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Tag: murray kempton

BGS: The Best-Kept Secret in American Journalism is Murray Kempton

Let’s stick with Mr. Kempton, shall we? Here’s a wonderful portrait of Kempton by David Owen. It originally appeared in the March 1982 issue of Esquire and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

 

“The Best-Kept Secret in American Journalism Is Murray Kempton”

By David Owen

 

AT THE Democratic National Convention in 1980, a small brigade of young reporters dogged the footsteps of a man in a dark green suit. The man picked his way through the crush on the floor of the convention hall, pausing now and then to glance up at the podium. When he paused, the young reporters paused too. Then the man moved on again, puffing on his pipe and cradling a spiral notebook in his arm. None of the young reporters had a pipe to puff on, but most of them had notebooks cradled in their arms, and when the man in the green suit stopped to scribble an observation, the young reporters scribbled too. They looked like obedient goslings learning the lay of the barnyard from their beloved mother goose.

The man in the green suit wasn’t a candidate or a kingmaker or an undercover cop. He was a newspaper columnist named Murray Kempton, and the reporters following him (I was one of them) were a band of his admirers. Something like this happens almost everywhere he goes: when Kempton covers an important story, other reporters cover him.

Murray Kempton is a sixty-four-year-old columnist for the Long Island paper Newsday and one of the real heroes of his profession. He is an old-fashioned reporter who knocks himself out in his search for stories and then writes them up in an elegant style that combines the pithy wickedness of Martial’s epigrams with the restrained excess of late Augustan prose. He is an eloquent champion of the lowly and a tireless persecutor of the corrupt and unjust. A dramatist at heart, he plies his trade wherever circumstances have contrived to build a stage, leading him one day to a hearing of the National Labor Relations Board, another to the sentencing of John Lennon’s murderer, another to a screening of a movie about crooked policemen. His nose for news is eclectic but exacting. For more than thirty years he has covered politics, labor, sports, literature, and a dozen other topics with such consummate skill and wit that in some circles he is spoken of in the same breath with H. L. Mencken. And yet, Kempton’s career has been mostly an obscure one. His colleagues and readers revere him, but in the vast territory beyond the suburbs of New York he is virtually unknown. He won a National Book Award a decade ago and a handful of other prizes, but he has never had anything resembling nationwide acclaim. His columns have never been syndicated, his books are out of print, he has never won a Pulitzer Prize. Murray Kempton is the best-kept secret in American journalism.

I FIRST encountered Kempton’s writing in college in a back issue of The New York Review of Books. The piece I read was so graceful and so incisive that I was astonished to learn that its author earned his living as a columnist for Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. The Post was a lively leftist paper when Kempton started out there in 1942, but under Murdoch it has been known less for its editorial quality than for its sensational full-page headlines. When Kempton left the Post for Newsday last year, most of his fans believed he had taken a step in the right direction, but the move cost him the heart of an already limited readership: Newsday is virtually unobtainable in New York City.

Kempton has occasionally done what his admirers have hoped he would do and broken away from newspapers to find a form in which he could reach a wider audience (and write at greater length). But his defections have never been long-lived. He left the Post for an editorship at The New Republic in 1963 but resigned a year later after discovering he preferred New York to Washington and daily deadlines to weekly ones. In 1969, he left the Post again, this time to become a free-lance writer. He excelled and even flourished at his new undertaking, and he did some of the best work of his career; but the newspaper eventually drew him back.

Born and raised in Mencken’s Baltimore, Kempton has journalism in his blood. He was weaned on the sort of newspapers that people tuned their lives to, and the fact that such newspapers don’t exist anymore has never entirely daunted him. Murdoch’s Post isn’t Mencken’s Sun, but Kempton has learned to make do with what’s available.

“I like outrageous newspapers,” he explains. “And I loved working for the Post. I enjoyed all that nonsense. The Post‘s headlines are like those signs in restaurants that say HOME COOKING: nobody believes them. My only objection to the Post is that it has that British view of political coverage. If you have a job like mine, you have to go around a lot, and it gets kind of embarrassing if the paper is knifing somebody. It was the kind of paper I’d rather read than write for.”

“But why write for newspapers at all?” I ask.

“I really do like newspaper reporting,” Kempton says. “I suppose it’s the fraternity of journalism that I love. And there’s also the fact that you’re paid a living wage. This is just the perfect life. You get up in the morning, look at the AP schedule, and just go out and do something. I expect to do this until I drop dead.”

“What about books?” I ask. Kempton has written four: Part of Our Time in 1955, America Comes of Middle Age in 1963, The Briar Patch, which won a National Book Award in 1973, and a book about the 1950s, which has not yet been published.

“I’ll never do another one,” he says. “I can’t see the possibility. And I can’t work as a free-lance magazine writer because, one, there isn’t that much money in it, and two, it takes so long. I’ve never wanted to be a syndicated columnist. I’m not a good familiar essayist, and I never have been, and I’m not about to become one now. I think I’m fairly smart, and if I see something happen and think about it awhile, my mind absorbs it; but I have to have something to react to. It’s the difference between a heavy hitter and a counter-puncher.”

As always, Kempton is self-deprecating to a fault. As a writer he could climb into the ring with anyone, but saying he couldn’t is as much a part of him as journalism is. With typical modesty he brushes aside all praise: “I’ve always thought I lacked the moral fiber that makes enemies,” he says. A slim, professorial figure with horn-rimmed glasses and a discrete collection of permanently rumpled suits, he is steeped in the faultless manners of his Confederate forebears. He “ma’am”s congresswomen and secretaries with equal deference and is never less than civil, even to the politicians he eviscerates in print. His face is scholarly but kind. His voice, a tobacco-thickened mixture of resonances with a hint of a southern drawl, is what Mark Twain’s must have been—a storyteller’s voice.

“You know,” he says, “Murdoch once paid me a great compliment. He said, ‘I don’t think you’re much of a writer, but where do you find these stories?’ A city is full of extremely good stories. I’m very lazy. I can’t go out and interview little old ladies, because I think that’s just an invasion of privacy. So what I like to cover is some sort of set scene. And since the papers don’t cover these things to a very great extent, I have a kind of monopoly.”

In an era when reporters thrust themselves into the foreground of their stories, Kempton is a man apart. He is a perpetual outsider, a careful observer who learns by keeping his eyes and ears open. His obscurity is one of the secrets of his craft. “It is a fundamental fact about journalism,” he has written, “and might even be a rule if it had the attention it deserves—that it is next to impossible to judge any public figure with the proper detachment once you begin calling him by his first name.”

IN THE  fall of 1955, Murray Kempton traveled to Lexington, Mississippi, on one of many journeys he took through the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The local sheriff was a man named Richard F. Byrd, a former Chevrolet salesman who had been elected under the slogan, Just ask the Boy Scouts about me. As sheriff, Byrd allowed his friends to prosper in the bootlegging business and spent spare moments beating up Negroes.

One night in 1954, Byrd drove up to a small group of law-abiding blacks and told them to “get gain’.” As they dispersed, Byrd pulled out his gun, aimed at random, and shot one of them in the back. A few days later, Hazel Brannon Smith, the editor of the local paper, found the courage to run a signed, front-page editorial condemning the sheriff. Hers was the only voice, official or otherwise, ever raised against him. Kempton visited her a year and a half after the shooting and then walked across the street to talk to the sheriff. He wrote in the Post:

There was a shoving of the door, and its jamb was tilled by Richard F. Byrd, himself, angling his shoulders to get through, a great, stubby, pearl-handled pistol cradled flat in his right hand as though he were carrying an ice-cream cone starting to melt.

[Deputy Sheriff] Coy Farmer backed off to a corner, and the sheriff of Holmes County—the strong right arm of the bootleggers and the Citizens Council—his pale hat drawn down to his steel glasses, a thick vein beating in his neck, pulled open the desk drawer and laid his weapon beside all its pretty sisters, another revolver, two blackjacks and a sap. He was like a collector savoring his treasures, and then he turned the eye of a basilisk upon his visitor….

“What’s yer name,” he said. “You’ve been around here before, haven’t ye?” The visitor said no, and gave his name and the sheriff wrote it down as slowly as though the pencil were a blunt knife and he were cutting flesh. There was a slow recognition beginning at the ankles and rising to the knee-hinges that the sheriff of Holmes County was sitting there balancing the pleasure and the peril involved in working over his visitor right there in the office. What need is there here for the sheriff to carry a gun in the daylight? Of course, the need is interior; Richard F. Byrd needs the feel of a weapon by daylight as some of us need whisky for breakfast; the only lawless, violent man in sight in Lexington at high noon is the appointed guardian of its law.

The visitor went back to say good-by to Hazel Smith, and said that he calculated his supply of adrenalin was good for just three minutes more in town. Hazel Smith rolled back her curly head and laughed; it was the laugh of a debutante. It will take a braver man than I to look Richard Byrd in the eye again; but, praise God, it takes a braver man than he to look Hazel in the eye.

Northern journalists by the dozen descended on the South in the 1950s, but only one of them sent back dispatches that captured more than a shadow of what he had seen. Kempton’s columns exposed the villainies of the time and celebrated the small acts of courage and humanity that marked the beginnings of the civil rights movement. While other reporters filed bloodless summaries of the trials and demonstrations, Kempton wrote what were essentially short stories, and all contained within the columnist’s eight-hundred-word limitation. He compresses volumes into the exasperating one-sentence paragraphs that are the stock-in-trade of daily journalism, and can set scene and mood as succinctly as O. Henry.

Over the course of his career, Kempton has written brilliantly about figures as diverse as Jimmy Hoffa and Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Reagan and Willie Mays, Nikita Khrushchev and H. L. Mencken, Jean Harris and Machiavelli. He is an expert on Italian opera, the Catholic Church, Henry James, the New York Giants. His reporting on the political conventions of the past thirty years is unequaled. His book The Briar Patch, a close study of the “Panther 21″ trial of the early 1970s, not only remains the best account of the New York Black Panthers; it is also considered one of the two or three finest books ever written about the clash between radicals and government in that period. In 1967, he wrote a groundbreaking essay on Dwight D. Eisenhower from which historians have been pilfering ever since.

In his article Kempton overturned the view, which at the time was the consensus, that Eisenhower had been little more than an ineffective bumbler in the White House. Looking deeper, Kempton discovered a shrewd leader who had maintained his power by hiding his hand in everything he did and by allowing Nixon and Dulles, his Vice-President and Secretary of State, to catch the flak. Kempton also found in Eisenhower a general who was unromantic about military matters and who coolly anticipated the certain doom of the French at Dien Bien Phu. He wrote:

Never thereafter could he contemplate the war in Indochina except in the frozen tones of a War College report on a maneuver by officers who can henceforth abandon all hope of promotion. The French, he instructs Foster Dulles, have committed the classic military blunder. In Geneva, Dulles is said to have hinted that the United States might use the atom bomb to save the French; there is no evidence that he would have dared transmit that suggestion to a President who plainly would not have trusted him with a stick of dynamite to blow up a fishpond.

Two years later Garry Wills took Kempton’s article and reassembled it virtually paragraph by paragraph in a fine chapter in Nixon Agonistes. “I stole all my stuff on Eisenhower from Murray,” Wills cheerfully admits. (There’s a fair amount of Kempton in the rest of Nixon Agonistes, too.) Almost every historian who has written about Eisenhower since then has done the same. Kempton’s revisionism of fifteen years ago is the party line today.

This sort of thing happens all the time with Kempton. It happened with his pieces on Joe McCarthy, it happened with his pieces on Richard Nixon, it happened with his pieces on Vietnam. For decades first-rate writers have been sifting through the fragments of important stories only to find that Kempton has been there first and made off with most of the booty.

“GOING AROUND” is what Kempton calls it. Some days he walks for miles through New York City peering into courtrooms, dropping by government offices, turning over rocks looking for a story. Tagging along behind him at the Democratic convention, I heard him reveal the secret of his method: “I have no sources.” He insists on seeing things for himself. He will sit for hours at some excruciatingly boring hearing, working a crossword puzzle in his lap, waiting for nothing more than a moment of drama he can turn into one of his incomparable vignettes.

This morning I am waiting in the hallway outside Newsday‘s Manhattan bureau just after nine when he emerges from the rush-hour mob of the elevator. He is pushing the battered red bicycle that has been his preferred mode of transportation for years. The basket over the front wheel is crammed with this morning’s newspapers, the rack over the back wheel holds a dog-eared briefcase. Kempton unlocks the door, and we step inside.

Newsday‘s Manhattan office isn’t much to look at. There are a dozen desks, a copying machine, a drinking fountain, and a closet full of wire-service Teletypes. Kempton’s desk is just like all the others, a paper-clogged little perch over next to one of the walls, and he has to share an electronic composing terminal with the reporter next to him. He pounds the bowl of his pipe on the edge of his ashtray, then fishes a gooey pipe cleaner from somewhere on his desk and reams it through the stem.

“I went to see The Magic Flute last night,” he says, “and I must say that Tamino reminds me of Prince Charles. Have you seen The Magic Flute?”

“No,” I say.

“It’s so beautiful. And so boring.”

A woman across the office shouts that the Associated Press schedule for today has just come over the wire. I go to fetch a copy, then return to Kempton’s desk.

“Thank you, sir,” he says as he scans the paper.

“Anything good in there?” I ask.

Kempton shakes his head. “Not a damn thing.” He rummages around in one of his drawers, pulls out a can of butane, and begins to fill his lighter. “I’ve got two bad stories now,” he says. “If nothing else turns up, we’ll go to the criminal court.”

Back in the old days at the Post, Kempton and labor columnist Victor Riesel worked out of an upstairs office with a window that opened onto the roof. Kempton, who began as Riesel’s assistant and took over his job two years later, would stroll in, chewing on his pipe, and greet Riesel by saying, “Hello, fellow worker. Whom do we hack today?” They would then climb out onto the roof, which they treated as a private terrace, and pace back and forth in deep conversation, filling the air with smoke and fleshing out an idea for that day’s column.

The world has changed a great deal since those days, but Kempton’s journalistic instincts have survived intact. He works hard. He approaches every story as though he were in competition with half a dozen other reporters, all of them scrambling for a scoop. And it doesn’t seem to bother him that there aren’t half a dozen papers in New York anymore, or that he is often the only reporter on the beat.

Coupled with Kempton’s unstinting diligence is a moral and artistic perfectionism that has brought him into conflict with his editors over the years. “Murray resigned roughly every other day,” says former Post managing editor Paul Sann. “I used to keep a file of his resignations, but I had to throw it out because it took up so much room.” Sometimes Kempton actually left the Post when he quit, but he usually came back within twenty-four hours.

Sann remembers one experience in particular. It was the final night of a political convention, and the Post’s reporters were filing their stories from the floor. Kempton was seated next to Sann, working on what was intended to be the paper’s main wrap-up of the convention.

“Murray would write a take and put it under his portable,” Sann recalls, “and then go out for a walk on the floor, puffing on his pipe. Then he would come back and write another take and put it under his portable.” This continued until Kempton had piled up seven or eight pages under his typewriter, at which point he headed back out onto the floor of the convention hall and disappeared.

“Finally,” says Sann, “about four A.M. Murray reappeared from somewhere and said he had nothing he could file, because what he had written was just no good. So I lifted up the portable and took out the copy and read it. And it was absolutely priceless. It was Kempton at his best.”

While Sann was reading, Kempton, dejected, got up to leave. Sann pulled him back into his chair. “I said, ‘Murray, you ain’t gonna write better than this no matter how long you live. Now you gotta wrap it up, because if you don’t, I’m gonna.’ So he puffed on his pipe for a minute and then said, ‘All right, fellow worker. I’m ashamed of this copy, but you’re my friend, and I’ll write another take.’”

Similar anxieties still crop up from time to time. For several years he has been working on his book about the 1950s. “I struggled along,” he says, “but I didn’t have any particular feeling for it after a while. What I was afraid of was that I’d get lousy reviews, and I never have gotten lousy reviews—although I think the way I’ve magnificently avoided success has been to my benefit; the party of envy does not fall upon me as it does upon so many others. And, of course, if the book is never published, everybody will think it’s a masterpiece that never saw the light of day. I mean, Arthur Schlesinger keeps stopping me on the street and saying, ‘When is your book coming out?’ It doesn’t seem to be absolutely required that it appear.”

At a little before ten this morning we set out to track down the handful of story ideas that Kempton has come up with for today. One of them involves Jack Abbott, the convicted murderer who was paroled at the urging of Norman Mailer and who is now the author of a popular book about prison life. Yesterday the police announced that Abbott is a suspect in the weekend murder of a waiter at a Lower East Side restaurant. Kempton has decided to go down to the criminal court building, on the chance that Abbott will turn himself in.

“If anyone should call for me,” he hollers over his shoulder as we leave the office together, “tell them I’m in search of Norman Mailer’s last sound decision.”

On the subway downtown Kempton examines our fellow passengers and says, “Every composite drawing I’ve ever seen has looked exactly like the people sitting in whatever subway car I happened to be riding in at the time.” Kempton himself looks a little damp just now: we had to walk through the rain to get here. The blond-gray curls at the back of his head are glistening, and there are droplets on the lenses of his glasses. Even moist, though, he is an impressive figure. He also has an uncanny power to make you want to emulate him. It’s only our second meeting, but already I’m dressed exactly as he is (gray suit, white shirt, blue tie). When David Halberstam was a young reporter in Mississippi in the 1950s, he used to make weekend pilgrimages and gaze across a courtroom at Kempton, who was covering a trial. Halberstam couldn’t find the nerve to introduce himself until several years later. Kempton in those days had a collection of jazz records that he carried on the road, and for years afterward David Halberstam did too.

Even the victims of Kempton’s pen tend to find him irresistible. When he moved to The New Republic in 1963, he decided to do a piece on McCarthy hatchet man Roy Cohn, about whom he had written several nasty newspaper columns. Cohn later told a Newsweek reporter what happened: “When he called me for an appointment, he told my secretary he had discussed the piece with his editors and there wasn’t the slightest possibility he could give me a fair shake. I wasn’t going to see him, but when someone tells you that, how can you possibly refuse?”

Kempton’s effect on others is perhaps not the first thing one would expect from a man whose life has been filled with more than the usual sorrows. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second in a separation. A son, James Murray Jr. , was killed in an automobile accident ten years ago. Another son was born with a serious learning disability. A daughter, the (former) writer Sally Kempton, now a disciple of the guru Muktananda, once lashed out at her father in a bitter feminist memoir published in this magazine. Money has always been tight. Kempton now lives frugally and alone in a tiny apartment in Manhattan.

At the courthouse Kempton leads me to the dungeonlike pressroom, where he is immediately welcomed as a favorite son. Mike Pearl, who has covered the courts since the Early Cretaceous Period, immediately surrenders his desk and phone, the throne and scepter of his epochal reign. Pearl is king here, but Kempton takes precedence. For an hour he keeps our comer of the pressroom in stitches.

“This is the only murder case I know of where the possible hideout is The New York Review of Books,” he says, referring to the fact that part of Jack Abbott’s prison book was published in that magazine. “I don’t know, do you think he may surrender to The Hudson Review? He’s classy, you know. Maybe he’ll wait to turn himself in at the National Book Awards ceremony.”

When it becomes clear that Abbott isn’t going to show up, we head over to City Hall, where Kempton receives another royal reception. “Murray the K!” someone bellows when he steps into the pressroom. On the front steps we run into Mayor Koch, who is polite but wary, and with good reason: Kempton can give any politician the willies. At a City Hall press conference once, Kempton sat in a chair that broke beneath him, and Koch said, “Here comes Murray Kempton, breaking my furniture.” Kempton quickly corrected him. “It’s the people’s furniture, Mr. Mayor.”

“I WAS born in Baltimore,” Kempton says, thereby summarizing virtually all he chooses to reveal about his life. He is an extremely private man who seldom talks about his background and almost never about his personal life. Even his close friends find they know little about him. At the heart of Kempton’s reticence is a feeling, amounting almost to a code of honor, that one simply doesn’t talk about these things. Kempton is a very proud man, a man for whom “carrying on” has all the personal necessity of some great and ancient ancestral duty. When things go wrong, he takes pains to keep the injury to himself and to keep the people around him from shouldering what he believes to be a private grief. “I don’t think you talk about your troubles,” he says.

When Kempton was three, his father died of bronchitis and his mother moved her two sons into a modest Baltimore row house owned by her father, a judge. The four of them shared the house with Mrs. Kempton’s sister, who had never married. Kempton and his brother, now a Baltimore lawyer, walked a couple of blocks in one direction to school, a couple of blocks in another to church, and never ventured very far beyond the close confines of the neighborhood, which was in the gradual process of falling apart. He spent much of his youth buried in books.

“What was your childhood like?” I asked.

“Unattractive,” he said. “I mean, I was.”

“What did you want to be when you grew up?”

“I don’t have any idea what I wanted to be,” he said. “I was such a wet young man that all I wanted to be was left alone. No, I guess my ambition was to be an editorial writer. I think my dream was to write those things where you endorse Warren G. Harding for President. I had a kind of hortatory side to me then. I don’t know what I wanted to be. I wanted to be beloved of women, which I didn’t succeed in doing. Rich. A senator.” He paused for a moment. “My idea of a good senator is Howard Cosell.”

While in college, at Johns Hopkins, Kempton was editor of the student newspaper. He was also a campus legend. For years after his graduation, student journalists looked back on the period of his editorship as something of a golden age in the paper’s history. He became a member of the Young Communist League and, later, of the Socialist party. After graduation his first thought was to move away from Baltimore, and especially away from his neighborhood, whose decay he found oppressive. He worked briefly as publicity director of the American Labor party, then signed on at the Post in 1942.

In all the years since then he has lived a life true to the sort of ideals that most people shed as a matter of course.

“There used to be an old game that [Nation editor] Vic Navasky played,” says Russell Baker.”He’d send you a questionnaire to till out for a magazine he was editing. The question was, ‘Why did you sell out?’ Murray is the only guy I can think of who would be able to answer, ‘I never did.’”

I NEVER interview anyone,” Kempton said, “because I’m an atrocious interviewer. I’ll make a long speech, and then the guy I’m interviewing will say, ‘You may be right,’ and that’s the end of the interview.”

We were sitting in a Chinese restaurant around the comer from my apartment. Kempton had pedaled his bicycle uptown from Newsday‘s Times Square office to meet me there, and when he arrived, he had a sack of groceries under his arm: he had picked up his breakfast on the way.

Kempton sipped red wine and glanced over the menu. He mentioned that he had once tried to interest a publisher in subsidizing him for two years while he compiled a “collection of history as written by losers.” The project came to nothing, but there is something wonderfully typical about his having thought of it in the first place. Kempton has a maverick’s affection for dignified failures, and some of his best columns have concerned people who, for one reason or another, didn’t measure up. In 1956, on the day after Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in the history of the World Series, Kempton devoted his column to Sal Maglie, who was the losing pitcher in that contest. While every other sportswriter in the country turned his attention to Larsen, Kempton stole quietly into the loser’s locker room and came away with undoubtedly the best piece on the series.

“He worked his arm a little,” Kempton wrote, “and blew on his hands as though he came from a world no sun could warm.” Maglie was an old man, forty years old. He pitched what was in some ways the greatest game of his life, and he lost. That’s exactly the sort of story Kempton loves.

“Did you watch the royal wedding?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I kept hoping Lady Diana would run away with John McEnroe. You know, I thought that Borg match at Wimbledon was one of the most wonderful things I’d ever seen in my life. As time goes on I’ve come to hate the British. I don’t think anyone likes them anymore.”

Athletes fascinate Kempton (“You know what I like about them? They have statistics”), and one of the athletes who fascinates him most is Muhammad Ali.

“I have the most terrible awe of the man who has to fight the fight,” he said. “I remember the night before the Liston fight I was over in a black hotel in Miami having a cup of coffee with Malcolm X. I was being pompous about the Muslims, and I said to Malcolm, ‘You know, I have a lot of differences with you guys, but the thing is, I’ve known black nationalists for years—city black nationalists—and what always struck me about them was that they were terrified whenever they came into the white world. And the thing that fascinates me about your people is that they’re not afraid.’

“And Malcolm said to me, ‘That’s it! I’ve got to tell Cassius!’

“Clay was staying at the hotel, and there was a wonderful kid named Archie who worked for him. So Malcolm said to him in his imperial way, ‘Archie, go get Cassius. This is how he can win. He’s got to understand that he’s not afraid.’

“Well, Archie came back very shame-faced and said, ‘Cassius ain’t here.’ Malcolm said, ‘Where is he?’ And Archie said, ‘He took the car to meet Ray Robinson, and he hasn’t been seen for two hours.”‘

Kempton laughed heartily. “The point was that he was on a wavelength that none of us could understand. I mean, it’s something to have been the only heavyweight champion of the world, in my lifetime, who was his own man.”

Kempton is a masterful conversationalist. One doesn’t so much interview him as interrupt his train of thought.

“Someone once told me that you and Nixon were drinking buddies,” I said. “Is that true?”

“My social connection with Nixon,” he said, “consists of a series of moments in which I would run into him in the course of stories I was covering and he would say, ‘Slumming?’ And I would say, ‘Mr. Vice-President, I don’t live in a terribly high-rent district as it is.’ That was the extent of our conversation, but it happened again and again.Then, early in his administration, I was at the White House for some reason, and Nixon spotted me and stuck out his hand, and I had this horrible feeling that he was about to say, ‘Slumming? ” ‘ Kempton laughed. “I mean, the man knew how to conduct himself.

“Anyway, that was the absolute extent of our friendship, from which I profited greatly, because the son of a bitch—no offense meant—the man they snatched the golden bough from, is the single most brilliant political analyst I’ve ever known in my life. You give him any business except his own, and he would have been the greatest political manager alive. You know, I met him for lunch once. I had just seen John V. Lindsay, and I said to Nixon, ‘Lindsay has the greatest political future of anybody I’ve seen.’ And Nixon said, ‘Lindsay has no political future. In four years he’ll have some terrible fight with Nelson Rockefeller and he’ll end up a Democrat.’ Incredible!

“I’ve never understood him,” Kempton continued. “He had this incredibly keen political sense, which would just stop your breath, aesthetically, but he was always a bit ashamed of it. Maybe he wanted to be a tyrant, I don’t know. But whatever else he wanted to be, he wanted to be a great historical figure. And then he would collapse in awe before all these eastern Republicans. Intellectually he was worth a hundred of those people, but he could never escape being a figure of irony and ridiculousness, because whenever he came in the presence of some biggy, he immediately closed his eyes and thought, ‘Poor little me, listening to the sound of the railroad tracks in Whittier, California, now I’m in the big time.’ And who was it? John Mitchell. The big time!”

Shortly after Kempton’s son was killed in 1971, a mysterious messenger left a note at Kempton’s door. Although the note was handwritten on White House stationery, Kempton at first had no idea who had sent it.

“To the best of my memory,” he said, “the letter said something like, ‘When I read of your son’s death, I thought of you at the time we first met, and I remembered the idealism you showed.’ Now, I’m reading this letter addressing me as an old friend in this handwriting with which I am not familiar, and I figure maybe it’s from Steve Hess [at that time, national chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth]. But it was from Nixon. Now, what the hell was he talking about? My son was a member of the resistance and stood in total opposition to everything Nixon was doing; and as for my idealism, the first time I met Nixon I was trying to get something on Alger Hiss.

“You know, Nixon meant it in some way. I mean, he wanted to mean it. I don!t understand him. Hitler, Stalin, any of these people—they just didn’t have those dimensions. The sad thing about Nixon is that he’s capable of quite sincere emotions, and yet he invents. He didn’t write me a letter because he thought he would gain anything by it—with his rotten reputation, what did he have to gain? He wrote me a letter because he imagined this community. The fascinating thing about Nixon is that he social-climbs down.”

We sipped tea and Kempton lit his pipe. It was getting late.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.

Kempton puffed a moment. “Do you know Mencken’s comment about being hit on the head by Huckleberry Finn?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” he said, “I suppose Huckleberry Finn is the greatest book I have ever read.” A gentleman present, as Boswell used to say, responded with something drunken and unintelligible about “Huck’s freedom,” and Kempton shook his head.

“People who talk about freedom don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “Huck doesn’t say, I want to be free. He says, I’m going to light out for the territory—something beyond where you are. It’s not to escape, it’s to find. And that’s what makes it such a great book.

“I have more freedom than I can live with. I don’t want freedom; I’d like to be responsible. I guess what I love about Huck is his sense of responsibility. It would not be a good book if he didn’t have a moral sense. And I always like to think that Huck wanted to light out for the territory not because of what he was escaping but because of what might be there.”

FOUR MORNINGS a week Murray Kempton, the Huckleberry Finn of American journalism, climbs onto his bicycle and pedals out into the world in search of what may be there. For more than thirty years he has been finding things other writers have not even thought to look for, and he has done so with a compelling humanity that is rare not just in his profession but in the human race as well. I have followed him as he made his regular rounds, and I have eaten at his table, and I am not all that certain that he is not the greatest man I have ever met.

I admire in him what he admires in Huck: his moral sense and his sense of responsibility. At the end of our dinner I dragged him back to my apartment to meet my wife. He was too polite to refuse, then too polite to stay. Our dachshund danced around his feet as he hesitated in our doorway. I felt a little silly afterward, but that’s just the sort of effect Kempton can have on you: you want to tow him all over town, introducing him to your relatives.

“The great lives are lived against the perceived current of their times, ” Kempton wrote recently in a column eulogizing the late Cardinal Wyszynski. He would object strenuously to the suggestion that his statement might also be applied to himself, but Kempton’s career has certainly been great, and it has been conducted in large measure against the current of his time. He is like a visitor from another era. “Churchill would have ceased to be Churchill the first moment he decided to be someone more up-to-date than a seventeenth-century Whig,” he continued in his column. “Wyszynski could not have been Wyszynski if he had ever left off being a thirteenth-century bishop.”

And Kempton would not be Kempton if he ever left off being—what? The obvious archetype is Mencken, whom Kempton adores, but I think first of Dr. Johnson. Kempton is more a creature of the eighteenth century than he is of Mencken’s, and although he is a Whig to Johnson’s Tory, the two men have much in common. Johnson used to trudge out into the streets of London to buy oysters for his cat, because he was afraid that if he left the task to a servant, the servant might come to hate the cat. It’s easy to imagine Kempton doing the same thing, except that he would probably pick up something for the servant as well. His prose style owes as much to Johnson as it does to anyone now breathing. His personality seems as inextricably bound up with New York as Johnson’s was with London. His happiness, like Johnson’s, has been built around a core of sorrow.

The last time I saw Murray Kempton it was after midnight and he was unchaining his bicycle from a parking meter in front of a grocery store on Third Avenue. An empty taxi slowed for a moment, then zoomed past. “God bless you,” he said, as he almost always says when saying goodbye. And then he loaded his breakfast into his basket, snapped a rubber band around each cuff, and rode off into the night.

The Banter Gold Standard: The Barber and the Dim-Time Guy

Please enjoy the deadline work of two heavyweights–Jimmy Cannon and Murray Kempton–on the unlikely winner and hard luck loser of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. The 2-0 win by the Yankees gave them a 3-2 series lead (they’d win it in 7) but the game is remembered because Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in the history of the World Series.

From The New York Post, here’s Cannon on Larsen and Kempton on the losing pitcher, Sal Maglie.

“Perfect Day for a Dim-Time Guy” 

By Jimmy Cannon

You’re Don Larsen, the dim-time guy who pitched the perfect game. You’re a midnight kid who doesn’t miss any laughs. It’s one more for the road and no one ever gets sun-burned by a sallow morning sun. But yesterday on a sun-spangled afternoon you achieved everlasting fame in baseball. You pitched a no-hitter, the first in any World Series game, the perfect one because no one reached first base in nine rapid innings. So let them rib you about busting up a past-curfew car in St. Pete last spring. You weren’t hurt and yesterday it was 2-0 against the Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.

All the night-long bus rides around the no-sleep leagues, from the village of Aberdeen to Globe-Miami in the Arizona Texas League, through the Three Eye League, through the North League, through Wichita and Wichita Falls, they brought you to the Stadium yesterday. From the St. Louis Browns to the Baltimore Orioles, and to the Yankees in ’55 after being dropped back to Denver, there fun all the way. And some grief, too, because in ’49 in Globe-Miami the right arm was sore. It wasn’t too much but down there you don’t get much help from specialists with the club picking up the bill. You were an outfielder for a while, a respectable one but pitching is your business. The arm healed itself and you returned to your trade.

You don’t counterfeit humility for the reporters. You don’t turn it on for the crowd. You’re a tall, slow-walking man and that’s the way you go. You kept to the usual routine of your life. You knocked over a few beers, grabbed a couple of laughs and hit the sheets at midnight, You belt a few every night and why not? Why go to bed early? You knew you don’t sleep. You’re a dim-time guy.

It occurred to you in the sixth or seventh inning you might be the first man to throw a no-hitter in a Series. You can’t remember exactly when this thought took shape. You don’t know who the batter was. You were taking them one at a time, hitter by hitter. The infielders didn’t give you any advice. Even Joe Collins, who generally reminds a pitcher to cover first when a lefthanded hitter is up, stayed away from you.

On the bench, Billy Hunter rolled the practice ball out to the infield. He made certain he did it every inning. Once Mickey Mantle came in and sat where Hunter had been all game long. Whispering so you wouldn’t hear it, Hunter asked Mantle for lis lucky seat. They were guided by superstition as the innings passed, each man following the same routine but not mentioning it to you.

Under the stands, Rip Coleman, who rooms with you on the road, tried to walk out the tension. He didn’t want to see the base hit that would take it away from you. A grounds-keeper told Coleman you were pitching a no-hitter. And Coleman didn’t reply, just glared at the guy.

You didn’t wind up once yesterday as you pitched the first perfect game since Charlie Robertson did it for the White Sox against Detroit during the regular season of 1922. You figured Del Baker, the Red Sox coach, was catching your pitches and tipping off the hitters. So you experimented without a wind-up after the Yankees had won the pennant this year. But your roommate claims you got this style from a comic book character called The Ghoul.

You used the fast ball, the curve ball and the slider. Only once, in the first inning to Pee Wee Reese, did you throw three balls to hitter. It came down to three and two and they the shortstop stood transfixed as a third strike was called by Babe Pinelli. In the ninth Yogi Berra told you that you had to get Jackie Robinson who was the first hitter. You threw him out, then Roy Campanella hit a ground ball to Martin and Dale Mitchell, batting for Sal Maglie, took a third strike.

At times you resembled a reflective man throwing stones into a river, so easy was your motion. Occasionally, you examined the ball as if it were made of crystal and could reveal the secrets of the innings to come. Against you, Maglie, sad as old men are who desperately hold onto their youth, squeezed the ball in both hands as if it were made of snow and he could press it smaller. He was marvelous, too, and stingy with his five hits. But Mantle hit a curve ball that slanted toward his wrists for a home run in the fourth inning. In the sixth a single by Andy Carey, your bunted sacrifice and Hank Bauer’s leftfield single made the other run.

Only four times was your perfect game in jeopardy. In the second, Robinson’s line-shot jumped out of Carey’s glove but Gil McDougald fielded it. In the fifth, Mantle, running sideways, made a spectacular back-handed catch of Gil Hodges’ fly. Also in the fifth, Sandy Amoros’ fly ball abruptly turned foul. If it had fallen fair, it would have been a home run. The one-leap ground ball Jim Gilliam hit to McDougald in the seventh was difficult, but the shortstop performed the play.

Early in the season, you were a five-inning pitcher but your stamina came back. You pitched one-and-a-third inning in the second game of this Series, but the four runs they made off of you on a hit and four bases on balls were unearned. The hell with al [sic] that. You’re Don Larsen, a dim-time guy, who pitched the perfect game.

 

“Maglie: Gracious Man With Dealer’s Hands”

By Murray Kempton

There was the customary talk about the shadows of the years and the ravages of the law of averages when Sal Maglie went out to meet the Yankees yesterday afternoon. It was the first time, after all the years, that he had ever pitched in Yankee Stadium, the home of champions.

He threw that humpbacked setup pitch that is last in the warm up, and then for the first time looked at Hank Bauer. He threw the curve in; Hank Bauer made a gesture at hunting; and the strike was called.

The hitter leaned over a little; the pitch was high; Hank Bauer skittered back in haste and the ball went by the catcher’s mitt and back to the wall.

“If I know Sal,” the old Giant writer in the stands said, “He threw that to tell -em on. He knows the Yankees probably think he’s a little tired. H’s saying to them, look fellas, I’m still around. You’ve got to come and get me.”

“The call was for an inside pitch,” said Sal Maglie later. “I threw it too high and it got away.” He is a gracious man who takes no pride in the legend of professional venom.

He worked his arm a little and blew on his hands as though he came from a world no sun could warm. And then Bauer plunked it up to Reese; Maglie looked once at the ball and then at the fielder, and, without needing to see the catch, bent over and worked his long, brown, dealer’s hands into the resin bag.

He got Joe Collins to hit on the ground to the wrong field; MickeyMantle went all the way around; Sal Maglie heard the sound and judged it. The left fielder was still circling under it when Sal Maglie crossed the foul line on his way to the dugout. He gives very little and can afford to to spend less.

He went that way through the line-up for the first three innings. It seemed a memorable incident when the first pitch to the eighth Yankee batter was a ball. The utility infield of the fifth-place team in the Westport Midget League League would have eaten up anything hit by either team in those three perfect 18 outs. “I figured,” said PeeWee Reese, “that both you guys weren’t giving anybody anything, and we’d have to call it at midnight.”

Sal Maglie ended the third for the Dodgers, walking out slowly carrying one bat, digging his spikes In as though anything ls possible in this game, driving the first pitch straight to Mickey Mantle and walking over towards third base to change his cap and get his glove. He threw the warm-up pitches; Roy Campanella was standing up and almost dancing at the plate.

Maglle got the two quick strikes on Bauer who hit to Jackie Robinson; Maglle did not look at the play; he was busy with the resin. He pushed the curve by Joe Collins; it was the third strike. Mantle was back.

The first strike was a curve and called. There were no times intrudlng upon the memory when he had seemed more sharp. He threw the next pitch outside, and then hit the corner again. He waited awhlle, rubbing his fingers on his shirt, wiping the afternoon’s first sweat of his forehead. He threw a pitch on the corner that was low by the distance of a bead or sweat from the skin; it was that close and was called a ball.

Mantle hit a foul. Sal Maglie knew it was out of play; the left fielder was still running and he was working on a new ball. The next pitch he threw Mantle was down the middle a little inside. Roy Campanella said later that he hit on his fists. Sal Maglie watched it almost curve and then stay fair in the stands; with the unseeing roar all around him. he walked back to the rubber and kicked it once.

“He’d been fouling off the outside pitches,” he said later. “I thought I’d try him Inside once.” He stopped for a minute, naked and dry beside his locker, the skin showing through the thin hair above his forehead. “That shows what can happen when you’re thinking out there and the other guy isn’t.” That was as close as he came to suggesting that God is too tolerant with the margin of error he assigns the very young.

Then Yogi Berra hit one hard to the wrong field; Duke Snider ran the distance of years, and tumbled up with lt. Sal Maglie had no reason lo know it then, but that was the inning and the run.

In the fifth Enos Slaughter was walked very fast. Billy Martin bunted. Sal Maglie came scuttling onto the grass and snatched the ball and turned around and fired it high and smoky to second just in time, a 40-year-old-man throwing out a 40-year-old-man and knowing he had to hurry. He was sweating hard by this time. Harold Reese went up half his height and knocked it into the air and recovered it for the double play. Sal Maglie was watching the way the ball went now; the sound was different; for the first time today he had to think of the fielders.

Don Larsen went on making the rest period painfully short. Sal Maglie took his warmups for the sixth; he was throwing the last one in hard now. Andy Carey hit one over his head into center and the old remembered tight rope walk had begun.

Larsen bunted the third strike; Maglie and Campanella scrambled off too late to get the runner at second; they had made their mistake. Carey went far off second; Bauer slapped the ball to lwft. Sal Maglie drove himself over to back up third, but the run was in and safely in. Walter Alston came out; the conference went on around Maglie. A man in the stands said that if Labine was reasy, it was time to bring him in. “Take Sal out?” Campanella said later, “the way he was pitching?” Joe Collins hit a low, hard single; Maglie went over to cover third again and came back slamming the ball into his glove. Mantle was up.

The first pitch was out of control; then he threw two strikes, one called, one swinging. Mantle hit the ball to the first baseman who threw to the catcher, who threw not well to the third baseman, who fell away and threw around Bauer to get him. After the game, Sal Maglie looked at Jackie Robinson sitting sombre across the dressing room: in a moment of surprise, Robinson’s hair was gray. “That was a throw,” he said. “Him falling away like that.” Maglie saw it and walked to the third base line and waited for the rundown so as not to interfere, like a waiter at his station, and then walked slowly back to the dugout.

He was the last to come out after the swift Dodger half of the seventh. That appears in the box score to have been all it was, except that in the bottom of the eighth, Don Larsen was the first to bat. Sal Maglie went on with his warmups; alone in that great ballpark, he and Campanella were not looking at the hitter. He struck out Larsen; he struck out Bauer; he struck out Joe Collins swinging. When he walked back, the crowd noticed him and gave him a portion of its cheers. It was the last inning of the most extraordinary season an old itinerant, never a vagrant, ever had. “If figured,” he said later, “that, for me, either way, it was the last inning and I didn’t have to save anything.”

”I would like to see him.” he said later, “pitch with men on bases.” Someone asked him if he had minded Larsen getting his no-hitter. “I might have wanted him to get it,” he answered, “If we hadn’t had a chance all the time.”

They asked him was he satisfied with the game he pitched. “How,” said Sal Maglie, “am I to be satisfied? But you got to adjust yourself.” To time and to ill chance, and the way they forget, you got to adjust yourself. Someone asked if you knew when you had a no hitter, and he said, of course you do. You remember who had hit, for one thing. “lf you ask me two years from now,” said Sal Maglie, “I’ll be able to tell you every pitch I threw this year.” He said it, in passing naked, his body white except for the red from countless massages on his right arm, tearing his lunch off a long Italian sausage.

On the other side of the room, somebody asked Campanella if Maglie had made any mistakes out there. “Sal, make mistakes?” said Campanella. “The only mistake he made today was pitching.” He pulled on jacket and turned to what was last of the assemblage. Maglie was going now, as losers are required to go, to get his picture taken with Don Larsen in the Yankee dressing room.

“I told you,” chided Roy Campanella, as Sal Maglie went out the door, “that there should be days like this.”

 

All efforts have been made to reach the rights-holders for these stories. If you are the rights holder and would like the material removed, please contact me.—Alex Belth

From Ali to Xena: 18

Remembering Royko 

By John Schulian

I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the Daily News had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of  the Alamo.

I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the  years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.

Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.

It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego,  Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.

And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of  an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.

When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point:  “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”

He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.

The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.

Royko with Studs Terkel

Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call  Murdoch “The Alien” in print.

Mike was the best.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver