Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New York Times Reporting

Saturday, November 12 was a high-water mark day for New York Times reporting. Five bylined, "tribute" obituaries spread over three pages from three obituary writers. A double from the legendary Robert McFadden, another double from the new-to-page but otherwise hardly new, Sam Roberts, and one from Leslie Kaufman. The third page of the obits had color photos. It is hard to get better than that.

Within all five pieces there are nuggets of information that my guess is will form the basis for 'Jeopardy' answer/questions of the future.

Take the first obituary for Charles Wolf Jr. who passed away at 92. Mr. Wolf was a founding dean of the RAND Corporation's graduate school. The obit writer Sam Roberts explains that RAND stands for research and development. All these years I've heard of the RAND Corporation, but never gave much thought as to what the acronym stood for. Now I know.

There's more, a lot more, principally Mr. Wolf's clash with Daniel Ellsberg and the role Mr. Ellesberg played in making the Pentagon Pagers public, a 47-volume Defense Department history of American involvement in Vietnam, available to the New York Times. WikiLeaks did not spring the first leak.

From that page we move to the right where two obituaries basically fill the entire page. Robert Vaughn, the cleft-chinned star of 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has passed away at 83. The obit writer Leslie Kaufman gives us half a page and six columns on Mr. Vaughn's travels through life.

'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' was one of my favorite shows as a kid in high school, and to me was so believable that I argued that there really was an U.N.C.L.E. organization. I based my certainty on the fact that at the end of each show there was a scroll where the producers thanked the U.N.C.L.E. organization for their assistance in making the show. Then, like now, you just can't believe everything you read. I can still feel my scarlet-faced embarrassment when I was laughed at by less gullible classmates.

And what did U.N.C.L.E. stand for, that CIA-like organization that was constantly battling that other acronym T.H.R.U.S.H., that KGB-like organization. Hey, it was early to mid-60s and there was a Cold War going on. It already was the decade of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. No shortage of conspiracy theories, then and now.

Before reading the obituary I couldn't tell you what U.N.C.L.E. stood for, or that there was even an antagonist group named T.H.R.U.S.H. I wonder if 'Jeopardy' champion Ken Jennings would have known. Or IBM's electronic brain, Watson.

U.N.C.L.E. United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. T.H.R.U.S.H. Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. T.H.R.U.S.H. were bad people. All I can say is if you knew what T.H.R.U.S.H stood for before reading the obituary, you really paid attention to 60s television, and have lived to tell about it.

Moving down from Robert Vaughn, we are treated to the story of Rosamond Bernier, an elegant art insider who gave fabulously well-attended lectures on the subject of art, who passed away at 100.

We're in writer Robert McFadden's range now, a subject who has passed away at the century mark.This one has to be coming from The Morgue. But what few people might realize, Mr. McFadden has hardly shuffled off himself. He's still on staff and available for duty.

I don't usually read about people like Rosamond. People connected with the arts, but not artists themselves, can be subjects I bypass, especially on a five obit day. But this one's written by McFadden, who I love to read and who never disappoints.

By all accounts. a lecture by Ms. Bernier was an informative and memorable event. Consider a McFadden description: "her voice was a modulated flute of cultured accents, and her talk was brisk and conversational, given without notes as she moved fluidly over the stage for all the world like Rosalind Russell..."

Mr. McFadden goes on. He clearly was in attendance for at least one for Ms. Bernier's shows. I'm not sorry I missed them, but I am glad I got to read about them.

We;re moving to the back page now of the 'B' section, where for some reason color sneaks in. Usually, when the subject is 98 they have been out of the public eye so long that the only photos available are black and white. Not so for Aileen Mehle, a grand dame of gossip who was plying her trade at the highest level in New York Society until 2005, when she was 87.

Never heard of Aileen Mehle? Well, maybe you heard of Suzy, or Suzy Knickerbocker. Assuredly you've looked at some pictures of well-dressed gentleman and well-dressed ladies at some affair or another, smiling into the camera, with their names in the caption portion, all surrounding some of her short, descriptive text.

Mr. Roberts informs us of Aileen's life and life as Suzy. She was only married twice, probably putting her well below the median number of marriages of the people she hob-nobbed with so often that at her height she was filing six columns a week.

Her column marched through New York newspapers like a conquering general. First in The Mirror, then the Journal-American, The Daily News, The New York Post, and finally Women's Wear Daily.

The two color photos are a nice touch. One shows Suzy by herself lifting a glass of champagne at an unnamed party, amidst balloons, streamers and confetti. It would be easy to assume this was a New Year's Eve party, but my guess is a good deal of the parties in New York can resemble New Year's Eve.

The other shows her in what what looks to me to be a Scarlet O'Hara blue dress, standing next to Paloma Picasso in a matador jacket, along with a dashing tuxedoed Rafael Lopez Sanchez. His name rings no bells, and he might have been Paloma's "plus-one."

Blaine Trump, president-elect Donald J. Trump's former sister-in-law, proclaimed "glamour was Suzy's occupation. She was the social history of her era." You wonder if someone will toast her at the next gathering.

And finally, filling out the bottom half of the back page is an obituary by Mr. McFadden for someone relatively young, Clarence M. Ditlow III, 72, an auto safety executive whose name is likely familiar to only a few, but who championed safety features and recalls with such effect that Ralph Nader called him "the nightmare of the misbehaving auto industry and the dream of the safety-conscious motorist."

Mr. Nader was Mr. Ditlow's mentor, and saw him become the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety for 40 years. The color photo shows an undated image of Mr. Ditlow in an almost Mount Rushmore pose standing in front of a highway safety sign. The message is clear: Don't mess with Clarence.


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