In his fifty-second year on this wicked old planet, Alden Whitman concluded that there was one too many lines in Ecclesiastes. And just like that, he knew he could create something new under the sun. With The New York Times as his calling card, he'd travel the world interviewing its movers and shakers, promising them one thing only: They would never get to read what he wrote about them.
In all the history of journalism, including the caves, nobody ever thought to draw the future dead into their own obituaries, and if anybody had he would surely not have had the chutzpah to condition the deal on never seeing the product. "All is vanity, a striving after wind," says Ecclesiastes, and Alden knew better than to discard that wisdom. If they had the vanity he'd give 'em all the wind they wanted. He turned obits into an art form, he put the death page on Page One, and he gave us history on the hoof.
In the doing, he turned himself into the most sought-after reporter on the Times, which is to say in the world. After Alden Whitman there was no second act. Ho Chi Minh knew that, as did Pablo Picasso, Harry Truman, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Charlie Chaplin, Earl Warren, Henry Miller, Albert Schweitzer, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Luce, Maurice Chevalier, Joseph Kennedy, Helen Keller, Haile Selassie, Harry Bridges, Norman Thomas, Mies van der Rohe and Israel Schawartzberg.
All of the above lent themselves willingly to the Alden Whitman treatment, but none put it better than Israel Schawartzberg, who was not a Russian violinist or a Budapest conductor--forget about it. Izzy was the last great single-o act in the American-Jewish underworld, and so attracted the sharp eye of Whitman, who spent several nights with him a couple of months before Izzy met his Maker.
Schawartzberg was only 56 at the time and apparently in good health. But as soon as he concluded his interviews with Alden, he said to me, "When I go, I want you to call Alden Whitman first. Forget about my wife, forget about my brothers, forget about my father. Just remember to call Whitman. I want an Alden Whitman obit, otherwise no good!"
I was lunching with Alden at Sardi's when the call came that Izzy was gone. Izzy got the full treatment, across the top of the page, picture with it, and to hell with whoever else went that day, including a Big Steel executive. It was a terrific piece and it made the network news that night. Twenty years later, the day Alden Whitman died, I mentioned this incident to Arthur Gelb, who was the metropolitan editor of the Times during Whitman's flush years on the paper.
"He had uncanny timing," Gelb said. "When Alden Whitman did you, you died. It happened all the time. It was amazing. You might be larky, feeling younger than spring-time, a glass of champagne in your hand, that night you made love to your wife. But after Alden Whitman came to call, you were history."
And now, as it must to all men . . . Alden Whitman.
I have done him short justice here, leaving out even the highlights: That he was a man of the left and a contributor to The Nation. That he refused to name names when the Senate went after him for his membership in the Communist Party and that he worked his way out of the cold storage the Times had put him in.
That he refused to give up when the wheelchair and blindness got him. That in the end, as in the beginning, he was a newspaperman. And that as such, he was subject to the only rule he could not change. As wrote Ben Hecht of a departed colleague on the Chicago Journal in 1920:
We know each other's daydreams
And the hopes that come to grief
For we write each other's obits
And they're Godalmighty brief.
Sidney Zion, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of the novel Markers.