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Leo Seligsohn, former Newsday entertainment critic, dies

Leo Seligsohn, shown in an undated photo, was

Leo Seligsohn, shown in an undated photo, was a Newsday entertainment critic for 33 years, retiring in 1989. Credit: Newsday

A rhyming line, an intriguing start to a story, a philosophical lecture — newsman Leo Seligsohn was always writing something in his mind, family and friends said.

In his 33 years as a Newsday entertainment critic and reporter, Seligsohn searched for depth in Manhattan plays and television programs, but what he considered his most important work came in the years before he retired in 1989, when he wrote longer pieces.

On the growth of local cable TV, he said it “creaks a little . . . But where else can you enjoy such a quaint trip around your hometown?” On a documentary about the rise of the Christian fundamentalist movement, he reported that it was headed by “the cynical power elite with their computers, direct-mail operations and talent for propaganda.”

“He took a story and made it eminently readable,” said Al Cohn, a friend and his former editor. “In some ways, it was a little like poetry.”

Seligsohn, 91, died of a heart attack Monday at his home in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Adrea Seligsohn said her husband was such a thinker that he’d get fixated on something — including a search for a copy of The New York Times at a train station — and he’d get lost for hours because he was a “directional dyslexic.” Once, she said, he sailed off the North Shore and ended up on the south shore of Connecticut.

“He really lived in his head, to the exclusion of most practicalities,” his wife said. “If food wasn’t presented to him, he wouldn’t have thought about it.”

But journalism brought a measure of order to his reflections, she said: “He loved journalism, I think because it allowed him to use his mind and convey what his thoughts were coherently to other people.”

Cohn was amazed at his co-worker’s ability to produce literary gems quickly. Once, when Cohn had writer’s block on a major story — the iconic “Ed Sullivan Show” was ending one Sunday after 23 years — Seligsohn gave him the opening line in a snap. “He said ‘Ahh, so Sunday night was canceled,’ ” Cohn recalled.

Seligsohn’s professional destiny as an entertainment critic and a journalist seemed to be shaped by two contests that he won, his wife said. When he was in fifth grade, the Manhattan native got top honors in a New York City writing competition. Then, when he was 15, he won a contest to be an actor in a summer theater in Bellport.

He launched his first news endeavor a few years later, in 1945, as a Navy man in the Pacific’s Marshall Islands. He hadn’t seen much action because World War II was ending. A bit bored and getting sunburned, Seligsohn began writing a newsy publication for his comrades about life on the island, his wife said.

After the war, he studied in France, courtesy of the GI Bill, freelanced for the International News Service, then got his journalism degree at the University of Missouri. He worked for various media outlets, including NBC, before joining Newsday in 1956.

After Seligsohn retired, he penned his thoughts on current events in letters to The New York Times and other publications on world events. Like his father, he read up on fascism and insisted that people use the term “Jews” instead of “Jewish people” because he wanted to reclaim a word that Nazi Germany had tried to stigmatize.

“His philosophy was that history was going to repeat itself,” the newsman’s wife said, “and we’d better be aware of it.”

Besides his wife, Seligsohn is survived by sons Ben of Wilton Manors, Massachusetts, and Robert of Manhattan; daughter Susan Howell of Boxford, Massachusetts; sister Nancy Seligsohn of North Andover; and two grandchildren.

A private memorial will be held Sunday, followed by burial at Mount Vernon Cemetery in Boxford.

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