Sun critic invigorated the Baltimore art scene

Reviews drew crowds to eateries, galleries

John Dorsey 1938 - 2008

April 12, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun reporter

Readers turned to his essays on Baltimore's restaurants with their morning coffee in the 1970s - often before reading the main news. A decade later, his learned criticism forged interest in Baltimore's artistic community and drew audiences to little-known studios and galleries.

Newspaper patrons recognized that the familiar byline, John Dorsey, and what he had to say could irritate, chide or praise. They also knew his prose was readable, clear and full of precise opinions.

Mr. Dorsey died yesterday of Lou Gehrig's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, from which he had suffered for nearly four years. He was 69 and had been at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care.

He was a versatile Sun arts writer for nearly four decades. While he covered architecture, local history, music and cultural topics, it was his wit-doused restaurant reviews that appeared in the 1970s and again for a while in the 1980s that propelled him into a popularity that he personally shunned.

"He would arrive quietly and leave quietly," said C. Peter "Buzz" BeLer, the owner of the Prime Rib in Mount Vernon. "He wrote exactly what he felt and people believed him. He could not be influenced."

After a decade as restaurant critic, Mr. Dorsey then served as the paper's art critic throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

"As a critic, he was among the most erudite that Baltimore has ever seen," said Stiles T. Colwill, Baltimore Museum of Art board chairman. "As a curator, you lived and breathed by what Mr. Dorsey had to say. And yet, when he criticized a show, patrons came to see why he was so wrong or so right."

For his restaurant critic's debut, April 25, 1971, Mr. Dorsey selected the old Marconi's, which he called "the most Baltimorean" of restaurants.

He addressed the readers in a conversational tone. He found fault with Marconi's "practically tasteless" bread, but went on to praise the chicken tetrazzini and the sole Marguery.

On another review, for a steakhouse on the Alameda, he said, "You think yourself in the recreation room or the boudoir."

Many of his reviews mentioned a nameless dining companion he called "the lady." Readers also became aware that Mr. Dorsey enjoyed a martini and wine with his meal. He also grew weary of the widely served 1970s dessert known as Mrs. Pose's cheesecake as well as iceberg lettuce.

His other writings revealed a deep affection for Mount Vernon Place - where he organized a 2004 symposium. He owned a Matisse drawing and James Whistler etchings. He also had two cats, Anthony and Cleopatra. He simultaneously read and walked the streets near his Roland Park home.

"John was soft-spoken, but he had a core of steel," said James Dilts, a newspaper friend with whom he collaborated on a guide to local architecture. "He was a graceful and prolific writer on the myriad subjects covered by the feature pages or the Sunday Sun Magazine. He was a gentleman of the old school, as they like to say in Baltimore."

Born John Russell Dorsey in Baltimore, he called himself "a lover of his native city" in a short autobiographical sketch. Raised on St. George's Road, he was a 1957 Gilman School graduate who earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard University. He lived for many years in old homes in Bolton Hill and at his death resided in Roland Park.

He was the son of Charles Howard Dorsey Jr., managing editor of The Sun, and Emma Beck Dorsey.

Friends said that the elder Mr. Dorsey and son John had different personalities. At his father's bidding, the younger Mr. Dorsey began work in June 1960 at The Sun as a summer vacation job. He joined the staff permanently in September 1962 and retired in early 1999.

For a brief period in the 1980s he tried his hand at running an antiques business on Howard Street.

For many years he was a cultural features writer and edited the Sunday Sun Magazine for a year - a task he did not enjoy.

"He was quiet, almost shy," said J. Wynn Rousuck, the paper's former drama critic. "He was meticulous about his desk, his person and his written copy."

He was also book review editor from 1967 to 1969 and spent much of his later career as the paper's art critic.

"He had a commitment to the Baltimore art scene," said artist Raoul Middleman. "Yet he was not sentimental or automatically accepting in his criticism. He expected something and kept the bar high. For him, being an art critic wasn't a job. It was an act of pure conscience."

Mr. Middleman recalled Mr. Dorsey's "refined sense of taste and natural elegance" and writing that "matured by the year and grew better and better."

Jay Fisher, of the Baltimore Museum of Art, recalled yesterday that Mr. Dorsey "truly believed that art had the power to transform and enlighten."

Mr. Dorsey was the author of several books, including a guide to local architecture.

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