This Day in Jewish History

1989: A Critic Who Saw Life With Naked Eyes Kills Himself

Seymour Krim had the honesty to write politically incorrect observations, for which he was not necessarily thanked.

Seymour Krim, shown with curly hair and glasses, open-necked button shirt over a T-shirt, light-colored trousers, sitting on a stoop with legs comfortably spread, holding what appears to be a beverage in a can. He also has on belt, shoes and socks.
Wikimedia Commons

On August 30, 1989, the journalist and writer Seymour Krim, suffering from heart disease that made just walking a few steps a challenge, deliberately overdosed on barbiturates, in his New York apartment, at age 67, and died.

Though he wrote for some of America's better-known publications, including Playboy and the Village Voice, Krim was destined never to be famous or financially successful. Even so, he had a great impact on American culture and writing during the late 1950s and the 1960s, and today, nearly 30 years after his death, he remains admired for the freshness and honesty of his work. He was one of the first practitioners of the “New journalism,” in which, in the words of Krim anthologist Mark Cohen, “the writer’s experience of an event [was] as integral to the story as the event itself.”

Born to criticize

Seymour Krim was born in New York on May 11, 1922, and grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. His father, Abraham Krim, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who, together with his brothers, owned a chain of restaurants and also developed real estate. His mother was the former Ida Goldberg.

When Seymour was 7, his father died of a heart attack. Ida soon began to suffer serious mental disturbances, and in 1932, she killed herself by jumping from the roof of their building.

Seymour then was brought up by his maternal grandparents, in Newark, New Jersey, and by his sister, Blanche Levie, in New York. He attended the Kohut School, a progressive, Jewish boarding school in Harrison, New York, and in 1939, graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx. It was there he began writing sophisticated book criticism for the student literary magazine.

Krim attended a year of college at the University of North Carolina, but soon headed back to New York to write. During World War II, he was excused from military service because of bad eyes and feet, but he did civilian work for the Office of War Information.

Despite his lack of formal education, Krim was extremely well read, and in the early years of his writing career, he eked out a living writing reviews for The New York Times, Partisan Review and Commentary, among other highbrow publications. It was not fulfilling.

Krim would find his voice, but not before having a mental breakdown, in 1955, in undergoing hospitalization and both insulin-shock and electroshock therapies.

Not a romantic

Mark Cohen identifies Krim’s October 1957 essay, “Anti-Jazz,” written for the Village Voice, as his artistic turning point. In it, Krim warned against the over-identification by aspiring white hipsters with the culture of jazz music. The beauty and authenticity of jazz, he argued, could not be separated from the reality of African-Americans’ lives that informs the music. Jazz, he acknowledged, may be “especially attractive to young people who are disillusioned with the values of white society. But no matter how beat they are themselves, the majority have literally no idea of the conditions of life that lie behind this music.”

The Voice was inundated with responses, many of them angry, to the piece, but James Baldwin, reviewing a collection of Krim’s work in The New York Times in 1961, praised him as “almost the only writer of my generation who has managed to release himself from the necessity of being either defensive or romantic about Negroes.”

Krim went on to write his very personal type of journalistic pieces for most of the important American newspapers and magazines, and had stints teaching writing at the University of Iowa, Columbia and Penn State. He also spent some eight years working on an epic prose poem called “Chaos,” which was never published.

In 1986, Krim received a Fulbright grant to teach at the University of Haifa. While there, he suffered a debilitating heart attack. On his return to the U.S., incapacitated, he began planning his own death, consulting with the Hemlock Society, and stockpiling barbiturates (and reportedly complaining that the street dealers he bought from should have discounted his large final purchase).

He died in his one-room apart on 10th Street, in the East Village. In his suicide note, he asked to have his ashes scattered from the George Washington Bridge, near where he had grown up.