by Jeffrey Blyth in New York
It was a traffic-stopping event. So
many politicians, journalists, editors, writers and celebrities, in their limos
and taxis, turned up for the funeral of former NY Times editor A.M Rosenthal
that police had to seal off for a time one of Manhattan’s main avenues.
Known to most as Abe, Rosenthal was
the Times’s most famous – and feisty – editor. He is also credited with helping
save the paper when rival papers were failing like sinking ships, papers like
the Herald Tribune, NY Mirror and Journal-American. Although Canadian born, the
son for a former fur trapper, Rosenthal lived virtually all his life in New
York City, and spent most of his journalistic life at the Times, starting
virtually as a copy boy covering campus news. He went on to become a noted
foreign correspondent in Poland, India and Swizterland (which he hated because
he found it boring), then came back to rise through the ranks as news editor,
then managing editor, until he was finally chosen for the top post.
His foreign stories, notably those
from Warsaw, earned him a Pulitzer Prize (and
expulsion from Poland) and are
still often quoted – most notably his first visit to Auschwitz
in 1958 fifteen years after it was liberated. As editor of the Times he was
renowned for some of his edicts, such as Keep It Straight – which many say
should be his epitaph.
Rosenthal set tough standards at
the paper – in the days long before it was hit by its plagiarism and financial
scandals. One of his most famous rulings, when a sex scandal about one of his
staff was about to become public, was ‘You can have sex with elephants if you
want, but then you can’t write about the circus.” Some described his rule at
the Times as a dictatorship – but one that was often paternal and benign.
He was passionate about
journalism. He used to tell reporters: “If you don’t love this job you
shouldn’t be in the business.’ Under his high-pressure leadership the paper won
21 Pulitzer prizes, but perhaps his greatest achievements was his defiance of
the US Government and the publication in 1971 of the famous Pentagon Papers, an
exposure of Vietnam that put both him and his paper’s publisher at risk of
going to jail. He also introduced a lot of new ideas to the ‘Old Gray Lady’
(the Times’s nickname), including more coverage of women’s topics , and the
division of the paper into magazine-like sections.
Rosenthal married twice, his
second wife Shirley Lord, a British-born journalist and a former editor at
Vogue whom he married 21 years ago, was at the funeral but didn’t speak. His
son Andrew, also a journalist, did speak and painted a different picture of the
famous feisty newsman – of his father coming home, donning a cowboy hat and
dancing around the house singing cowboy songs. Rosenthal, who retired as editor
in 1986, was 84 when he died last week, following a stroke.