English journalist John Heilpern died of cancer at the age of 78 on January 7, 2021, in New York City. Mr. Heilpern’s sparkling reportage of the London theater scene began in the 1960’s, bringing him to prominence and in the 1970’s, he wrote a book about Peter Brook. Heilpern continued his career in the United States.
I became aware of him through his punchy, erudite and concise weekly theater column in the New York Observer. Freed from the constraints of actual reviewing, Heilpern deftly offered refreshing freeform opinionated takes on current productions as well as thoughtful historical reflections. Informed by his literary skill and his authoritative background in the field, his pieces were always enriching. My admiration of him was amplified by his periodic appearances the PBS television show, Theater Talk. He was just as wryly enchanting in person as he was in print.
In February 2007, Heilpern’s authorized and supreme biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man was published in the United States. I eagerly bought it right away and began reading. Despite professional editing and no doubt his careful scrutiny, I discovered one minor error that leapt out at me. He had an email address listed in the New York Observer, so I wrote to him:
Dear Mr Heilpern,
After seeing your commandingly witty appearance on Theater Talk I was so eager to read your biography of John Osborne, that I bought it this past weekend.
Much of the last few days have been spent being enthralled and thrilled by your obviously exhaustive and definitive account of that charismatic titan of world drama.
Respectfully, I’d like to point out a factual error that I came across that you may or may not be aware of and which in future editions and for posterity would undoubtedly be corrected.
Close to the bottom of page 271: “[Robert] Shaw had just opened in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming on Broadway.”
Of course that would have been The Caretaker.
Congratulations and with gratitude,
A month later he responded:
Dear Mr Reilly,
Thank you so much for troubling to write so generously. Your thoughts are very much appreciated. I’m horrified my Pinter mistake slipped through. All I can say is, my apologies and thanks for pointing it out. I’ll have it corrected for any future hardback edition and, of course, the paperback.
I don’t know about my “commandingly witty” appearance on Theater Talk! I do know how glad I am that you enjoyed the book.
With all best wishes,
Wow! I have written authors and publications of errors I’ve come across, and either was ignored or received curt responses. Mr. Heilpern’s reply was so uplifting that I saved those emails.
That spring, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, in the Bruno Walter Auditorium, held a series of events celebrating John Osborne and Heilpern’s biography. I attended one where Natasha Richardson and Michael Sheen performed scenes from Osborne’s plays. Heilpern introduced the presentation, afterward there was a book signing. I produced my copy and mentioned our correspondence. He was so charming and shook my hand before inscribing it.
The New York Times did not see fit to publish an official obituary of John Heilpern, and there is a paid death notice on their site. That oversight inspired this reminiscence.