I can hardly wait to read the shop talk from Mark Landler, who does such a masterful job as the NYT’s correspondent based in London.
Just the mention of coronations always makes me think of the great memoir of Russell Baker, who covered the 1953 ceremony for Queen Elizabeth, for the Baltimore Sun. (see below)
Now, a great coronation output by Landler – my teammate during the Times’ coverage of the 2006 World Cup in Germany – on deadline, of the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday. (Landler was joined by a story on Queen Camilla by Megan Specia and a fashion Vanessa Friedman who has trained me to read her fashion essays.)
Landler wrote a breaking news story with the lush details any Times reader would want – including, who was that lady in the blue-teal gown, carrying the sword? Why, it was Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons – her very presence in the ancient ceremony another sign of inclusivity in not-your-grandparents’ England.
Whether “we” should care about royals and coronations is another story.
I checked, and my two rellies – Sam from the States and Jen from Australia – were not in their London base but rather in southwest France – and they were most decidedly NOT WATCHING.
But I was, and so was the lady next to me, both of us with genes and family names and ancestry that go back to….well, in her case, William the Conqueror. (Me Mum was born in England but was decidedly a Churchill fan, not a royals fan.)
Anyway, we gave the royals' production firm good marks for the visible Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhists plus the mention of Ephraim Mirvis, the UK grand rabbi, who was quartered near Westminster Abbey overnight to observe the Sabbath.
(One favorite moment was the modern alleluia hymn sung and danced by the Ascension Gospel Choir, gracing the ceremony with their voices and their joy.)
All of that was lavishly presented on the tube (anchored by Alex Witt, the weekend pro on MSNBC, with the indispensable Katty Kay back home in London, sending vital posts from a favorable spot on the parade route.) And soon the NYT will surely tell how its staff produced a masterpiece (color photos!)
Speaking of shop talk: The landmark for coronation tales has less to do with young Elizabeth than with young Russell Baker, who had been posted in London by the Baltimore Sun, which in 1953 was a major, major American daily, always looking for young talent.
Many decades later, as part of his memoirs, ("Growing Up" and "Good Times") Baker wrote about covering the 1953 coronation -- delightful details of how he scouted out a proper outfit for the ceremony, and how he packed a brown-bag lunch with two sandwiches and a few chunks of cheese and a tiny bottle of brandy to fortify himself during the long day. And how his wife, Mimi, was invited to a friend’s house where there was a TV set.
Ever since Baker’s coronation tale was published, I consider it one of the inspiring great glimpses of a young journalist, being challenged by a great paper, and obviously succeeding, and how, decades later, Baker could recall the details of that assignment-of-a-lifetime.
Brown-Bagging It to Buckingham
By Russell Baker
Jan. 1, 1989
MY INTENTION WAS TO become a great novelist, not a foreign correspondent, so naturally I never expected to end up in Westminster Abbey covering the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The chain of events that put me there began in 1947. The Baltimore Sun needed a police reporter that year. The managing editor mentioned it to an editorial writer who lectured at Johns Hopkins, and the editorial writer mentioned it to a professor, who mentioned it to me and gave me a phone number to call at The Sun. I was to ask for a Mr. Dorsey.
Newspaper work didn't really interest me, but some great novelists had started as newspaper men. Newspaper people could never be much better than hacks. Still, they did write, didn't they? What's more, they got paid every week. I began to feel reality taking residence in my soul.
''What's your experience?'' Mr. Dorsey, The Sun's managing editor, was asking when I came to his office a few days later.
''I've worked on the Johns Hopkins News-Letter.''
''You realize you can never get rich in the newspaper business,'' Mr. Dorsey said.
''Rich?'' I tried to smile the smile of a man calmly resigned to a life of penury. ''I never expect to make a lot of money.''
Mr. Dorsey sent me away with a handshake and a loud snort. A week later, the phone rang while I was eating supper.
''This is Dorsey. If you still want to work for me, you can start Sunday at $30 a week.''
I was flabbergasted. Thirty dollars a week. That was Depression pay. This was 1947. A pair of shoes cost $9. I'd been in New York a few weeks earlier, and the prices there were incredible. A theater ticket had cost me $1.50, the hotel was $4.50 a night, a sirloin steak restaurant dinner, $3.25. Thirty dollars a week was an insult to a college man.
''I'll take it,'' I replied.
A MISFIT AT POLICE REPORTING, after a year on the job I was falling behind at The Sun. New people were being hired, assigned to police coverage for a month or two, then moved inside. ''Moved inside.'' On The
Sun, those words meant having your own desk, being sent on fascinating general assignments, and never having to humor a policeman again.
Luckily for me, The Sun's famously miserable pay had sent morale so low by 1949 that there was constant personnel turnover. Everybody seemed to be looking for a job with better pay, and many were finding them. This left the paper perpetually short of experienced reporters. As a result, to get ahead you didn't have to be very good, you simply had to hang around. Being unmarried and living at home, I could get by on my Sun salary, which averaged $50 a week in 1949, so I could afford to hang around.
By the end of the year, I was making a gaudy $70 a week. This was enough to get married on, if you were young and foolish enough to believe in happy endings, which was precisely how young Mimi and I were.
Then there came a miracle.
The telephone woke me around 10:30 in the morning. I normally didn't get to bed until 4, so it was still dawn on my personal clock, and I growled a sour hello.
THE MARTINIS CAME, THEN THE food and the beer, and when we started to eat, Buck Dorsey said, ''How old are you?''
I said I was 27.
''How would you like to go to London?'' he asked.
The question was so preposterous that at first I did not absorb its implication. Well, I said, a little hesitant, we had just had a new baby, and I wasn't sure it was a good time to go off and leave Mimi alone.
''Could I think about it a little while?'' I asked.
Buck Dorsey was looking at me very strangely, and as the full weight of his great announcement broke over me, I understood why: He wanted me to go to London.
''I mean, how long would you want me to be away?'' I said.
''Probably two years,'' he said. ''That's the usual assignment for men we put in the London bureau. Of course, once you get there and find a place to live, you'd move your family over with you.''
Then Buck Dorsey was talking about the coming coronation of young Queen Elizabeth, which would be the great story during my time in London, but I was now too excited to pay close attention. I was going to escape the drudgery of the local newsroom, after all.
I ROSE AT 4:30 ON CORONATION morning and started dressing in white tie and tails. Heavy rain was beating against the window and it had been raining all night, drenching a million people camped in the streets. What should have been a rosy June morning looked like the start of a wet, black nightmare.
I was going to have to walk out into that downpour in fancy dress because I had been too stupid to apply for a permit to take a car to Westminster Abbey. If I had filled out the forms, authoritative windshield stickers would have been issued, and I could have ridden in splendor.
But I had laughed at the idea. An absurd fuss, a preposterous waste of car-rental money. Living within a short walk of the Abbey, I could easily stroll up there on a lovely June morning. It wasn't just chintziness that impelled me to walk. The American in me was tickled by the idea of walking to a coronation instead of being chauffeured by a lackey. Thomas Jefferson had walked to the Capitol for his first Inauguration. Let the English see how Americans did these things.
Watching the rain outside made me curse my foolishness. That short walk to the Abbey seemed short only because I had never walked it in pouring rain. Actually, it was at least a mile. And in top hat, white tie, tails
Instructions had been firm about dress. People not entitled to wear ermine, coronet, full dress uniform, court dress, levee dress coats with white knee breeches, kilt, robes of rank or office or tribal dress must wear white tie and tails, with medals.
I didn't have medals. Since I didn't have a dressy suit either, I rented the full rig from Moss Bros., famous among the haberdashery-wise throughout the Empire and always pronounced ''Moss Bross.'' Knowing there would be a coronation run on Moss Brothers, I went early and got a fairly decent fit. Because I'd never worn tails before, I got up a little earlier than necessary against the possibility I might have a breakdown getting into the thing.
Mimi fixed a big breakfast. It was going to be a long day. I had to be in position inside the Abbey by 7:30 and wouldn't get out until 4 in the afternoon. The rain let up while we were eating. Mimi got the camera and, while Kathy and Allen watched, took snapshots of Daddy wearing his coronation suit to show their grandchildren.
Whatever gods may be, they were with me that day. The rain faded to a weak drizzle, then stopped altogether just when it was time to start for the Abbey. No, I would gamble and leave the raincoat home. Walking to the Abbey in top hat, white tie and tails could be a great gesture only if it were done right. Wrapping up in a dirty raincoat would make it comical.
Mimi was going to the house of Gerry Fay, London editor of The Manchester Guardian, to watch the day's events on television. There weren't a lot of television sets in London yet, but Gerry's house had one, and his wife, Alice, had invited several disadvantaged families like mine to come see the show. Because it was a big day for me, as well as for the Queen, I kissed Mimi and the children goodbye, said, ''Wish me luck,'' stepped out into Lower Belgrave Street and headed toward Victoria Station.
Not a soul in sight from Eaton Square all the way to Victoria. I strolled briskly along through the heavy, wet air, getting used to the feel of the high silk hat on my head, happy to discover that it was not going to tip and fall off. In my hip pocket I had a half-pint flask of brandy to keep me awake during the long day. In my hand, I carried a brown paper bag containing two sandwiches and three or four chunks of yellow cheese. In my pockets, I had a sheaf of official cards issued by the Earl Marshal, conveying the Queen's command for policemen to pass me safely through all the barricades and instructing me which church entrance to use, how to conduct myself while eating during the ceremony (discreetly), and where to find toilet facilities in the Abbey.
Rounding Victoria Station, I heard the hum of a great, damp concentration of humanity. Packed from curb to building line on both sides, all along the five-mile route of the coronation procession, people had spent the rain-soaked night on the sidewalks. How many there were I didn't try to guess. The papers said millions, overstating it a bit, as newspapers usually do when writing of crowds. Still, there were plenty.
I had walked among them the night before. They were bedded down in sleeping bags and soggy quilts, under raincoats and makeshift oilskin tents. Many had brought camp stools, portable stoves, knapsacks, picnic baskets, knitting bags, radios. They brewed tea on the sidewalk, they read, they slept, they sang, they sat stoically in the rain with only a felt hat against the downpour, they dozed with heads pillowed against tree trunks and lampposts.
During the war, London's ability to ''take it,'' no matter how much punishment the Luftwaffe gave them, became such a cliche that it later turned into a small joke. On this cold, bitter, rainy night, with those good-natured hordes cheerfully camped on rainswept concrete, I had a glimpse of that peculiar British fortitude, dogged and indomitable in the face of adversity, which made them so formidable to Hitler.
At the morning's soggy dawn, in my top hat and tails and graced, I hoped, with some of the elegance Fred Astaire brought to the uniform, I presented my credentials to the police guarding the barricades on the route to the Abbey. Miracle of miracles! The police recognized them, passed me through, waved me into the broad empty avenue called Victoria. The avenue ran straight to Westminster Abbey. I prayed I could make it before the skies opened again and stepped out as rapidly as I could without losing dignity before the damp mob staring at me.
And, yes, now applauding me. A smattering of applause came off the sidewalks as I strode along. They had been waiting so long for something wonderful to appear. Now here was the first sign that wonders would indeed pass before their eyes this day. I fancied myself a vision for them, a suave, graceful gentleman in top hat, white tie and tails, signaling the start of a momentous event.
At that moment, I was the event. The applause grew as I stepped along. Having always prided myself on shyness, modesty and distaste for theatrics, I was surprised to find myself not only enjoying my big moment, but also, here and there, where the applause seemed especially enthusiastic, tipping my silk hat to the audience.
It wasn't until I got within a block or two of the Abbey that I understood what was happening. There I noticed a man in the crowd talking to a companion and pointing to my hand holding the brown bag with my lunch. At this, his companion laughed, then applauded vigorously: What delighted the crowd was the spectacle of a toff brown-bagging his lunch to the coronation.
By this time, I was certain to reach the Abbey before the downpour resumed. That certainty and the pleasure of strutting a great stage exhilarated me. Triumphantly, I raised my lunch over my head and waved it at the crowd, and was washed with a thunder of cheering and applause that the great Astaire himself might have envied. A moment later, I passed into the Abbey for a long day's work.
I HAD A GOOD SEAT IN the Abbey. It was in the north transept looking down from about mezzanine level onto the central ceremonial theater. It provided a clear, unobstructed view of the Queen and the throne in left profile. Opposite, in the south transept, sat the lords and ladies of the realm in scarlet and ermine. The few good seats allotted to American correspondents had been distributed by a lottery drawing, and I had got lucky.
After being ushered up the ramp to the chair I was to occupy for the next seven or eight hours, I took a spiral note pad out of my pocket and began taking notes, just as I would have done at a three-alarm fire in Baltimore.
This was by design. After worrying for weeks how to cover a coronation, I had decided to cover it pretty much the way I would cover any routine assignment on the local staff. I would show up, keep my eyes open, listen closely and make notes on what I saw and heard.
My hope was to produce a story that seemed fresh, and I thought this might be possible if I treated it as though I'd just strolled into the newsroom one afternoon and the city editor had come dancing at me, shouting: ''They're having a coronation up at the Abbey in 10 minutes. Get up there as fast as you can.''
This was not the safe way to cover the coronation, but it offered the best chance of doing a good story. The safe way was to write the story before the coronation was held. This was also the surest way to produce a lifeless story.
This idea I discarded quickly. For one thing, I was cocky about my ability to produce a fresh story of several thousand words under deadline pressure. I had always worked well on deadlines, maybe even better than when there was time to dawdle.
So I entered the Abbey with no backup story ready to send in case of emergency, took out my spiral pad, and started jotting notes on what I saw. Tier upon tier of dark blue seats edged with gold. The stone walls draped with royal purple and gold. The stained glass of rose windows transforming the gray outer light into streams of red, yellow, green and blue high up against the Abbey roof.
Many of these notes appeared almost unchanged.
''Yellow men and tan men, black men and pink men, men with cafe au lait skins and men with the red-veined nose of country squiredom.''
''Malayans with bands of orange and brown-speckled cloth bound tightly about their hips. . . .''
''Men dressed as Nelson might have dressed when he was sporting in London . . . like courtiers who dallied with the Restoration beauties of Charles II's court . . . like officers in Cornwallis's army. . . .
''. . . violins far away eerily unreal. . . .''
Writing to my mother later, I disposed of the coronation in a single paragraph:
''I am so sick of the whole business that I can't write about it. Suffice it to say that I was in the Abbey about 7 and didn't get out until 4 P.M. In this time, I ate two sandwiches, several chunks of cheese, went to sleep three times, and drank a half pint of brandy to keep my blood flowing. I was seated in the midst of all the African and Oriental potentates and had a fine view of the staircase leading down to the water closets, where I could see Africans in leopard skins and Chinese dressed like French admirals queuing up to wait their turn to make water. I came out of the Abbey, stiff as a board and woozy, and had to run through a cold driving rainstorm to find a taxicab. Then I had to write for six hours, producing that mass of type which ran in The Sun. I didn't feel that I laid an egg completely, because next day mine was the only story from any American newspaper which had parts reproduced in any of the London papers. Considering that papers like The New York Times and Tribune had 25 and 30 reporters to do the job, I felt we did fairly well.''
The humility in this last sentence was entirely bogus. By the time I wrote my mother, the reaction from Baltimore was in, and I felt I had done far better than fairly well. I felt I had scored an absolute triumph. The day following the coronation, I had a cable signed by 16 members of the city staff. It said:
''Magnificent. Your coverage worthy of the coronation, and of Baker.''
Pete Kumpa, one of the best newsmen on the staff and an old friend whose regular correspondence kept me posted on events in the home office, reported: ''Your story received here in the greatest admiration. Magnificent is the word.''
The greatest ego bloater of all, however, was a note from Buck Dorsey's wife, Becky, marked ''Very Personal.'' She reported various compliments about the coronation piece which Buck had received from various high and mighty types in the Sun hierarchy, then said:
''The nicest of all, Tom O'Neill, said, 'Buck, the boy knows how to use the English language. It's a finished piece, beautifully done.' '' O'Neill was the most dashing reporter on The Sun.
Closing, Becky wrote, ''I do not know that Buck would approve of my telling you all this, but on thinking of that fine ignorant old face of yours, I couldn't help myself.''
I could have discounted praise from my friends on the city staff. They had been writing glowing reviews from my very first days in London. They were my cheering section back in Baltimore, and for good reason. Being picked from the local staff for The Sun's plum assignment abroad, I was a symbol of hope for them. If one man from the local staff could escape into the sweet world of foreign correspondence, there might be hope for all. They had a stake in seeing me succeed and wrote constantly, applauding and cheering me on to keep my morale high.
Becky's report about Tom O'Neill, however, was not so easily explained away. Nothing could have done more to puff me with self-admiration than those few words about Tom O'Neill's remarks to Buck. I was not the type to have wildest dreams, but if I had been, the wildest I could have concocted would have had Buck Dorsey listening with the respect he always accorded his favorite reporter as the great O'Neill heaped me with praise.
Two months after the coronation had crowned me with glory, my triumph was confirmed in a cable from Baltimore:
''Ten dollar merit raise effective next week for you. Happy August Fourth and all that. Love. Dorsey.''
That brought my salary up to $120 a week. I was a $6,240-a-year man.
Russell Baker is a columnist for The Times. This article was adapted from his book, ''The Good Times,'' to be published by William Morrow & Company in June.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.