The great journalist Sydney Schanberg died the other day at 82.
(Please see the lovely tribute by Charlie Kaiser, another ex-Times person:)
I was more of an admirer than a close friend, but we had one moment of contact that I probably recalled better than he did.
This was on the spring day in 1976 when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize after having stayed behind in Cambodia to write about the ravages of a society gone mad.
He had become separated from his colleague, his friend, his brother, Dith Pran, who was still missing.
I knew Schanberg only as a presence who moved through the city room now and then when he was on home leave. Foreign correspondents have an aura. I knew I could not do what they do, and I admired them greatly.
On Pulitzer day, I was a cityside reporter, covering the suburbs, but if the city editor spotted you walking and breathing you could get sent anywhere – a shootout in Brooklyn, an assassination in Bermuda, a visiting king or prime minister in our town.
One editor asked me to interview Schanberg for the profile of him in the paper the next day. He was surrounded by friends and I introduced myself and we walked to a less noisy corner and I started with a very general question.
This gutsy correspondent who had survived the Khmer Rouge began to cry, and then he began to sob. I did what reporters should do. I went silent and waited for him to make the next move. He was a pro. He gathered himself and managed to say a few things:
“I accept this award on behalf of myself and my Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, who had a great commitment to cover this story and stayed to cover it and is a great journalist.”
Schanberg told me he had spent the last year “in a state of deep decompression – I lost a lot of friends over there.”
I knew enough not to go much further. I typed up his words, which were in the paper the next day.
* * *
In 1979, Schanberg’s friend, his brother, made it over the Thai border and soon became a photographer for the Times, a sweet and slight man who made us happy just by being alive. The two buddies got to watch Sam Waterston and Dr Haing S. Ngor portray them in the movie, “The Killing Fields.” (Dith Pran died in 2008.)
* * *
Sydney was appointed Metro editor in 1977 shortly after I had taken a new post reporting on religion. The Times already had an expert on theology and religious history, and Sydney did not think they needed a second reporter on such a soft beat. He said he would find something else for me.
I was enjoying the beat – Hasids one day, nuns the next day, Evangelicals the day after that. I did not want to get shifted.
A few days later I just happened to be having lunch with the rabbi who was the spokesman for the Orthodox wing of Judaism in North America. I allowed as how I was feeling a bit glum that day because they were cutting back on the religion beat. My rabbi thought that was too bad because the Orthodox liked the way I, a Christian, wrote about them.
It took me 10 minutes to walk from Lou G. Siegel’s on W. 38th St. to the old Times building on W, 43rd St. When I reached the newsroom, Sydney spotted me, and with a mixture of annoyance and possibly admiration he said, “Aw, fuck it, you’re staying on the beat.”
I asked no questions but I assumed my rabbi had called a higher-up (not that Higher-Up) and arranged things while I was walking five blocks on Seventh Ave.
Sydney held no grudges. He played hardball; he understood it.
The next spring, he called me to his desk and said Passover was starting that night and could I get him a Haggadah, the guide to the rituals of the Seder.
“Pretty contemporary,” he said. “But not too liberal. You know.”
Oh, that Haggadah.
I took the No. 1 train uptown to a Judaica bookstore, rounded up a few Haggadahs, and presented them to Sydney. I never asked how the Seder went.
He was a hard editor to work for because, like most great reporters, he was used to cutting his own deals; after all, he had defied his own editors by not leaving Cambodia.
He was not so good on leadership, on listening to his staff, but he was smart and tough and talented, and I admired him greatly. Later he wrote a column and inevitably butted heads with his own editors, and left the Times.
Over the years we met at Times get-togethers and funerals, and we got along fine, old colleagues who had been through stuff together -- but not the kind of stuff he had seen in Cambodia.
Every time I saw him, I thought of him crying in the City Room for his missing buddy.
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.