It was comforting to read in Thursday’s Times that my colleague, John Kifner, did not remember writing a story that was recreated in a current segment of Mad Men.
Kifner is 70; I am two years older. We’re not losing it, just yet.
Journalists have prodigious memories for names, faces, details, quotes. It’s what we do. I sometimes tell people that I remember exactly what was said, and stand by my version. It’s a professional skill, like picking up the spin of a curveball, or being able to write code. But we are not infallible.
A writer for Mad Men used quotes from an article by Kifner in 1966, which described protestors confronting an ad agency after high-paid jerks threw water balloons down on them.
It’s a great example of art borrowing from real life.
But Kifner,did not recall the story. He covered so many demonstrations, as a young reporter that they tend to blur, or vanish.
It can happen. Let me tell you about covering the 1993 World Series in Toronto, when I got a call in my hotel room from the Obituary desk at the Times.
Norman Vincent Peale had just died, and they were using my obit on the famous preacher and writer.
That’s nice, I said. But I never wrote one.
I had covered religion from 1976 through 1980, and could remember my two conversations with Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1979, visits to the Lubavitcher center in Brooklyn, documenting the political rise of the evangelicals. But I insisted I never wrote a Peale obit.
Yes, you did, the editor said. You typed your name on the top of every page and we are in the process of transcribing it into the computer system.
They downloaded the advance obit to me, and I read it, and a few details sounded familiar. I had a vague memory of walking down Fifth Ave. and seeing the church on the west side of the street, and somehow I recalled benign weather. But other than that, the obit does not revive any other memories of my research or writing.
I bet Kifner could recite the names of guides he trusted to get him through some hot spots in wars and riots all over the world. And why the outbursts happened. We go out there and report a zillion details, and decades later we remember many of them. Just not all.
What is cool is that a contemporary script writer sees a John Kifner article from 1966, and recognizes the urgency and the truth in it.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.