John Putnam, who became Herman Melville for ‘Moby-Dick’ fans, dies at 82

John Putnam at New York City’s South Street Seaport Museum in 2008.
John Putnam at New York City’s South Street Seaport Museum in 2008.(Librado Romero/New York Times/file)

Thirty years out of Harvard College, and a few years into his job at New York City’s South Street Seaport Museum, Jack Putnam laid claim to an uncommon litany of job titles. “Bookseller, storyteller, shipkeeper, boatbuilder, fishmonger,” he wrote in 1988.

“Went to the top; fell off; spent the past seven years wondering whether or not to get back on,” he wrote that year for the 30th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

“Having too much fun back at the bottom,” he added. “Too many stories to tell, too many boats still to build, too many books to read, too many little jobs to do to want to go back to saving the world again. Besides it seems to be doing no worse in my absence.”


Instead, he became famous for his impersonations of Herman Melville, often reciting from memory long passages of “Moby-Dick.”

Mr. Putnam, who first encountered Melville’s classic novel when it was read to him when he was a boy growing up in Belmont, was 82 when he died Sept. 9 in Staten Island, N.Y., of cardiac arrest.

To portray Melville, he looked the part. “After a certain age, as a member of this gene pool, if you keep your hair and grow a beard you begin to resemble Herman,” Mr. Putnam said in a 2001 interview with The New York Times, which in 2008 dubbed him “the official historian and unofficial conscience of the South Street Seaport Museum.”

On a summer day that year, Mr. Putnam took a Times reporter on a tour of Fulton Ferry Hotel, which had been the subject “Up in the Old Hotel,” by the late New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell.

Mr. Putnam had worked in the bookstore of the museum, which owned the building housing the hotel. While selling books, Mr. Putnam met Mitchell, a North Carolina native whose essays about New York City are revered.


“He and I had had this peculiar acquaintance, without being aware of who the other was,” Mr. Putnam told the Times in 2008. “His Southern courtesy and my Yankee reserve cursed each of us never to say who we were.”

For museum visitors, Mr. Putnam could become Melville on cue. He began dressing as the author in period garb and performing a one-man show at the museum, and he also created a walking tour of Lower Manhattan and the South Street Seaport, near Melville’s boyhood home. Given his expansive beard, Mr. Putnam was also a convincing double physically.

“He was able to bring to life what it was like to be at sea,” Captain Jonathan Boulware, president and chief executive of the South Street Seaport Museum, told the Times. “Jack Putnam and Herman Melville shared a common love of the sea. Yes, he looked like Melville; yes, he could recite long passages of ‘Moby-Dick’ from memory. But it was that common love that brought the comparison to life.”

While serving in the Navy Reserve, Mr. Putnam lived for a time in Hawaii. “My lifelong fascination with the sea is unabated, and I spend what time I can sailing on it, swimming in it, diving under it, or scavenging along its edges,” he wrote in 1964 for a Harvard class report. “I am fortunate enough to have an office overlooking it, albeit through the picket fence of hotels in Waikiki.”


John Bruce Putnam was born in 1936, the son of Philip Putnam and the former Thelma Arthur, who worked at the Harvard development office. Mr. Putnam’s father started out as a stack boy in the Harvard Law School Library and become associate librarian before moving to the Northeastern University School of Law, where he was a professor of legal research and head librarian, according to his Globe obituary.

John Putnam attended Belmont Hill School and graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard College, where he was in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps.

While working summer jobs on Nantucket, Mr. Putnam met Dianne Coyle — he was a garbage collector, she was a chambermaid. They married in September 1958 and had three children. Their marriage ended in divorce.

After Harvard, “two years of defending the flag as a junior officer aboard the USS Valley Forge eased me through the initial trauma of leaving Cambridge,” he wrote for a class report in 1964.

Mr. Putnam took a summer publishing procedures course at Radcliffe College and, after driving a cab in Boston, began an academic publishing career that including working at Princeton University Press.

He later held positions at publishing houses associated with the University of Hawaii and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. By the early 1970s, he was executive director of the Association of American University Presses.

“In which capacity I am father confessor, procurer, spiritual adviser, information source, and general factotum for some 70 or more university book publishing houses spread from Oslo to Cambridge to Seattle to Honolulu to Tokyo, and all sorts of exotic points in between,” he wrote in 1973 for a Harvard class report.


He had been drawn to “Moby-Dick” through a Harvard course taught by Henry A. Murray, a scholar of the novel. A decade after graduating from Harvard, Mr. Putnam contributed a chapter to the Norton Critical Edition of “Moby-Dick.” He even considered expanding his efforts to a full-length book.

“Having served as midwife to more books than I can rightly remember, I am ambivalent about bringing one of my own into the world,” he wrote in 1968, adding: “Nonetheless, I am compelled to try.”

Mr. Putnam, who was known as Jack, began working at the South Street Seaport Museum in the early 1980s as an office manager and a cook for the Pioneer, the museum’s schooner. Subsequently, he was the retail manager at Bowne & Company Stationers, a small printing house owned by the museum, and then manager of the museum’s bookstore.

Family and friends told the Times that when Mr. Putnam recited parts of “Moby-Dick,” he was perhaps best remembered for a passage from the first chapter of “Moby-Dick” that began: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet . . . then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”


His leaves wife, Saundra Smith; two daughters, Sara and Jennifer; a son, Nathaniel; and four grandchildren. Information about a memorial service was not immediately available.

Mr. Putnam was also a photographer whose work was published in magazines, and in his spare time he built ship models and furniture. While living in Connecticut in the early 1970s, he added winemaking to his hobbies — a salve, he said, for endless yardwork. “Fighting back two acres of brush every weekend builds a mighty thirst,” he wrote in 1973.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.