It took JoAnne Stang just four sentences to capture the plainspoken appeal of Jason Robards in 1967, when he was best known as a stage actor. In a passage tucked near the top of a profile she wrote for The New York Times, she sketched a sharp portrait of the future Academy Award-winner by using the simple trick of mostly listing what he didn’t have to offer.
“He does not dimple, smolder, or dispense an easy charm,” she wrote. “He does not spring upon the saddles of swiftly-moving horses. Although he has played Shakespeare, he is not a classic actor in the venerable leotard-and-doublet mold. There he stands, at 45, seam-faced and implacable, the undisputed champion of the Earnest Handyman school of acting.”
A master of the celebrity profile in an age before such writing spawned a sprawling industry, Mrs. Stang was equally perceptive about actors who were beginning their careers. She wrote the first full Times profile featuring Barbra Streisand, which was published in 1964 when Streisand was appearing in the Broadway musical “Funny Girl” as Fanny Brice. “The waifish quality that makes Fanny so appealing onstage is indubitably also present in Barbra — in varying degrees. Indeed, Miss Streisand may be the shrewdest waif of the year,” wrote Mrs. Stang, who also was skillful at eliciting telling quotes.
“I’ve told everyone I never had my nose done because I preferred it this way, but that’s not all true,” Streisand told Mrs. Stang. “I really didn’t have it done because of the pain. I’m afraid of the pain. Then there are people who tell me I’m beautiful this way. Well, they’re wrong. Beautiful I’m not, and never will be.”
Mrs. Stang, who also published a novel and a nonfiction book, died of pancreatic cancer Saturday in the Stanley R. Tippett Hospice Home in Needham. She was 91 and had moved to Needham more than 17 years ago.
“She was someone who loved words and loved writing,” said her son, David of Cambridge. “From her early years she was a very intrepid and energetic journalist. Her interest was both in the excitement of journalism, but also in literature and writing. She was terribly interested in prose style.”
Mrs. Stang did not, however, heed all the de facto pronouncements that her interview subjects offered. In 1966, for example, comedian Mel Brooks talked about the burden of keeping writing fresh when he was working on “Get Smart,” a TV show he co-created. “If I tried to write ‘Get Smart’ every week, I’d run dry very soon — I could put a couple of things together, but the juice, the chemistry wouldn’t be there,” Brooks told her. “Every show gets harder and harder for the writer …”
If she shared that view and thought the profiles she wrote became ever more difficult to produce, her angst didn’t show on the page, where the images she chose seemed to flow effortlessly. “It is true Mel Brooks has a body – a springy, compact, and entirely functioning frame — but everything below the neck seems a dull appendage to his head,” she wrote to open a Times profile. “Ideally, he might be displayed in an elongated version of a cunning baby bunting, the arms and legs blotted out and the full impact of his face left undiluted – eyes, eyebrows, nose, teeth, tongue, the thousand-word-a-minute mouth.”
The youngest of three children, JoAnne Taggart was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in the borough’s Flatbush neighborhood. Her father, Matthew Taggart, had been born on a horse farm in Ireland, in a cottage with a thatched roof. He ran a plumbing company after moving to New York.
Her mother, the former Mary Mallon, was from northern England. Mrs. Stang “was always very conscious of that and loved English culture and literature,” David said.
While still in high school she landed a job at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “I think she had a byline by the time she was 17 years old,’’ her son said. “She was very, very smart and imaginative about finding people and talking with them. She would go down to the harbor to see the troops coming back during the war, and she actually got, not to interview Churchill, but to put a question or two to him.”
Graduating early from high school, she moved to Manhattan and took classes at New York University and the New School for Social Research, all while continuing to work as a reporter. After some assignments, she returned home by trolley long past midnight.
“Manhattan was where she wanted to be,” David said. “She always credited her mother for expanding her horizons. My grandmother would take her into Manhattan when she was a little girl and show her the world was bigger than Brooklyn.”
Among those she interviewed was the actor Arnold Stang, who was best known for his comedic turns and as a TV sidekick to Milton Berle but who also had serious roles in movies such as “The Man with the Golden Arm,” in which Frank Sinatra portrayed a drug addict.
She married Stang in 1949 and they lived in Connecticut for many years before relocating to Needham to live closer to their grandchildren.
“He was just an uncommon man,” Mrs. Stang told the Globe for his obit, after he died in 2009. “And he was very hard-working, very dedicated to his career. But the most important thing in his life was his family. He often had to travel to California to work, and he’d always be on the red-eye home.”
Like her husband, Mrs. Stang considered family a priority. “She was a wonderful mom,” David said. “Following the example set by my grandmother, she was very interested in exposing my sister, Deborah, and me to everything New York had to offer. We were taken to everything on Broadway from when we were children.”
In addition to her son, Mrs. Stang leaves her daughter, Deborah of Arlington; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. The family is planning a private service.
Though she mostly wrote arts journalism, Mrs. Stang published “Shadows on the Sceptered Isle,” a novel set in England, in 1979. The following year she published “Marathon Mom: The Wife and Mother Running Book,” which she wrote with Linda Schreiber. A Kirkus Review called the book “a surprise winner.”
Mrs. Stang’s most enduring bylines, however, were perched atop the profiles she wrote, some featuring performers who, like her, had grown up in Brooklyn. Invoking an ancient Egyptian queen, she described Streisand standing “in front of a full-length mirror, head back and Egyptian eyes tilted upward — a Flatbush Nefertiti.”
Watching fellow Brooklynite Woody Allen perform comedy routines in 1963 at the Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village, Mrs. Stang noted that “on stage, he is a little less slender than the microphone, upon which he frequently seems to lean on for support.”
Allen, she wrote, “is a waif in schnook’s clothing — bedeviled always by the world and by society.”
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