Dan Wolf was not trying to change the face of journalism when in 1955 he launched The Village Voice with novelist Norman Mailer and Ed Fancher, a truck driver-turned-psychologist. With no background in journalism beyond writing entries on philosophy for the Columbia Encyclopedia and handling publicity for the Turkish Information Office, the 40-year-old Wolf was more interested in shaking things up in his Greenwich Village neighborhood. He ended up influencing both the future of the neighborhood and the course of American journalism. A lifelong New Yorker, he died at 80 on April 11.
In the early years of Wolf’s editorship, The Village Voice helped lead the charge against a planned freeway that would have ripped through the heart of Greenwich Village, and it rallied opposition against the conservative Tammany Hall politicians who ruled neighborhood politics. The Voice championed a reform Democrat, a young man named Ed Koch, for whom Wolf would later serve as a high-level adviser during Koch’s long reign as mayor.
Wolf guided The Village Voice for 19 years, practically inventing the urban alternative weekly, which can now be found in nearly every sizable city across the United States and Canada. His journalistic recipe combined solid cultural coverage with grooming young reporters who were capable of writing stylishly, were not nervous about offering their own views in news stories, and were willing to accept very low wages. The Voice is widely credited with boosting the popularity of off-Broadway theater and art films along with publishing the very first column of rock criticism, Richard Goldstein’s Pop Eye. Alexander Cockburn, Nat Hentoff, Jules Feiffer, Jack Newfield, and Susan Brownmiller are among the writers and artists he introduced to New York readers and the world.
Although it was celebrated for its passionate coverage of anti-war protests and the ’60s counterculture, the Voice never sounded nor looked like an underground paper. With roots in the less ideological tradition of ’50s bohemianism, Wolf made sure the paper never became a movement mouthpiece: He welcomed the views of moderate, and sometimes even conservative, writers.
Wolf left the Voice in 1974, forced out by Clay Felker, the famous editor of New York magazine, which had recently bought the paper from New York socialite and city council member Carter Burden. Wolf and Fancher sold the paper to Burden in 1970 for a handsome $3 million; Mailer was little involved with the Voice after a four-month experiment with writing a weekly column in 1956.
Dan Wolf will go down in history as a legendary editor who hardly ever changed a word of his writers’ stories. Instead of picking up a pencil after the story was turned in, he held long conversations with writers before they sat down to the typewriter. “He didn’t rearrange paragraphs as much as he rearranged perceptions and assumptions,” recalls Jack Newfield, now a columnist for the New York Post. “I thought of him as a shy and enigmatic Duke Ellington, leading a band of callow, untested soloists. . . . Dan’s genius was that he was able to orchestrate our obsessions into music.”