Glenn McNatt, Baltimore Sun editorial writer and arts columnist, dies

Glenn Martin McNatt, a longtime Baltimore Sun editorial writer and arts columnist who adored James Brown and Bach, died Friday of lung cancer. He was 69.

“He liked to ponder great issues and figure out, ‘What can we do about this?’” said his wife, Marian Holmes of Washington.

Mr. McNatt was born in New York City to Isaac McNatt, a lawyer, and Gladys McNatt, a schoolteacher.

For years, he and his parents traveled from their home in Harlem to his grandfather’s farm in the North Carolina Piedmont region around Christmastime. In a 1992 column for The Sun, Mr. McNatt recalled his excitement at leaving Penn Station in a Pullman train, traveling through the night, and waking up “rolling over the red brown earth of tobacco country.”

Once on the farm, the city boy found more thrills in watching the animals and attending services at the local chapel. Mr. McNatt wrote that as the choir sang, “the rough-hewn little church seemed to expand and contract ever so slightly with the breath of the holy spirit.”

His family later moved to Teaneck, N.J., where they were one of the first black families on their street. In 1966, he graduated from Teaneck High School, where he played trombone in the school band. He went on to obtain his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology at Brandeis University.

Mr. McNatt briefly attended Harvard Law School but dropped out after deciding that he wanted to be a writer instead. His wife said that he often told her, “I could have been a rich lawyer, but I have so much fun as a writer.”

Despite leaving academia, Mr. McNatt always looked like he belonged on a university campus, said Ms. Holmes. “There was a friend of his who used to call him ‘the professor,’” she said. “He wore loafers and ties and sport jackets.”

After graduate school, Mr. McNatt worked at Newark’s Star-Ledger and then as an apprentice correspondent at Time Magazine in New York and Washington. He later worked at Time Life Books, located in Alexandria, Va.

While working on a book about flight for Time Life, he was inspired to try sail planing — flying aircraft that don’t use an engine. He enjoyed the hobby until near the end of his life, and had joined a sail planing club that met in Gettysburg, Pa.

In 1985, Mr. McNatt began his career at The Baltimore Sun. After a start in the editorial department, he wrote a weekly column about politics and the arts, and later became the newspaper’s arts editor.

He found great satisfaction in writing about overlooked artists, particularly artists of color. He several times interviewed Amy Sherald, who would later become the artist for former first lady Michelle Obama’s official White House portrait.

Intellectually, Mr. McNatt was “a little bit of a renaissance man,” said Ms. Holmes, and his broad range of interests was reflected in his writing. He was fascinated by photography, such as the early street photography by Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also enjoyed taking pictures, and photos he took of Lexington Market were featured in a small art exhibition.

Music was one of his passions. A piano player and guitarist, he loved everything from Bach to bluegrass and James Brown, according to his wife.

He began dating Ms. Holmes, a journalist with whom he shared mutual friends, in 2006. Both were recently divorced.

An early date was at the National Gallery of Art, where Mr. McNatt “mesmerized” his future wife with his passion for Renaissance painting.

Mr. McNatt moved from Baltimore to Washington, living in the city’s Cleveland Park neighborhood.

The couple spent rainy days watching various versions of “Carmen” and “Madame Butterfly.” They traveled to Europe to see in person many of the artworks Mr. McNatt had written about throughout his career, including Sandro Boticelli’s “Primavera.”

Last year, they visited Tennessee to watch the eclipse, and also visited Graceland, Stax Records and the Gibson guitar factory.

“He helped me see things that I had never noticed before, and I really loved him for that,” Ms. Holmes said of her late husband.

Mr. McNatt became a full-time editorial writer for The Sun in 2009, but a high point of his career came a year before that. He wrote The Sun’s endorsement for Barack Obama, whom he called “that rarest of public servants, an inspirational leader who would transcend any enduring racial barriers and call upon the best in the American character.”

He also took pride in a series of editorials he wrote condemning the death penalty, which was abolished in Maryland in 2013.

“He was the one of the only people in the newsroom who cared about Baltimore City education as much as I did,” said former coworker Erica Green, now an education reporter for The New York Times. “I always appreciated that, and respected his conclusions more for it, even when I didn’t agree. He was also such a quirky, classy guy.”

In spring 2016 Mr. McNatt, along with other members of The Sun’s editorial department, was named a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize, "for editorials that demanded accountability in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray while also offering guidance to a troubled city," the board wrote.

Later that same year, Mr. McNatt became ill with cancer. He continued to work at The Sun intermittently until early this year.

Mr. McNatt died at the Sunrise Assisted Living facility on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. Ms. Holmes had just played for him Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” — one of his favorites.

In addition to his wife, Mr. McNatt is survived by his mother, of North Carolina; a brother, Robert McNatt of San Francisco; his step-daughter, Jennifer Holmes of Washington; and two nephews. A memorial service is planned for August.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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