A Conversation With Henry Allen: Pulitzer Prize Winner, Artist, Renaissance Man
The late Andy Rooney once said, “Writers don’t retire. Writers never stop writing.” Perhaps the urge to write consistently, whenever the mood strikes, and the desire to pour words onto paper and explain the mysteries of the world is a trait inherent in masters of the written word – those whose eloquence and admiration and respect for beautifully written prose propel them to make an indelible mark in the literary and journalistic fields.
In this day and age, there are few writers and journalists who fit this mold. There is Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (disclosure: I worked at The New Republic when Hertzberg was editor of that magazine); Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times; Louis Menand (also of the New Yorker); and Henry Allen, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, formerly of the Washington Post (disclosure: I worked at PostNewsweek Tech Media, a former Washington Post company, from 2005-2006 but did not know Allen).
God, Allen can write. For a number of young Washington-area journalists of my generation who had our eyes on the Washington Post at the start of our careers, Henry Allen’s writings represented what we hoped to achieve: the ability to craft elegant, refined, effortless prose and to present every subject matter (even the most mundane) as important and interesting.
Et Tu, Washington Post?
Allen, as many may recall, departed the Washington Post in 2009 after the brouhaha over a fist fight with writer Manuel Roig-Franzia. After criticizing a reporter’s piece, apparently referring to it as “the second-worst” he had seen during several decades at the Post, Roig-Franzia called Allen an unspeakable name, at which point Allen (a former Marine) punched him.
As the story goes, Allen did not return to the newsroom, but he was the victor. He had accepted the Post’s buyout offer and was days away from leaving. He exited the stage with a final bow and deservedly punched out an ill-mannered boor like Roig-Franzia, who, oddly enough, didn’t seem to suffer any serious consequences from his inappropriate profanity and name-calling.
According to Allen, the story of the altercation went viral, and Washington media was all abuzz about the eerily delightful advent of fisticuffs in the Post newsroom.
Harry Jaffe reported on it for the Washingtonian, as did the Washington City Paper and Gawker.com. In a touching piece (also in the City Paper), former Washington Post editor David Von Drehle referred to Allen as “the most dazzling and original talent I’ve seen in 30-plus years in the journalism business.” Comments posted below Erik Wemple’s City Paper article overwhelmingly supported Allen, who came across as the conquering hero who had the guts to stand up to a foul-mouthed jerk.
Art for Art’s Sake
These days, Allen (who explains that he is now “good friends” with Roig-Franzia), spends his days in his charming house in suburban Takoma Park, Md., with his wife Deborah. He is still busy penning op-eds, articles and reviews for various publications, including, ahem, the Post, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. A talented artist, Allen says he paints every day. His home is decorated with portraits, watercolors, and drawings he has worked on over the years (photos of Allen’s artworks are featured throughout this article).
Allen recently spoke with Highbrow Magazine about his career, his Pulitzer Prize, the Washington Post, the state of journalism, and his art:
Who are (were) a few of your favorite writers and editors at the Washington Post?
There were so many in 39 years…Hank Steuver was a favorite. There was a guy called Michael Kernan who wrote this incredible “window pane” prose (which comes from Orwell)…in other words, prose that never gets in your way. Many others….
You arrived at the Washington Post in 1970, correct?
Yes, just as the Post realized it had a handle on reality that no one else had. An absolute wonder of a man named Larry Stern was [an editor] then…one of the funniest, smartest and aggressive journalists I had known. …if you’ve ever seen a mongoose attack a snake, that kind of aggression. His whole idea was to get at people, to publish what are known as “talkers”…to make famous people he didn’t like angry.
So why do you think the fight between you and Manuel Roig-Franzia created such a big stir in the media?
Harry Jaffe had it in Washingtonian.com, and on Monday morning, it just went viral from there. It’s his [Jaffe’s] job to keep an eye on the Post. It just took off….I come from New Jersey, a part of Jersey where fist fights are not an uncommon occurrence. And then I worked in the old newspaper business, so the idea that someone would clock somebody else did not strike me as that extraordinary.
What is your opinion of Washington, D.C. and Washingtonians in general?
I love this city. As soon as I got here, I said, “Baby, I’m home.” I had been living in New York, which drove me nuts….everybody’s competing there. You show up in Sheep Meadow with a kite; next week, somebody will show up with two kites or a more expensive kite….
What I like about D.C. is that there is a “Southerness” about it…people here move slower…. It has a feeling of a colonial capital to me….It’s also like living in Hollywood. There’s the industry, which is politics, and there are those satellites of the industry…But I’m much more interested in watching people change in the way they think the world is…that’s something that’s always mutating. I was in the Style section. I don’t want to read stories about Senate markups. I’m glad that there are people who write those stories, but that’s not what interests me.
How long have you been an artist? When did you start painting/drawing?
I started in the late 1960s, early 70s. … In the early 70s, I started drawing and doing these mad, Expressionist things…then I read Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which showed me how to draw in perspective….
…I got myself into a drawing class with all these 19-year-olds who were [wondering], “Who is that dude with the white beard?” Then I took another course at the Corcoran and for a long time, I did a lot of figure drawing…. And one acquires mentors along the way, guys like Fred Folsom whose paintings are going be on view at that show at the Katzen [Art Center]… It’s all these people who have been in Washington, and it’s what Paul Richard (the Post’s art critic) called the National Gallery School of Artists….
What is your opinion about the current state of journalism, the rise of the blogosphere, etc.?
Journalism is always there. The old business model for print journalism is wrecked. I think it’s because the old business model depended on a huge investment of capital to buy printing presses and buildings and trucks, all that stuff, to get a newspaper out, and having invested all that capital, you sought to create a monopoly, which the Washington Post succeeded in doing in the 1980s….
All of a sudden, you have a way of publishing with no investment of capital…you get all your writers freelance or on contract, and articles go out over the Internet. People can read it on their telephones, pull an iPad out of their purse, and especially read it at work….
How does it feel to be a Pulitzer Prize winner?
Winning a Pulitzer is like in the mafia movies, where somebody becomes a “made” guy, and in journalism, you have a certain immunity, a certain prestige….The Pulitzer lunch at the lower library at Columbia is a masterpiece of a certain kind of American modesty. Everything is very low-key, and the lower the key, the more powerful it gets.
To view additional artwork by Henry Allen, visit http://henryallenstudio.blogspot.com/
Tara Taghizadeh is the Founding Editor & Publisher of Highbrow Magazine. She has worked for PostNewsweek Tech Media (a former Washington Post company), Gannett News Service, The New Republic magazine, and the National Geographic Book Division. Her writings have been published in various publications and websites, including the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, San Francisco Weekly, and Gannett Newspapers, among others.
Rick Steele, who photographed Henry Allen for this article, has worked as a photographer for news organizations such as PostNewsweek Tech Media, United Press International, 1105 Media, and Zuma Press, for which he spent four months in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2005. His clients have included Newsweek Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian, among others.