Class of 1948
Courtly, erudite and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the arts, Seymour Peck was a mainstay of The New York Times culture department from 1952 until his untimely death in 1985, the victim of a drunk driver.
Peck was an editor, a reporter and a critic. He was also the “go-to” guy at The Times when reporters needed background information about various shows or movies. It didn’t seem to matter whether the productions were blockbusters on Broadway or low-budget films in out-of-the-way art houses. Peck was reputedly familiar with the titles, casts and even obscure credits of nearly every movie and play that had been made in the previous 50 years. Long before the Internet answered questions at the click of a mouse, the phrase “ask Sy” usually provided the desired information.
Peck was born in the Bronx on Aug. 23, 1917. Even as a student at the Bronx High School of Science, he was already putting his spare change together so he could buy a 55-cent balcony seat for a Broadway show. He entered City College in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, but dropped out before the end of his freshman year so he could bring some money into the house. After working at a variety of jobs, Peck found his way to the newspaper PM in 1942, starting as a copy boy and working his way up to reporter and a critic. While at PM, he went back to CCNY, taking classes at night and earning his diploma in 1948. That same year, PM folded and Peck became film critic and arts editor of PM’s successors, The New York Star and The Daily Compass.
In 1952, he went to The Times as editor of its Sunday Drama section, now known as Arts and Leisure. Four years later, he shifted to the Sunday Magazine, producing articles on all the arts. From 1963 to 1976, he continued working on the Magazine and again headed the Drama section. He was named culture editor of The Times in 1976 and was responsible for the day-to-day coverage of the arts. In 1983, Peck turned 65, then the daily newspaper’s mandatory retirement age for reporters and editors. He was appointed an editor of the Sunday Book Review, heading its copy desk. Peck remained a dedicated theater patron, often bolting down a spartan dinner at his desk before dashing out to make an 8 p.m. curtain. He maintained his affiliation with the theater by serving on the nominating committee for the Tony Awards.
Peck made headlines of his own in 1955, when he was called before a U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and asked about his association with the Communist Party. He admitted his involvement when he was younger, but would not answer any questions about other people. He didn’t bother to invoke the Fifth Amendment. He simply refused to answer, triggering a conviction for contempt of Congress in 1956 that was overturned the following year.
Peck died in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1985, while driving home after spending New Year’s Eve with friends. He was 67. His car was struck by an automobile going the wrong way on the Henry Hudson Parkway. His obituary in The Times included tributes from colleagues such as Arthur Gelb, then deputy managing editor, who said, “There were few people who understood the mercurial personalities and temperaments of the artistic world as Sy Peck did, and his insights consistently enriched the pages of The Times.”
In an Op-Ed piece published several days after Peck’s death, Walter Kerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama critic for The Times wrote: “Seymour Peck was the best-informed man on the arts — all of them — I ever knew. He wove a great web of knowledge, linking everything together, and sat modestly at a switchboard at the center, eager to help. He was eternally doing favors for people, but the biggest favor was his just being there.”