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
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
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
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.