When I was a teenager and first became aware of criticism as a profession, Clive Barnes was one of its very biggest names. Born in 1927, Barnes had come to this country in 1965 to work for the New York Times. Right from the start, he was the kind of writer who got written about, in part because he had two arrows in his critical quiver: he covered dance and theater, and did so with self-evident relish. At some point it occurred to me that I, too, might want to write about more than one subject, and I have no doubt that Barnes’ example was part of what inspired me to do so.
I discovered ballet in 1987 and started writing about it for The New Dance Review shortly thereafter. That was when I first recognized Barnes as a physical presence, sitting on the aisle of virtually every first night that I attended. Sixteen years later I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and joined the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, of which Barnes and John Simon were the senior members. It seemed utterly improbable to me that I should be casting votes alongside men whose reviews I’d been reading for the better part of four decades, much less calling them by their first names. I found Clive to be perfectly friendly and collegial, but by then it was impossible for me to shed the diffidence of my long-lost youth and get to know him more than casually. To me he was Clive Barnes, and that was that.
Clive’s byline recently disappeared from the New York Post, to which he had moved in 1978, and the paper’s dance and drama reviews started carrying an ominous tagline: Clive Barnes is on leave. This morning a mutual friend passed the not-surprising word that he had died of liver cancer. Almost to the end, though, he clung to his aisle seat, and as late as two weeks ago he was still filing reviews that left no doubt of his undiminished appetite for ballet, the art that he loved most and knew best. That’s the best of all possible epitaphs for a long-lived critic.
UPDATE: The New York Times obituary is here.
The New York Post obituary is here.