Washington’s alternative weeklies have really changed since 1976. That year, Washington Newsworks was small, struggling, based in the 2300 block of 18th Street NW, and publishing Joel E. Siegel’s film reviews. Today, the Washington City Paper is fat, successful, based in the 2300 block of Champlain Street NW, and no longer able to publish Siegel’s film reviews.
Siegel, whose last City Paper piece ran in January, died last Thursday at George Washington University Hospital of spinal meningitis. At a succession of Washington tabloids, he was always the oldest of the regular contributors. Now he’s dead at 63, an age that seems incredibly young.
I met Siegel in 1976 at Newsworks, a paper that published for only about 10 months. Later, I edited Siegel at the Washington Tribune, where he wrote from 1980 to 1982. After that paper fell apart in late 1982, I negotiated with one of the City Paper’s then-owners, Russ Smith, about becoming the publication’s managing editor. Siegel’s writing was a major sticking point. Smith didn’t want it, and I wasn’t going to edit a D.C. alternative paper without it.
That’s not because we were close friends. I saw a lot of Siegel over the years but always under professional circumstances. I wanted Siegel’s voice in City Paper because he was a local treasure and a writer who was born for alternative journalism: His criticism was informed, perceptive, and cantankerous. He wrote for Washingtonian at one point, but that apparently ended badly, as it should have. Siegel was not a flatterer, a bandwagon rider, a sucker for conventional wisdom. He wrote for people with intellectual backbone, readers who didn’t have to agree with a review to admire it.
Siegel ended up arriving at the City Paper in 1984, two years before I did and a little more than halfway through his career teaching at Georgetown University. Jack Shafer, who edited the paper from 1985 to 1994, remembers Siegel as “a son of a bitch to edit. You couldn’t really ask Joel to rethink a piece. I don’t think he ever chose to go back and reconceive.
“That,” he adds, “was part of the charm of his character.”
Siegel’s absolute certainty, Shafer recalls, extended to his occasional dinner parties. “He would take us to his favorite Chinese restaurant. He would have already ordered for us, based on what he thought we should eat. Then at the end of the meal, we would all split the bill.”
Siegel was also a skilled feature writer, Shafer notes, citing an empathetic City Paper cover story about a convention of chubby gay men (“Big Weekend,” 9/18/87). “The thing I admired about him was that he didn’t seem to be of journalism or of the academy. He was in both worlds and above both of them at the same time. He sort of lived in Siegelia.”
Despite his accomplishments as an author, which include a 1973 book about horror-film producer Val Lewton, those who knew Siegel are likely to remember him as much as a talker as a writer. In conversation, Siegel explored the same subjects as in his reviews but even more brashly. He spoke with precision, gusto, and great amusement about the movies and music he loved and hated, the physical imperfections of other human beings, and the hopelessness of his students at Georgetown. Openly gay, he liked to regale—and, if possible, shock—listeners with tales of his erotic exploits. He adored gossip, the more malicious the better, and he recounted extremely entertaining personal anecdotes, some of which may have been embellished just a bit.
Siegel liked to recall how, as a freelancer for a long-defunct Georgetown newspaper, he met Hollywood producer Joseph E. Levine, who in the ’60s financed such European art films as Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. Siegel happened to mention his admiration for that commercially unsuccessful movie, only to have Levine turn on him and roar: “You liked that piece of shit? Jean-Luc Fuck! I could have made that frog cocksucker another Fellini. You like that picture? I’ll send you a print. Shit, I’ll send you all the prints.”
Although Siegel was known—both affectionately and not—for his barbed sense of humor, his tastes were often softer than his hide. He loved old pop standards, jazzy female vocalists, and the candy-colored musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy. It’s entirely appropriate that Siegel’s final City Paper review was of the reissued One From the Heart, the widely panned Francis Ford Coppola musical he’d championed vigorously ever since its 1982 debut. (Also characteristically, the piece he wrote about this longtime favorite was as critical as it was laudatory.) An early adopter of personal computers and the Internet, Siegel was connected by e-mail lists to such groups as Songbirds, which shared his ardor for jazz and pre-rock pop ballads. It was a passion that lasted while his enjoyment of contemporary film waned.
Siegel’s enthusiasm for such music led him to expand from criticism to promoting concert series, producing records, writing lyrics, and even managing reclusive local jazz legend Shirley Horn, a singer and pianist. As Siegel told it, his relationship with the performer was frequently stormy. He had dozens of amusing tales about managing Horn, including a great one about her first Tokyo gig. The singer had been talking with another potential manager, who had tried to prove his usefulness by getting her a Japanese work permit. When Siegel and Horn arrived at Narita Airport, they discovered that the permit had expired. Horn wasn’t allowed to leave the airport, so Siegel headed into town, did a little sightseeing, and browsed some of the city’s famous record stores. Then he went back to Narita, collected Horn, and flew her back home.
Siegel often bitched about money. Mostly he talked about how he wasn’t getting paid enough for his film and music reviews—and, occasionally, about how big a score he’d made writing some liner notes. (He shared a 1993 Grammy for the notes to a Billie Holiday box set.) Yet it was clear that Siegel wasn’t in it for the dough. For the Tribune, he wrote long essays for the princely sum of $25. (He also got free ads for the pop-standards concerts he arranged at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) Charles Paul Freund, who also edited Siegel at that paper, recalls that “he would give us a lot more copy than we could fit—and he knew it—and at one time wanted us to put ellipses at the cuts.”
No doubt there were many great loves in Siegel’s life, but in the time I knew him, none rivaled Grace, the vizsla he named after author Grace Paley. “Siegel’s arrival at the office was always announced by the tinkle of Grace’s dog tags,” remembers former City Paper Arts Editor Nicole Arthur. Grace would lick Arthur’s feet as she read Siegel’s copy. When Grace died, in 2000, Siegel used a review of Best in Show (“Bitches,” 10/13/00) to bid farewell to his longtime companion. Another review (“Table Scraps,” 3/3/00) described their maturing relationship:
If I get down on the floor while she’s resting and very gently stroke her, she’ll suffer the procedure with the same teeth-gritting stoicism that Jane Fonda displayed in Klute, playing a hooker who feigned orgasms while glancing at her wristwatch. And Grace now prefers to sleep on one of her several beds than to cozy up with me. These days, I couldn’t lure her into the sack if I donned a rotisserie-chicken suit.
Contrary to cliché, however, she hasn’t stopped learning new tricks, some of them quite annoying. Recently, she’s figured out how to use her snout to snap on the overhead light switch in my Honda. If I leave her alone in the car for more than a few minutes, I return to find her bathed in battery-draining glow, looking extremely pleased with herself.
I suppose we’ve become a typical old couple, so accustomed to and reliant upon being together that we take each other for granted. But, as in many relationships, there are a lover and a beloved, and I clearly am trapped in the former role. At least once a day, a glimpse of her goes straight to my heart and makes me apprehensive about how much time remains for us to share.
The last time I saw Siegel, it was outside the Motion Picture Association of America screening room on I Street NW. He had a new plan for quitting cigarettes: He wouldn’t buy them anymore, just bum them. So he made a point of inviting a friend who smoked to all the screenings he attended.
As he puffed a cigarette he hadn’t bought, Siegel almost certainly wasn’t thinking of how he would be remembered. Maybe he hoped he would someday be acclaimed for the novel that, after more than one Georgetown sabbatical, was still unfinished. Or for the study of Minnelli that was also never completed.
Instead, he’ll be known for his criticism, his lyrics, and his anecdotes; for the many younger writers he encouraged over the years; and for his prickly but always amused view of the world. If Siegel could read the tributes to him written in the last week, I’m sure he’d be flattered. I’m also sure he’d make merciless fun of them. CP