Bitter 43rd Street Feud Spices Rich Times Memoir

The Times of My Life, and My Life With ‘The Times’ , by

Max Frankel. Random House, 546 pages, $29.95.

One of the many pleasures of Max Frankel’s memoir is his account of

the 30-year war he fought with A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal over who would become

the top editor of The New York Times . In the end, they both won,

each in turn. But the blood spilled along the way had a profound effect on

the reporters who worked for them, and on the unsuspecting Times

reader as well.

The Times of My Life alternates between personal history,

national politics and international diplomacy–but always, it works its

way back to Max and Abe, Abe and Max.

Both men began writing for The Times before graduating from

college, and neither of them ever worked anywhere else. Right from the

start, Mr. Frankel, a Columbia University man, exuded a sense of

entitlement, while Mr. Rosenthal, a City College guy, often seemed

uncertain about his own legitimacy. Mr. Frankel easily adopted the

patrician air of his mentor, James Reston, while Mr. Rosenthal never really

managed to disguise his Bronx roots, even after living abroad. Mr. Frankel

preferred charm, Mr. Rosenthal, intimidation. In their most important

battle, in the mid-70′s, it was the Bronx street fighter who triumphed

over the tweedy diplomatic correspondent. From 1976, Mr. Rosenthal served

10 years as executive editor, until publisher Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger

Sr., pushed him aside in favor of his perpetual competitor.

Times aficionados will discover a feast of new information about

the inner workings of the paper–more than any other book has provided

since Gay Talese’s landmark 1969 history, The Kingdom and the

Power . But even readers indifferent to newsroom gossip will find plenty

to enjoy, beginning with the riveting story of young Max’s escape, at

age 9, from Hitler’s Germany.

Crossing back and forth between Germany and Poland, he and his mother

were separated from his father and seemingly stranded in Berlin–until

his indomitable mother dared to present herself at Gestapo headquarters and

beg for two exit visas. Incredibly, she succeeded. Again incredibly,

Max’s father survived seven years in So-

viet labor camps and rejoined his family in New York on Columbus Day, in

1946.

Mr. Frankel writes that it was his status as a refugee–his

“outsiderhood”–which made him such a good reporter, and

occasionally that perspective produces really surprising conclusions.

“I have wondered all my life about my refusal to condemn all Germans

and mere Germanness,” he writes, after describing a postwar visit to

the town in Saxony where he grew up. “I do not forgive acts of horror

or indifference to them. But I cannot believe that evil resides in the

genes or culture of any one people. The Germans who acquiesced in the

persecution of the Jews had more to fear than the many peoples elsewhere

who paid no attention. If there were such a thing as ethnic guilt, how

guilty are we Americans who feed off lands seized from an annihilated

people and partake of the wealth created by slaves? “

Sometimes the surprising shades into the unlikely, as for example with

an odd charge lodged against Punch Sulzberger. In the middle of what is

generally a warm and accurate portrait of his former boss (perhaps the most

consistently underrated newspaper publisher of his generation), Mr. Frankel

says Mr. Sulzberger insisted on endorsing Al D’Amato for re-election

in 1986 because the “demagogic hack had wormed his way into the

establishment’s favor, running petty but profitable errands for New

York, including subsidies for its Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose

grateful chairman was Punch Sulzberger.” In fact, Mr. Sulzberger did

not become chairman until the year after Mr. D’Amato’s

re-election, and in any case Federal funds have never represented more than

a minuscule fraction of the museum’s budget.

Mr. Frankel’s personal history, especially the story of his boyhood

in Washington Heights, is generally more interesting than his geopolitical

judgments. But the parts that keep the book alive right to the end are

about The Times . When Punch Sulzberger’s lawyers advised him

against publishing the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Rosenthal worried that he would

be forced to resign in protest. Then “Abe began recounting his shaky

personal finances, and leading us all into weary, fearful

hallucinations.” A day later, Mr. Sulzberger reversed himself again,

and Mr. Frankel and Mr. Rosenthal joined in a rare common celebration.

Mr. Frankel was Washington bureau chief during Watergate, and he

concedes that he bungled that story, that The Times failed to match

a series of scoops by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Washington

Post in the fall of 1972. “We were too sluggish even after the

White House was implicated,” Mr. Frankel writes. But he never mentions

the fact that after he moved to New York the following year, and Abe

Rosenthal assigned Seymour Hersh to the Watergate story in Washington,

The Times had nearly as many Watergate scoops as The Post .

Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Frankel were almost equally talented

correspondents. But when Sulzberger put them into head-to-head competition

in 1973, giving Mr. Frankel control of the Sunday department, including the

Magazine, the Book Review and the Week in Review, while Mr. Rosenthal

continued to run the rest of the news department as managing editor, Mr.

Rosenthal quickly showed his superiority as an infighter. Mr. Frankel

writes: “I … had to contend with the hostility of an obviously

competitive Abe Rosenthal … [who] resisted giving staff writers time

off from the Daily to pursue Magazine projects. He even told political

writers that he did not want to read ideas in the Week in Review that had

not first appeared in his Daily pages. Although he commanded a third-floor

division of 1,000, he treated our eighth-floor platoon of 100 as a threat

and repelled bids for cooperation. For all these reasons I staggered

through my term as Sunday editor.” But many of Mr. Frankel’s

blunders were entirely of his own making. He never appreciated the editing

talents of John Leonard, the last great editor of the Book Review, and at

Arts and Leisure he replaced the brilliant (and beloved) Seymour Peck with

a second-rate apparatchik.

Worst of all, he never understood that the competition between the

Sunday and Daily cultural departments could play a pivotal role in

preserving the high standards of the newspaper. Barely two years after

assuming control of the Sunday department, Mr. Frankel decided that his new

realm was “illogical and expensive,” and “without much

redeeming journalistic value”–quite an indictment of what the

Magazine and Book Review came to look like under his direction. Mr.

Sulzberger evidently concurred; in 1976, he gave Mr. Rosenthal control of

the whole news department as executive editor. Mr. Frankel’s

consolation prize was to become editor of the editorial page. “I

recoiled with envy of Abe, contempt for editorial writing, and genuine

alarm that there was little appreciation for my strategic

thinking.”

Mr. Rosenthal proved that his unpredictable passions, combined with the

creativity of his unofficial deputy, Arthur Gelb, made him a more effective

editor than Mr. Frankel. But his brutal management style and his

willingness to use the culture pages to celebrate his friends and punish

his enemies led to his undoing. ” The Times is in the same

position as the Jews,” Bob Gottlieb remarked toward the end of the

Rosenthal years. “It’s expected to behave better than everybody

else.” Too often during his reign, Mr. Rosenthal failed to live up to

that expectation, and in 1986 Mr. Sulzberger replaced him with Mr. Frankel.

The publisher told his new editor “to break in my son Arthur as the

next publisher” and “make the newsroom a happy place

again.”

Two of the worst things about the Rosenthal regime had been its

treatment of gay employees, who lived in terror of public exposure, and its

neglect of gay stories–both of which the publisher had acquiesced in.

Animated by his own memory of an earlier Holocaust, and strongly encouraged

by the publisher’s son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who shared none of his

father’s antipathy toward homosexuals, Mr. Frankel quickly moved to

increase the paper’s coverage of AIDS and the gay community. He also

made it clear that no one would suffer any professional penalty if he or

she chose to come out of the closet. It’s appropriate that Mr. Frankel

devotes an entire chapter to these changes: They were easily his most

important achievements as executive editor.

At various points in his book, Mr. Frankel calls Mr. Rosenthal

“self-promoting,” “arbitrary, “willful,”

“volcanic” and “Lear-like.” He pays tribute to Mr.

Rosenthal’s “brilliant, instinctive news judgment,” but adds

that “the trouble was that Abe displayed his angers and affections in

ways that often terrorized subordinates.… His infatuations with people

and causes were often transparent. He boasted of keeping the paper

‘straight,’ but his measuring rod was not.”

Those judgments are deadly accurate. The gentler Max Frankel produced a

cleaner, fairer but also slightly flatter newspaper. In his eight years as

executive editor, he proved that he was a much more decent human being than

his nemesis. But Abe Rosenthal–at a huge cost to his

subordinates–was actually the more remarkable editor.