Let us begin with how he looked. Malcolm Johnson wore tinted glasses indoors. His beard and hair were medium-length and a peculiar dirty auburn hue. The visible skin of his face was as red as human skin can be. He looked like a Viking who had dropped out and become a beatnik.
His laugh was frequent and loud and blatting, like the sound of a pre-Renaissance musical instrument made of beaten copper and ox horn. It could be a laugh of merriment or derision. Things that Malcolm laughed at often did not recover from that experience.
During the 1970s, Malcolm acquired a small journalistic empire at the western end of The Courant building. He was in charge of everything to do with arts, books, travel and entertainment, including TV despite not owning, as far as I could tell, a television. He reviewed all movies and all regional theaters, venturing also into New York to review Broadway shows. In an average year, he saw and reviewed 250 movies and 80 plays, all the while managing and editing a large array of journalistic enterprises.
One of those enterprises was me. I showed up on the doorstep of Malcolm's little fiefdom around 1980. I was a rising star in The Courant newsroom, but I wasn't particularly happy there. I walked from the east end of the building to the west amid great head-shaking. The editor of the paper said I was "too young to retire."
I don't remember my official title, but I thought of myself as Archie Goodwin to Malcolm's Nero Wolfe. The list of people Malcolm felt like talking to was very small, especially compared to the list of people Malcolm thought somebody should go talk to.
This meant that, in a short stretch of time, I would have lunch with James Earl Jones, hang out in a dressing room with a very young Christopher Walken, take Colleen Dewhurst and Maureen Stapleton out for drinks, spend a peculiar afternoon in the company of Little Richard, be berated by Christopher Plummer and be treated kindly by Christopher Reeve. So much for retiring.
Malcolm's little empire was called the Sunday Room, a Hogwarts of over-educated and highly talented oddballs often so unsuited for conventional life that even a city newspaper's main newsroom — in 1980, a veritable wild game refuge of psychopathy — was nonetheless too constraining.
All day long, while cranking out copy, these people would discuss weighty matters of art and culture. Malcolm, when weighing in, would invariably begin, "The thing of it is …" and then hold forth about what the thing of it was.
And he did know. Malcolm and I had both graduated from Yale, about 15 years apart, but it was quickly evident to me that he had been educated in a way that I had not. When you worked for Malcolm you were expected to know who Bouguereau was and what Clement Greenberg was likely to have said about him and that Strindberg wrote "Miss Julie" and Ibsen "The Master Builder," not the other way around, and that Meredith Monk and Thelonius Monk were not related, although they should be, and that Brando delivered the line "You may be the one-eyed jack around here, but I've seen the other side of your face" and how to pronounce Thomas Mann's first name. I didn't know any of those things.
I didn't know much, really, but it wasn't permissible to be so ignorant. So every day, I mastered vast tranches of information, so as not to be caught out. Malcolm was the kind of person who existed in American newsrooms for about 80 years: smarter and more learned than any college president or Jeopardy champion.
He was stubborn and idiosyncratic and impossible. And I am surprised but not displeased by the frequency with which, here in my 60s, I catch myself being him. My terror of disappointing Malcolm turned me into a passable version of him.
As my editor, he would have told me that I buried the lead which by all rights should be his death, at 79, on Feb. 9. The thing of it is, I buried a bigger story by never telling him any of this.
Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5). He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.