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R. W. Apple, Jr.: An Appreciation (Khaleej Times, Dubai, October 6)

Published by Current on 2006-10-06

He was always Johnny, Johnny Apple.

The byline read "R. W. Apple, Jr." -- for Raymond Walter Apple, Jr. -- but no one called him that. He was always Johnny Apple -- larger than life, a giant of the game of international journalism, the last of that generation of correspondents who were equally at ease in Dubai and Dakar, in the salons of Washington and the chancelleries of Europe, in the jungles of Africa and the sands of the Middle East. Johnny, you see, had been everywhere during his 43 years at The New York Times.

Johnny Apple died last Wednesday of thoracic cancer in Washington, his home. He was 71 years old. According to his widow, Betsey, and two stepchildren, he planned his funeral service while at a hospital, complete with the music, and the menu for the wake. He also wrote what was to be his final article for The Times, a global list of restaurants that, he suggested, could be savored forever.

While Apple's own journalism belongs to the ages now, he leaves behind a unique model for journalists everywhere. At the heart of his journalism was a simple principle: Explain, explain, and explain. His dispatches from around the world -- whether they were political, economic, or social reportage -- were constructs of erudition, history, color, and context. There were always trenchantly observed details, the hallmark of a great reporter. It was impossible to read a Johnny Apple article on anything and not be totally connected with the subject -- whether that subject was a politician, a potentate, a phenomenon or a place.

With such writing, of course, came fame. The byline was recognizable instantly in virtually every one of the world's 192 countries. But so stylish -- yet simple -- was his writing that I suspect Apple's prose could be recognizable even had the byline been inadvertently dropped.

Of course, had his name not appeared with his article, it would have infuriated him. Apple had a huge ego; all journalists have egos, not the least because the psychic rewards of a byline far surpass of the relatively paltry money they make. But Apple's temper and tantrums were legendary. He was a graceful writer, but "gracious" wasn't a word that one necessarily applied to him.

That didn't mean he wasn't a generous man. He was generous with advice for younger journalists -- I among them -- and he was generous in his hospitality. Meals with Johnny Apple were inevitably feasts -- nay, Bacchanalian banquets -- and if you left the ordering up to him at restaurants, you'd find that his culinary judgment was unerring.

A lifetime of monumental eating and drinking inevitably took its toll. Someone once said that Johnny Apple had "the best mind and worst body in American journalism."

It should be added that Apple took pride in both characteristics.

The brilliance of his mind was reflected in his prose, and he never lost his child-like enthusiasm for every article that appeared under his byline. Even with all the awards and accolades that came his way, Apple always yearned for praise -- indeed, he sought it eagerly. A nice note about an article -- even from a complete stranger -- meant the world to him. And encomiums from his peers? Apple would levitate with delight.

Notwithstanding his gargantuan body, Apple also saw himself as an avatar of George Bryan "Beau" Brummell, the British dandy who set fashion for men in the 18th century. Apple was always attired in custom-made tailoring -- suits from Savile Row, shoes from John Lobb, and shirts from Jermyn Street in London.

Of all the places he'd visited as a correspondent, London was probably his favorite. He served as The Times's bureau chief there for nearly a decade, using the opportunity to the hilt to hobnob with the English upper classes, and travel throughout Europe to taste epicurean delights. A well received book, "Apple's Europe," came out of that assignment.

Another, more recent, book, "Apple's America," flowed out his reportage on American cities and their gourmet attractions. One would have liked to have read Apple's memoirs but, alas, that is never to be.

Then again, one could take a measure of the man and his times in what and how he wrote. His bluster and braggadocio aside, Apple took real pains to understand the people and places he'd visited. His dispatches from the Middle East -- including the Emirates -- showed great acuity, and the special understanding that a good correspondent acquires only after he's gone out and talked to people of all persuasions and stations. In his reporting, Johnny Apple was tireless.

He knew that a foreign correspondent is especially privileged because he gets to go to all those exotic places. But Apple's specialty lay in the fact that, through his bright, canny writing, he took the reader with him. His reporting was evocative, filled with perspective, and laced with context.

His reporting also showed that journalism, at its best, could be fun for both the writer and reader. That isn't to say that Apple was frivolous about the many tragedies and wars that he covered, including conflicts in the Middle East. But he always understood that journalism was one heck of a way to lead a life of action and reflection -- and get paid for it.

Johnny Apple certainly led that life -- fully, fulsomely and yet always with the awareness that the real privilege of journalism was in getting the opportunity to tell the world about itself. The real joy was to explain, explain, and explain.

He understood that words, unlike lives, do not perish.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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