Abe Rosenthal died yesterday at the age of 84, from the effects of a severe stroke he suffered two weeks ago. As the dominant editor of The New York Times from 1969 to 1985, he inspired more admiration, emulation and vilification than any other journalist of his generation.
He was an up-from-the-bootstraps New York City immigrant, who suffered a crippling disease at 17 that remained a mystery in Harlem Hospital, until one of his sisters got him admitted as a charity case to the Mayo Clinic. There he was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, and underwent a series of operations that put him back on his feet. Four of his five sisters died before he was an adult.
He was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (and fifty years later, when Times sports reporter Robin Herman identified hockey player Phil Esposito as the most famous scion of that city, he was quick to correct her.) His family moved to the Bronx when he was a boy. He discovered journalism at City College, where he was the editor of the campus newspaper, and then the college correspondent for The Times. When I became his clerk in 1973, after a stint as the Columbia College correspondent, he told me that his first official act as metropolitan editor had been to raise the monthly stipend of the City College Correspondent to the amount paid to the Columbia reporter.
He was brilliant, arrogant, and incredibly insecure. He told a friend that during his first five years as the paper’s top editor, he came in every day expecting to be fired. But it turned out that Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger meant what he said in the inscription of a photo that was the first thing you saw when you entered Rosenthal’s office: “To all the years ahead.”
His nine years as a foreign correspondent in India, Poland, Switzerland and Japan earned him fan letters from young reporters like Gay Talese, and caught the attention of executive editor Turner Catledge, who lured him back to New York to be the metropolitan editor in 1963.
From then on, until he left the newsroom, Arthur Gelb was his indispensable deputy, spewing ideas like a volcano. Together, with some crucial help from Seymour Topping, they transformed the Times from an authoritative but stodgy two-section paper into the four-section powerhouse which revived its finances, without seriously compromising its commitment to hard news.
Rosenthal became managing editor in 1969, the year after Clay Felker started New York magazine. Later, Rosenthal bragged about stealing all of Clay’s ideas for service journalism, as he transformed the paper into a food-fashion-and-furniture-friendly outlet. But the Timesman never succumbed to other the temptations of the New Journalism.
“I admired him beyond measure because he took a principled position when it was unpopular and nobody else was taking it, and it saved The Times then,” Renata Adler said today, referring to Rosenthal’s commitment to fact. “He didn’t give in to what journalism was becoming … It was becoming many things that were wrong; but one was a vehicle for the vanity of the reporter. And he didn’t allow that. He also wanted reporting that could be substantiated in some way beyond ‘according to an anonymous official.’”
(In one of their periodic strokes of genius, Rosenthal and Mr. Gelb replaced film critic Bosley Crowther with Ms. Adler in 1968. She only stayed a year, but her copy revolutionized what became acceptable as cultural criticism in the newspaper.)
As editor of The Washington Post during most of Rosenthal’s tenure, Ben Bradlee was his principal competitor. “He gave the Times the best years that they ever had,” Mr. Bradlee said today. “By adding all those sections, he completed The Times; he presided over a real revolution in the paper; and they became as good as they thought they were. I wanted to beat his brains out, but he was a lovely guy, and I really liked him a lot.”
And while everyone remembers that The Times was badly beaten by Woodward and Bernstein during the first two years of Watergate, nearly everyone has forgotten that after Rosenthal hired Sy Hersh to cover the scandal, during the eight months before Nixon resigned, The Times matched The Post on the story, almost scoop for scoop.
Norm Pearlstine, who competed against Rosenthal as the editor of The Wall Street Journal, called him “the most brilliant, most important editor of my lifetime. And I say that despite the fact that the very strengths that Bob McFadden captured this morning also meant that some very talented people chose not work there—and I was the beneficiary of that. He combined extraordinary focus and dedication with immense intellectual curiosity. He so merged his own life with that of the paper, that he was intolerant of people who were unwilling to do the same. That probably meant that he lost some people that The Times wished they hadn’t lost–including some who went back after he left.”
When I worked for Mr. Pearlstine, he ran the most honest newspaper I have ever written for. But Rosenthal had the best news judgement of any editor I have ever known. Later on, Rosenthal’s fierce neo-conservatism became a hallmark of his Op-ed column, but his politics rarely affected the way he covered the news. (His personal lunch club—known informally as the “Rosenthal for President club”—consisted of Oz Elliot, Irving Kristol, Bill Buckley, Dick Clurman, Arthur Gelb, and Teddy White.
“The food at Buckley’s was always delicious,” Mr. Gelb told me today. “But after a while I stopped going because one or two of the guests were so full of themselves that eventually I lost my appetite.”
Seymour Topping, who became managing editor when Rosenthal was promoted to executive editor, chaired all the page one news conferences. “From the early 70′s right up to my retirement in 86, I never saw an example where his conservative bias influenced the play of the news,” Mr. Topping told me today.
That was the way in which he famously kept the newspaper: straight.
But he wasn’t above hyping, especially when he was the metropolitan editor. The story he promoted about thirty-eight witnesses ignoring the screams of Kitty Genovese when she was murdered was widely disputed by reporters who had actually investigated the scene on the day after the murder. They said that the victim had been pulled out of sight by her attacker, and most of her neighbors thought they were listening to a domestic dispute. Even The Times itself cast doubt on the story in a 3,000 word piece that ran in the City Section in 2004.
Rosenthal’s other problem was the way his close friendships with the rich and famous sometimes resulted in odd distortions of the newspaper’s standards. When John Leonard was the paper’s daily book critic, Rosenthal frequently edited him. And when Mr. Leonard panned a book by Rosenthal’s close friend, Betty Friedan, the frequency of Mr. Leonard’s reviews was suddenly cut in half.
No one received more special attention than Jerzy Kosinski, who accompanied Rosenthal on late night visits to some of the city’s more unusual venues. When the Village Voice suggested in 1982 that Mr. Kosinski might not have been the sole author of all of his novels, The Times responded with an unprecedented 6,500-word apologia for Mr. Kosinski, which started across the top of the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, the odd article alleged that the piece in the Voice had been indirectly inspired by a smear campaign conducted by the Polish Communist government.
By then, I had left The Times to become the press critic at Newsweek. When I described The Times piece about Kosinski as “the most dramatic evidence to date” of Rosenthal’s willingness “to use the power of the Times to reward friends and punish enemies, Rosenthal’s reaction was beyond apoplexy, according to one of his assistants.
Rosenthal also had problems with gay people, though I never thought I was affected by that, because I was still firmly in the closet when I worked at The Times. Walter Clemons was not so lucky. When Clemons was clearly the best candidate to fill a slot as one of the paper’s daily book critics in 1970, Rosenthal passed over him after Christopher Lehmann-Haupt told the editor that Mr. Clemons was gay.
“I was outraged and hurt, and thought, What has this got to do with anything?” Clemons remembered.
On the other hand, when Rosenthal started dating Shirley Lord, the beauty editor at Vogue, more gay people entered his social circle, and he became more comfortable with them. In January, 1993, he even used his column to come out in favor of Bill Clinton’s short-lived proposal to allow gay people to serve openly in the military.
Rosenthal was famously quotable, although competing publications weren’t always smart enough to use his comments. When a Watergate tape revealed that Richard Nixon had said, “I don’t give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it,” The Times printed shit for the first time, though only in the text of the tape, and not in the accompanying news story.
When a Newsweek reporter called Rosenthal to ask if this was a seismic change in the paper’s standards, he replied, “No. We’ll only take shit from the President.”
But the magazine never printed that.
Much more widely circulated was his reaction when it was revealed that Times reporter Laura Foreman had been sleeping with Pennsylvania state Sen. Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, when she had been covering the politician for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I don’t care if my reporters are fucking elephants,” said Rosenthall, “as long as they aren’t covering the circus.” Then he fired Foreman.
Washington correspondent Steve Weisman was one of many Timesmen who remembered Rosenthal with affection yesterday. Shortly after Rosenthal became an op-ed columnist, he and his new wife, Shirley Lord, visited Weisman in India, a place Rosenthal had loved ever since he lived there as a correspondent.
Messrs. Weisman, Rosenthal and Ms. Lord went to the New Delhi train station at eleven o’clock at night. “It was just mobbed,” Mr. Weisman remembered, “with homeless people camped out, cooking their dinners with their families. It smelled of everything, and Abe just looked at it and said, ‘I love this.’ He just embraced things that people don’t embrace.”
After an overnight trip on the train, the party transferred to a car to go up into the mountains to interview the Dali Lama. “I say this with all affection,” said Mr. Weisman. “It was very sobering to be in the presence of two people who thought they were God.”