Columbia Journalism School Mourns the Loss of John Bennet
John Bennet, on the faculty of the journalism school for some twenty years and a member of The New Yorker staff for more than four decades, edited Sy Hersh, Pauline Kael, Robert Caro, John McPhee, Oliver Sacks, Bill Finnegan, Alma Guillermoprieto, Elizabeth Kolbert, Nick Paumgarten, Ben McGrath, Evan Osnos, and many, many others. His authors trusted and adored him; he counted himself lucky to work with them. He was just as devoted to his students at Columbia.
John Monroe Bennet was born on July 23, 1945 in Athens, Texas. His father held odd jobs; his mother raised chickens, and walked two miles into town to trade eggs for groceries at the A&P. Later, his parents worked at the bus station. (He wrote about his youth in a lightly fictionalized short story, “Flat Creek Road.” For most of his childhood, John thought he was destined to push a plow. But on a fateful trip to Connecticut, visiting relatives, he found a copy of The New Yorker on a coffee table. He started reading, and continued to pick up the magazine back home. In 1964, he came across an article, “The Crackin’, Shakin’, Breakin’ Sounds”—a profile of Bob Dylan. Once he could, John moved to New York.
He arrived at The New Yorker several years later, on the copy desk. His first job was to implement house style. Then he worked as a collator—combining, by hand, the edits of various readers (William Shawn, Pat Crow, Eleanor Gould) onto one proof, making note of their sensibilities, their moves. After a while, John was given the opportunity to edit a piece: a profile of a woman at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, in Queens, written by Susan Sheehan. “The Patient” ran in four installments in 1981. It was soon published as a book, unchanged except for its title, to one that John preferred—“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?”—and won a Pulitzer Prize.
That was just the start. Over the years, he developed a reputation as an enthusiastic and economical editor, a man of wise counsel and perfect pitch. He was direct and humane. He liked to memorize poems, and he often spoke in aphorisms: Read the piece out loud. Cut the blah-blah. Chronology is your friend. Remember the banana rule: it’s never “the elongated yellow fruit.” There are only two numbers: big and small. You need a cosmic graf. Don’t nudge the reader. A writer is a guy in the hospital wearing one of those gowns that’s open in the back; and an editor walks behind, making sure that nobody can see his ass. Anything great about a piece is because of the writer—don’t f*ck it up.
John had a signature look: a Brooks Brothers shirt bought in the early seventies, loose khakis; his sneakers were white and green Stan Smiths, and then Rod Lavers. He loved vanilla milkshakes, but most of the time he’d go for a Coke. If you wanted to procrastinate for a few minutes, or an hour, you could get him talking about Dylan. He commuted by bus from Saugerties—two and a half hours each way. When he retired from The New Yorker, he started referring to himself as “the rustic recluse.”
John is survived by his wife, Dana, an artist; a son, Charlie, a writer; and a daughter, Molly, an editor, who gave birth to John’s grandchild in April 2020.
Betsy Morais is the Managing Editor of The Columbia Journalism Review.