Jack Mathews Set the Standard

I’VE KNOWN and worked with my share of talented journalists; Jack Mathews was at the top of the heap. He died in May of pancreatic cancer, foregoing life-extending treatments after he got the diagnosis a month before. “Now that the shock has subsided,” he wrote to me, “I feel okay with this. I lived in relative good health (measured by my ability to play golf) to 80, and so far past my expiration date (as measured by family history), I feel I’ve stolen time. I don’t intend to borrow more time through chemo and radiation.” And there it was.

I once wrote in the introduction to a book that Jack set the standard, certainly in the arts and culture corner of the newspaper universe. Before I met him, when I was at the Herald Examiner, I read and admired his film industry column in the Los Angeles Times. When I wrote “Why the News from Hollywood Always Wears a Tan” for the Washington Journalism Review, examining the power of publicists in Hollywood and the learned obeisance of most reporters under their thumbs, I singled him out as an exception. He was habitually resistant to major studio spin, smart and irreverent without being mean. He had a nose for a story and didn’t just regurgitate the official versions of the truth or kowtow to celebrity, an occupational hazard in L.A.

A COUPLE YEARS LATER, when I began to write for the Times, I got to know him and found him to be very much like his copy, an unapologetic everyman in a city of masks and poses. He had a considerable knowledge of movies and their history – much greater than mine – but he was a journalist first, with wide-ranging interests and a Hemingway bullshit detector. He could have written about anything, including sports and current events. I sensed in him a kindred spirit and we became friends. For a short period he was my editor, and though circumstances soon sent us both elsewhere, we remained close for 30 years.

Jack’s sport was golf, but I thought of him in baseball terms as a “five tool player.” He was a gifted writer with an economy of style I envied; he was a reliable and entertaining critic; he could go long with ease in magazine pieces; he was fast (I really envied that); and he was an able and judicious editor. He was a no-doubt-about-it journalism all-star and should have won a Pulitzer somewhere along the way. He wasn’t given to self-promotion (another reason I liked him), and that might explain the oversight, but in truth there was no Pulitzer category wide enough for him and his skills. There’s not a paper in America that would not have wanted him on its team.

We came from very different backgrounds, and he was a bit older than me, but we shared a general world view and often similar opinions about politics, writers and people inside the trade and out. We both longed to write things other than newspaper and magazine articles and we encouraged each other’s efforts, sharing manuscripts and ideas. Hearing his praise of something I was working on was like getting a Vitamin B shot, in part because, as mentioned, he was no bullshitter. It was easy enough for me to return the compliment because his prose was something I always looked forward to reading, and he had much more to say than he could get into a newspaper column.

HE DID PUBLISH a nonfiction book, The Battle of Brazil, about Monty Python alumnus turned movie director Terry Gilliam’s war with Universal over the release of that satirical 1985 film, but I thought he had at least one novel in him and that it might be drawn from his unlikely personal knowledge of auto racing. Being a regular at Cannes for two decades obscured the biographical detail that Jack was a graduate of the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, something he had done to better equip him for his job in public relations at the Riverside International Raceway earlier in his life. He loved racing, and it gave him something to talk about with Paul Newman, another Bondurant graduate.

He hoped to publish a memoir about his experiences as a reporter visiting movie sets all over the world, observing such marquee names as Newman, Clint Eastwood, Rod Steiger, Darryl Hannah and others at work and play. “I know, many not-so-famous people have stories to tell about encounters with really famous people,” he wrote in a pitch to an agent. “Mine are unique as a movie critic, because I was more interested in how movies were made than in how they turned out and I traveled the world learning that.”

It was a good read and then some. But the “not-so-famous” thing was a problem. Though he had been a leading critic and reporter at the Los Angeles TimesNewsday, USA Today and The New York Daily News, Jack didn’t have a Q-rating high enough to get him a second chance in the celebrity-heavy book business.

HE GREW UP in a working-class neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles, far from the exalted realm of Hollywood he would later visit as a reporter. A few years ago I was writing a piece about stopping a bar fight, and I asked half a dozen male friends if they had ever been in a fist fight. Jack was the only one to raise his hand. He’d been in several — as a young man, with guys from his old neighborhood. 

He often lamented that his childhood buddies, as they aged, became arch conservatives, to the extent he could not discuss politics with them at all when they gathered for reunions. He and I exchanged countless emails about the presidential primaries in 2016 and again in 2020. We both saw the appeal of Bernie Sanders in a nation riven by inequality and gasping for breath under the weight of Capitol Hill-endorsed oligarchy. And we shared our dismay at watching the establishment-aligned DNC block him out twice. In between was the 24/7 outrage of the hideous bully in the Oval Office, a Constitution-shredding mob boss who soon became too awful for words. But Jack found some: “Trump is that rarest of capitalist creatures, a billionaire lowlife.”

When, last spring, the deceiver-in-chief began his daily briefings to camouflage his inept response to the Covid-19 virus, Jack wrote to me, “Every time he gets in front of the camera, I get the sinking feeling of seeing a bride’s drunk uncle rise at her reception to tell the crowd how he used to pinch her bottom and make her squeal. The looks on the other guests’ faces would match those behind Trump when he assures America that this will all be over by Easter.”

AFTER LEAVING his last job as movie critic for the Daily News in New York, Jack retired to a small town on the coast of Oregon with his wife, Cindy, and son, Darren. I visited him there once in 2011, on a trip with my son, Devin, who was scouting Oregon colleges. That’s the last time I saw him. I had hoped not only to see him again, but to finally get to play golf together. We had talked about it. He was an accomplished golfer and had played his whole life; I was a late-arriving neophyte who shared my frustrations with him over the phone and depended on him for tips and insights into the PGA Tour and its history.

In our last conversation, when he told me he had come to terms with his diagnosis and was not going to prolong the inevitable, he was appreciating that he had “lived a good life.” He only wished he could hang around long enough to see Trump voted out of office. The Orange Man would not make a good bookend. “I hate the thought of dying with him in the White House,” he said. “Because when I was born, F.D.R. was president.”

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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2 Responses to Jack Mathews Set the Standard

  1. Cindy Mathews says:

    A most amazing article. I cried all the way through. He’s only been gone for two months and sometimes I feel as though he is going to walk through the door, home once again. You were a friend he cared a lot about. I truly appreciate your words.

  2. I cried writing it, Cindy. I had put it off and put it off because I couldn’t accept that he was really gone. I miss him so much. I’m glad you saw this, and I am heartened by what you said. All best, Sean

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