporter and later as assistant drama critic, head of the Metropolitan desk and through his final assignment as Managing Editor under his colleague and mentor A.M. Rosenthal, Gelb was chiefly responsible for shaping and directing the Times‘ cultural coverage. Early on, as assistant to the Times‘ legendary drama critic Brooks Atkinson, Gelb set his keen eye and ear to the discovery of fresh talent. Among those who caught his eye and received early and ongoing encouragement from the paper’s reporters and critics were an intellectual stand-up comic named Woody Allen; a Broadway ingenue named Barbra Streisand; an acerbic, potty-mouthed comic named Lenny Bruce; and a street-fighting, Shakespeare-quoting young producer named Joseph Papp.
With his wife, Barbara Gelb, Arthur co-wrote a massive two-volume biography of Eugene O’Neill, the first U.S. Nobel laureate in literature. For the newsroom as well, Gelb was relentless in finding and nurturing journalistic talent and was a constant font of ideas for coverage. The stars he developed included op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, who began as a film critic, became chief drama critic and later an op-ed columnist, and countless others. In the 1970s and ’80s he and Rosenthal, the Times Executive Editor, with whom Gelb worked for most of his career, brought the Times into a new era, updating the Times Magazine and Arts & Leisure sections and adding new free-standing sections devoted to food, home and style. Those moves increased advertising and pumped new life into the paper as others, such as the Herald Tribune, folded and a more free-wheeling style of journalism flourished at such upstart publications as New York magazine.
Every reporter who had contact with Gelb has stories to tell. I was one of the last he hired before retiring to take over management of the New York Times Company Foundation. Two stories in particular come to mind. Upon joining the Times in the late summer of 1986 as Broadway reporter, I was assigned to write a story about the opening in Philadelphia of Queenie Pie, an unknown opera by Duke Ellington. Although the production had generated great interest, vast feature coverage and admiring reviews from the critics, it didn’t seem to engage the interest of Broadway producers.
Eager to have my first Times byline as a staff writer as quickly as possible, I reported the story of the show and the stalled move to New York in one day. Gelb read it, said it was fine but wanted to hold it because, he told me, “something was missing.” I struggled with it another day, and he threatened to hold it again, saying it seemed “too serious.” When I responded that I thought being too serious was what the Times was all about, he arched an eyebrow, shot me a quizzical look and said, “You’re telling me rules about the Times even I don’t know.” I returned to my desk and added a new first sentence: “The only thing missing from the money reviews was the money,” and the story ran as I’d written it.
At the time of my arrival, AIDS had begun cutting a brutal swath through the city’s artists. When Charles Ludlam, a fixture in the avant-garde theater who was just breaking into the mainstream, suddenly withdrew from a production he was preparing to direct for Papp, rumors circulated that he had AIDS. Ludlam died in the spring of 1987. Gelb wanted the obituary to run on the paper’s front page, but I warned him that Ludlam’s family was opposed to revealing the true cause of his death.
Gelb encouraged me to speak directly with the family, to persuade them of the importance of telling the truth. After several hours spent with Ludlam’s grieving parents, they consented, and the obituary did indeed run on A1 — a first small step in de-stigmatizing the illness and driving home its devastating impact. Arthur Gelb was the rare editor who knew more about more subjects than most of his writers, and he thought nothing of firing a hundred story ideas at you on a given morning. Ninety of them would be great.