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How Race Is Lived in America

From left: Boyd with wife Robin Stone and his son, Zachary, 1997; Boyd and Zachary in Central Park, 1999.  

Job interviews brought out his fearsome worst. Boyd would glare at the hapless prospect, prop his Bostonians on his desk, and growl, “What makes you think you deserve to be at the New York Times?” But once an offer was tendered, the gatekeeper softened. “Welcome,” he’d say, “to the family.” It was no throwaway line for Boyd, whose first marriage had broken out of youth and inexperience and whose second was failing, too. The Times filled in all his blanks. He’d never get over his Midwesterner’s awe of the paper—this “public trust,” the watchword that he adopted as his own. “He was always talking about the Times way,” said Greg Moore, one of several black editors in other cities whom Boyd took under his wing. “Gerald was a Timesman more than anything else.”

In 1997, Joe Lelyveld met Boyd for a dinner he’d been dreading. The two had a warm social relationship; Boyd was a frequent guest at the Lelyvelds’ country home near New Paltz. But now he was gunning for the managing editor’s job, and Lelyveld had to tell him that it was going elsewhere, to foreign editor Bill Keller. “I remember how wounded he was,” Lelyveld said. “I remember putting my hand on his arm and just sort of holding it.” At one point, as Boyd moved to bolt from the table, the executive editor said, “Stay, I need you.”

Though Boyd’s rise at the Times had been unusually rapid by the paper’s standards, it was still his first career setback, and he took it personally; he felt that he’d been led to understand that the job would be his. “I believed them, Sheila,” he told Rule. “I believed them.” In such moments one glimpsed the fragility beneath his armor, the poor black child from Romaine Place whose future hinged upon staying in favor.

Though Boyd still loved the Times after getting passed over, he wouldn’t trust it in quite the same way. He began talking about “balance” and the need to savor “life’s dance.” He had found a partner in Robin Stone, a younger editor he’d met while recruiting her to the paper. She became his third wife in 1996, and then there was Zachary, born that November.

But at the Times, now as deputy managing editor, Boyd was Lelyveld’s hammer of choice—a role some felt he played with too much relish by half. He frowned and furrowed over the desks, trashing stories that wouldn’t fly, and if egos got bruised, so be it. When friends warned that he ought to watch his back, he shrugged them off. He held everything in—a flare of temper now and then, but never too much. He couldn’t afford to lose control. He couldn’t afford to be an Angry Black Man.

He loosened up on the weekends, at the book-party buffets and Fourth of July barbecues that he and Stone threw at their home on the Upper East Side. The guests were mostly journalists and mostly black (although Boyd always had close white friends): the people with whom he could breathe. He’d lob a grenade onto the dinner table—You know black women can’t cook!—and sit back to enjoy the bang. Though not nearly so humorless as some believed, he held down his laughter like everything else. You could hear it swishing deep inside him, wanting to come out.

But the news never stopped, nor the pressures of the position. Boyd gained weight and chain-smoked Kool menthols. After a gym break near the office (barbells, no treadmills), he’d return to pause outside the loading docks: one more smoke before hurling back into the fray.

Behr called it “the silence of race,” the taboo that estranges us into misunderstanding. The effort to break that silence became text and subtext of the Times’ milestone series of 2000, “How Race Is Lived in America”—and the story, in a sense, of Boyd’s life.

The idea was simple yet visionary: to move beyond statistics and define race through relationships, in the main between one black person and one white, from cops and college quarterbacks to slaughterhouse workers. Though Behr was a full partner, and Lelyveld swung his full weight behind them, the series represented a special risk for a black editor at a white newspaper. But there were powerful enticements for Boyd, too, not least of them a chance to stare down his demons in the third person. The sheer scale of the project—more than two dozen editors and writers, most freed from their desks for a full year or more—bespoke Pulitzer ambition. Here was a springboard for Boyd’s stalled career, and a refuge from his masthead anomie.

Boyd became more than the co-editor of the project; he was a provocateur, psychoanalyst, father figure. He kept urging his reporters to search deep within themselves for their own racism. And those writers—without exception—found Boyd to be passionate, flexible, and boundlessly supportive. “He was incredibly kind,” Amy Harmon said. “I would feel so demoralized and go talk to him, and come out feeling renewed.” The team relied on Boyd’s empathy for their black characters, his ear for what rang true. “He knew where those folks came from,” Steven Holmes said. “He knew what it was like to climb the ladder. He just got it all.” Boyd found an alter ego in Tim Cobb, Harmon’s black Internet entrepreneur. He shared the stylish Cobb’s pique at being called “a black James Bond”; Boyd saw the damning otherness that the label implied. (“Why the black?” he exclaimed. “Always the black.”)