This is one of three memorial tributes to Jim O’Quinn, the founding editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine, who died on Oct. 11 at the age of 74. The other two are here and here.
Because Jim O’Quinn was my editor for 30 years—as well as, for many of those years, my best friend—I want to be certain he likes what I write about him. I won’t ever know, of course, but that’s nothing new. Even before his death this week in the New Orleans hospital where he’d spent too much of a hellish year—stroke, heart attack, pneumonia, infections, and more—I never knew for sure. He was always so damn positive. If the lede was lively and the prose clipped along, he’d enthuse, “Just dandy, Mr. Todd!”
(Is this lede dandy, Jim?)
Jim wasn’t only positive with a red pencil. Everyone who worked beside him can imitate his characteristic gesture. Returning to his desk, he would smack his palms together, rub them back and forth quickly—like a speedy cricket or, given Jim’s cherubic features, like an excitable teddy bear emulating a cricket—before pulling out his chair and getting back to work. He loved theatre and music, marijuana and men. He adored his daughter Jamey, delighted in his grandson, doted on his husband Richard, and fancied everything New Orleans. He made opening the first box of freshly printed American Theatre magazines each month a party. He played the piano as though it was the funnest thing ever. And because he brought the same gusto to editing copy as to cooking gumbo, he mentored two generations of national theatre journalists without any of us quite realizing he was doing it. Jim was Ted Lasso before Jason Sudeikis was a twinkle in his Mama’s eye.
Jim lived like one of those red-and-white ocean buoys that marks the opening of a bay, washed over by waves, pulled under by rip tides, before bobbing up again, shiny and bright in the sun, as if to say, “Well, look who’s here!” And because even the fiercest tides couldn’t keep him under—because he was so alive—I truly believed could defy death. He had defied it many times in the stormiest seas.
It’s widely known that Jim, a subject in a pre-AIDS-era study of gay men, had his blood tested regularly from, as I recall, the late ’70s on. When HIV was discovered as a pre-condition of full-blown AIDS, doctors looked back at his tests to find he’d carried the virus from its early days. Jim lived with HIV for years before the antiretrovirals and for years after, about 40 total. I’d watch him go through hard times at work and grow pale and sickly as his T-cell count plummeted. I knew he was going to die and would rage (for him; I never saw him rage) at the conditions devastating him.
But he’d bounce back every time, ebullient as before. Last year, in and out of the hospital—lying unconscious, machines breathing him, a mess of major systems failures hitting all at once—it happened again. Just as bedside friends and family thought he was about to transition, up popped Jim. Afterward, he sent photos of his infected feet out of a sense of wonder at their marvelous colors: They looked like stained glass. He’d joke about walking without the toes he was about to lose. Even hurricanes and floods, reaching into his house, forcing hobbled evacuation out of Louisiana, couldn’t keep him down.
Jim and I worked together on American Theatre in the late 1980s. He’d shepherded the magazine, under the guidance of TCG deputy director Lindy Zesch and publications director Terry Nemeth, since it was a newsletter, and I was his first managing director. Since 1987, he has edited almost every word of every essay or piece of arts journalism I’ve written. He isn’t just alive in my prose, but also in my brain, in my heart, in the places where angst about the state of the theatre meets insight, where ideals meet actuals, in the whole of myself as a writer, shaped as much by his cleaning of my prose as by the intuition of his assignments and the expanse of his permission, shaped by the fact that Jim is the only person I’ve known who, to this writer at least, always said, “Yes.”
When I began writing my first essays and they turned critical about the state of the institutional theatre—the unhealth of the profession, the addictive nature of our practices, the exile of individual artists from the heart of the field—Jim not only okayed the pieces but gave me copious column space. He fought all the battles you might imagine within a national membership organization (TCG) for publishing this kind of insider criticism. I would fume at any interference; Jim would just smile, shrug his Teflon shoulders, and cheer me on—to become myself. The few times he offered me assignments, his matchmaking changed the course of my life. A piece on the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, a company I’d barely heard of, led to a lifelong connection to the Network of Ensemble Theaters and a different way of engaging theatre and place. A 70th birthday portrait of director Andre Gregory led to a book collaboration with Andre at 80. How many others did he do this for? How much richer are we for it, for him?
He was always game. When I wrote a bunch of silly holiday songs in the December of 1989—you know, writing parody lyrics about theatre people to old Xmas songs—he not only published them with joyful caricatures he commissioned, he joined me to lead a singalong for the Alliance of Resident Theatres/NY, his exuberant piano playing the only thing that kept it from being truly terrible. Jim pitched in as a dramaturgical expert on an NYU student production of The Seagull, which we’d adapted and set in his hometown of Natchitoches, La. To celebrate, he spent a day cooking jambalaya for the cast in my kitchen. (It was not, however, his grandmother’s squirrel jambalaya, which was the subject of an oft-told story about his droll, New Jersey-born husband Richard’s first visit to the O’Quinn’s family manse.)
And he didn’t just show for good times. He remained present and resilient through too many deaths—of parents, friends, and lovers, including his beloved Susie, his daughter’s mom, who died with her partner at the hands of a drunk driver in ’93. He gave me a home during my divorce, and saw his own home flooded and burglarized in Katrina. He rebuilt again and again, just like his devastated NOLA. Jim had grown up 40 miles from the parish seat, Colfax, where on Easter 1873, during Reconstruction, a white militia massacred 150 Black citizens to keep them from voting and then claimed that the dead had rioted. Jim had no illusions about the horror and injustice of the world. He had a dispositional gift that allowed him to hold it all, to remain buoyant and real.
I wish he’d written about the Colfax Massacre, as he once considered, and I wish he’d written that novel he promised to get to. I wish I could list all the writers and editors he raised up with his enthusiasm, but in a sense his 300-plus issues of this magazine are that list.
I keep pondering a conversation we had during a particularly bad relationship moment (mine). Jim, this great, chipper enthusiast, argued that people don’t change, an idea that I—with, among other things, a long-term financial investment in psychotherapy—refused to accept. We hashed it out a bit, but he didn’t try to convince me. He just knew what he knew. When we returned to the topic months later, me bearing experiential proof that he’d been right all along that people don’t change, he said, simply, “Well, didn’t I tell you?”
It continues to bother me. Can people change? Do they? I think: You were wrong, Jim. People do change. You changed me—and so many others. And I think: You were also right, Jim. In some miraculous, almost-death-defying way, you never changed. Even now, you are still so alive.
(Is this what you had in mind, Jim? I’d love to hear your thoughts.)
Todd London is a former managing editor of this magazine. His novel, If You See Him, Let Me Know, came out last year from Austin Macauley (London); This Is Not My Memoir, co-written with Andre Gregory, came out last November (Farrar, Straus, Giroux).
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