Desmond Ryan, 68, longtime Inquirer critic

Posted: December 15, 2011

He had the face of a laughing leprechaun. Desmond Ryan, 68, the puckish journalist, incorrigible punster, and irreverent novelist who worked at The Inquirer for 36 years in various capacities, died Thursday, Dec. 15, at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

The cause was complications from carcinoma of the tongue, said Pat Ryan, his spouse of 44 years.

As the satirical columnist of an Inquirer Sunday magazine feature called "The Skeptic," Mr. Ryan parodied Mayor Frank L. Rizzo in a 1976 mock interview. It prompted Rizzo to bring a $6 million defamation suit against the paper and send his union supporters to picket the Inquirer Building, preventing the paper's distribution.

As The Inquirer's film critic from 1975 to 2001 and theater critic from 2001 until he retired at the end of 2005, Mr. Ryan, who studied literature at New College, Oxford, could dispose of a work or sum up a director's or filmmaker's strength in a sentence.

"The Police Academy films," he wrote of the series about the comic constabulary in the 1980s, "have become one of the wrongs of spring." In a review of Empire of the Sun, he wrote: "In conjuring up the deepest emotions of childhood, Steven Spielberg is a director without peer. He knows how to reach children and touch their parents by reminding them of the way these feelings shape our adult lives."

In his 1979 novel, Helix, inspired by the discovery of Legionnaire's disease at the Bellevue-Stratford, and his 1982 novel, Deadlines, about political corruption in South Philadelphia, he used his skills as a onetime City Hall reporter to tell stories with forensic detail.

Mr. Ryan was born in London during the Blitz, the son of pubkeepers. "A true Cockney," said his wife. From his youth he was a voracious reader and virtuoso guitarist who favored the Spanish repertory. He studied guitar with Julian Bream and attended a summer program under the instruction of Andrés Segovia.

Mr. Ryan met his future wife in London, where she was on holiday in 1966 during World Cup fever, England against West Germany. "If Germany had won, we never would have gotten married," Mrs. Ryan joked Thursday. They wed in 1967. Shortly afterward, he was hired by the Evening Bulletin as a City Hall reporter.

Among his first assignments when he joined The Inquirer in 1969 was to interview families that had lost sons in the Vietnam War. Often, when he arrived at a soldier's home, the family had not yet been notified. After one time too many being the bearer of bad news, Mr. Ryan told his editors that the families were not home. He was reassigned to the City Hall bureau.

He would subsequently employ a similarly creative excuse to be relieved from reviewing horror movies: He told a gullible colleague that frightening films restimulated the horror of being attacked by rats when he was in bomb shelters during World War II.

"Des was irreverent and had a big mouth," Robert Greenberg, a former assistant managing editor of The Inquirer, recalled Thursday. That irreverence was never more evident than in Mr. Ryan's parody of Rizzo, the onetime police commissioner who in 1976 was vocally opposed to hiring women on the force.

In a piece of comic ventriloquism redolent of 1970s paternalism and bigotry, Mr. Ryan imagined Rizzo's defending his position thus: "I mean, who really wants broads on the police? What about you're having a fight with the wife and givin' her the back of your hand when the Polack down the street puts the squeal in. You want some bull dyke come chargin' on your property all ready with a swift kick in the lasagnas? No way. Not while I'm mayor."

There are so many Desmond Ryan stories, more than the thousands of pieces he wrote during his Inquirer career. Here's one: Although he hated, hated, hated anyone's talking at movies and often was confrontational when a fellow filmgoer did, Mr. Ryan cherished the occasion when the fellow behind him at Fatal Attraction, correctly interpreting the expression on Glenn Close's face when she sees Michael Douglas' pet rabbit, solemnly exclaimed, "Bunny gonna die."

The Ryan wordsmith gene was passed along to his son, Chris, 34, soccer columnist for the website Grantland.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a brother and a sister. Memorial arrangements are pending.

Donations may be made to Friends Select School, 1651 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia 19103.


Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com.

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