The Boston Globe was searching for a new television critic after its Pulitzer Prize-winner William A. Henry III had left for New York in the early 1980s. As an assistant Living-Arts editor I was part of a team doing a national search for his replacement.
John Koch, the arts editor, stopped by my desk, excited about a pack of clips he had received from the Detroit News film critic, Jay Carr. We were both knocked out by the superb writing. We suspected, and it was true, that Jay wasn’t all that interested in television, but the breadth and depth of his writing was awesome in the old-school sense of the word. He was as accessible as he was intellectual, one of those critics whom you read for the elegance of his writing as well as the sharpness of his criticism.
Jay Carr, who never lost his love of writing or his love of the arts, died unexpectedly after a brief illness in Somerville at the age of 77 on May 15.
Jay didn’t get that particular job, which was just as well. He would have been a fine television critic, but it was obvious that movies were calling to him — this despite the fact that he already had a George Jean Nathan Award to his credit for theater criticism. So when there was a job opening at the Globe for a film critic in 1983 no national search was necessary. Koch hired him and Jay was the man, from then until 2002.
To say that Carr had a distinguished record at the Globe and at New England Cable News where he worked from 1998 to 2010 is overstating the obvious.
According to his official obituary:
“In 1989, he was named Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government for his writings on French film. In 1995, he was named to The Library of Congress's National Film Preservation Board, the body that recommends films to be named to the National Film Registry. He was a Pulitzer finalist and for many years served on selection committees for the Pulitzer, Tony and Golden Globe Awards. At the time of his death he was serving on the selection committee for the The National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. He edited and wrote six essays for the National Society of Film Critics' best-selling anthology, The A-List: The 100 Essential Films.”
At his best he could make film come alive with delicious prose like this, about the passing of film auteur Michelangelo Antonioni:
“At the heart of Mr. Antonioni's films lay a paradox. He concluded ruefully, although never sentimentally, that life was meaningless, social interaction futile, communication a bad joke. Repeatedly using images of actual and metaphorical deserts in film after film, he countered the despair at the heart of his world view by photographing them beautifully. His characters may have been hollowed out, lethargic, dispirited, but the pessimism they embodied was contradicted by the effort that went into committing to an aesthetic ideal, even though Mr. Antonioni may have believed humanist society extinct.”
One of his former editors, Lincoln Millstein, said, "Jay Carr was the ultimate renaissance man. His range was incredible — from drama, to film, to comedy ... his command of the living arts across multiple media and multiple disciplines was unparalleled. His presence in the newsroom and on our news pages was large and distinctive. I shall miss him very much."
The prodigiousness of his output and speed of his writing was equally amazing. He could turn out a dozen reviews a week for the Friday Globe Arts section, often pulling an all-nighter on Wednesday for his Thursday deadline. He’d be leaving as the arts editor was arriving.
It has to be said there was a negative to that voluminous output as he refused to share the beat when it was obvious to his editors that film criticism was a two-person job and that Jay sometimes sacrificed his unique quality for quantity and relativism. Many talented people assigned to work with him left the beat in frustration, feeling that Jay was only leaving them crumbs.
Nevertheless, he was incredibly popular with Globe colleagues. He was one of the last real “characters” at the paper — a great raconteur and one of the liveliest wits on Morrissey Boulevard. I would often have to write a late-night review of a downtown play and knowing that Jay would be there — behind his enormous stacks of newspapers and books, surrounded by bags of classical albums from Tower Records, drinking gallons of coffee, dining on Globe cafeteria food and greeting me with that friendly smile — helped make the experience something to look forward to rather than dread. It was a greeting that said, "Isn't it great the inmates have taken over the asylum?"
Other members of the Globe's pre-email late-night crew felt the same. Steve Morse, the rock critic when Carr was film critic and now a teacher at Berklee College of Music, remembered, "I toiled many, many nights into the wee hours at the Globe with Jay. He sometimes didn't get in until midnight and I would joke, 'Hey, did you get stuck in rush-hour traffic?' He worked almost relentlessly into the dawn hours, taking occasional breaks to have his beloved ice cream and talk about his beloved Yankees. And to say he was prolific is an understatement. He got in one night about midnight and proceeded to write four movie reviews and a 200-line Sunday piece, walking out at about 4:15 in the morning."
Another fellow night owl, classical music critic Richard Dyer, added, "I burned the midnight oil with Jay for years and when I was done, and waiting for the copy desk to finish, we would sit and talk until I could go home — and he would stay and write some more. I never knew anybody who knew more about more things than he did, and in just about every conversation he would tell me something I didn't know, and should have."
His New England Cable News colleagues were also enormously fond of him. Charles Kravetz, the general manager of WBUR and former president and GM of NECN, said, “I think all of us who knew Jay recognized he was the real deal. He loved movies, he was a historian, a great critic, and he knew what was missing from a film … He would say you had to have a historical context to tell people where something fit in and he could do that.
“It meant so much that he leant his talent to our fledgling station. He was someone people wanted to hear, and whose reviews were trusted.”
Tom Melville, news director at WBUR and before that at NECN, concurred: “Jay Carr was a supremely gifted film critic and journalist. But as I look back at my years working with him at NECN, I remember most his warmth and decency and his smiling presence in our newsroom. He deeply understood film as an art form. But he also knew so well the American joy of going to the movies. His reviews, and the wonderful television programs he created on NECN, informed us about film and helped us experience the joy of the movies. Jay Carr was a kind and generous man. He brought that kindness and generosity to his work.”
Carr didn’t follow the humanities or Ivy League path to his work. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and majored in chemistry at City College, while working part-time as a police reporter for the Jersey City Journal. He later worked at the New York Post and put in two years in the Army.
He also suffered more than his share of tragedy, particularly the death of his fiancé and fellow film critic, Kathy Huffhines, in 1991. He is survived by his children, Diane, Richard and Julia as well as his partner, Rebecca FitzSimons, her two sons; a sister, Mary, and a brother, Daniel. Another brother, Robert, preceded him in death. In lieu of flowers, Carr's family asks for donations to support animal rescue, film preservation or another charity.
Jay lived a full life and when the memorial service will be held in the Boston area, some time in August probably, there’ll be people there to acknowledge Jay Carr’s wit and wisdom, but even more to acknowledge his warmth.