An Appreciation: A. M. Rosenthal
Published by The New York Sun on 2006-05-12
Abe Rosenthal loomed large in my life for four decades. It is hard to think of him as gone.
He was my guru. And, I am not shy to say, he was my hero.
Just as no day goes by when I do not think of my parents and the lovely childhood they created for me in Bombay, no day goes by when I do not think of Abe and the wonderful career in journalism that he gifted me.
I cannot imagine what life would have been had I not been a journalist. I cannot imagine a sturdier role model in journalism than Abe.
Just as my late father Balkrishna Gupte was a model of integrity and tough love, and just as my late college-professor mother Charusheela Gupte was a model of intellectual discipline and creativity, Abe was the model newspaperman. He always believed that journalism should be fun, and that if you weren't enjoying it to the hilt, ups and downs and all, then you ought to be doing something else.
There's a myth in some circles about how Abe and I first met. That myth has it that he "discovered" me among India's royalty during his assignment as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times in India, and persuaded me to come to America to join his beloved paper.
It is just that, a myth. I would have had to be a real prodigy for Abe to discover me when he was in the land of my birth - I was barely 8 years old when he'd arrived. And royalty? I have sometimes longed to be bathed in saffron-flavored warm milk by nubile maidens - but no such luck.
It was not in an Indian maharajah's palace but in the newsroom of the Times in the summer of 1968 that I first saw Abe. I worked then as a copy boy, down in New York from Brandeis University in Massachusetts for a three-month job that involved carrying copy and coffee for the ink-stained wretches on the evening and night shifts. He wasn't the top editor then, but on his way there. I still remember his owlish face, his stern expression, and his unkempt appearance.
Many years later, after he'd become executive editor and also acquired a tailor in the process, I would think of Abe in that summer of 1968. He once addressed a group of summer interns such as myself about his journalism. There wasn't a reference to his Pulitzer Prize, nor to the many dozens of places with mellifluous names from where he'd filed prose that usually read like poetry.
Instead, Abe spoke to us about technical stuff - the importance of taking detailed notes, of noting the flora and fauna of locations, of jotting down people's appearances, what they wore and how they wore it. Abe spoke to us about the romance of newspapering. He spoke to us about the craft journalism, about accuracy and fairness and scrupulousness. He spoke to us about being always truthful.
In that first oration, and every conversation I'd had with him during the ensuring four decades, it was his romance with newspapering that came through most clearly. Abe was besotted with the idea that a newspaper would send a man - or a woman - to distant places, armed only with a notebook and a typewriter, to report on how people lived - and then pay that correspondent to send dispatches back to the newsroom.
He was besotted, too, with how those dispatches were transformed in the newsroom through editing and the linotype machine into the contents of newspaper pages. When I served as his news clerk for a three-year period after graduation from Brandeis, I sometimes saw him holding that day's paper and just staring at it. Abe told me once that holding a paper fresh off the presses was like holding a newborn baby in his hands.
If that comment showed a sense of continuing wonder about journalism, it also suggested puzzlement - and sometimes impatience - with those who did not share Abe's romantic view.
As his clerk, I was privy to his many moods - some of them quite dark. He was certainly hard on people, but no harder than he was on himself. But if you were a newspaperman of any sort, even one who did not work for the Times, Abe almost always regarded you with affection.
That affection was allocated in different measures, of course. Abe prized loyalty to the Times, and he was self-admittedly intolerant of those who denigrated the paper. He prized hard work, he prized imagination and enterprise, and he prized resourcefulness.
Most of all, Abe prized honesty and fairness. However conservative his personal politics were, he never allowed his news columns to be tainted with partisanship.
In the last interview he ever gave - which was to me for the New York Sun - Abe said: "Let it always be said of me that 'He kept the paper straight.'"
Yes, Abe Rosenthal kept his New York Times straight because he was a superb technician. But he made the paper's reputation soar because he edited from the gut. Back in the 1970s, when it looked for a while as though America's great newspaper would collapse on account of a dire economic environment, Abe saved the paper by introducing special daily sections that expanded the Times's readership.
But the gratitude of institutions is rarely unlimited. The very paper that he savored and saved ultimately tossed him out - a cold political act that bewildered Abe. He took it personally, and, in the end, it broke his heart.
It is impossible in a short essay such as this to iterate everything about one's regard for one's hero. There are a lot of things that I would have wanted to write about Abe, but writing in the past tense isn't one of them.
He honored me by being my mentor. He honored me by giving me a start in American journalism. He honored me by coming into my life when I was an impressionable young man, very new to America and its extraordinary society, and staying in my life to guide me through its vicissitudes.
Abe Rosenthal always loomed large in my life with his wisdom, his perceptions, his laughter, his infectious love of the printed word and what it takes to get that word into print.
Is he really gone? I don't think so.
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist