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The Scoop of His Life

Before Joe Lelyveld had even retired from the New York Times, his successor was already trashing his legacy. Lelyveld went home and started a memoir that helped him finally understand himself—then went back to the paper and got his vindication.

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Long before he became executive editor of the New York Times, Joe Lelyveld was a writer, a very fine writer, who as a scrawny, overeducated 23-year-old traveled through Southeast Asia on a Fulbright and, along with his young bride, became enamored of the writer’s expat life, concluding that he would like to become the Times’ man in New Delhi. It wasn’t long before he did exactly that. Starting out as a copy boy, he rose and rose and rose at the Times, a quite unlikely ascension given Lelyveld’s reluctance to do what was expected of him and a writerly arrogance that could be extreme. He also had a manner so awkward that it bordered on antisocial. He was given to painfully long pauses; his intended drolleries fell flat, or were too sharp.

Still, he was admitted to the paper’s ruling class, first as foreign editor and then the second chair and then the very throne, from which he ruled for seven years. There were those who still thought him arrogant—or, at the least, emotionally opaque—but in truth, his editor persona was more selfless than his writer persona. He never did become a glad-hander, and he could still be plenty peevish, and nearly every exchange with him seemed on some level artificial or forced. But within the awkwardness lay a strange tenderness—for the newspaper that he considered the greatest in the world, and for just about every person who helped make it.

Those were seven generally excellent years at the Times (I say this not because I worked there at the time, but because that was the consensus), full of accomplishment and even amity. As a person, Lelyveld may have seemed a cipher; as an editor, however, he had a simple philosophy: The best ideas, the best stories, the best execution win the day. As the age of mandatory retirement encroached, he tried to hand off the job to his like-minded deputy, Bill Keller. But Keller lost out to Howell Raines, who had run the paper’s editorial page and who, before a single retirement party could be thrown for Lelyveld, began to disparage Lelyveld and the newspaper he had been running. By the time Raines was installed, onetime subordinates and friends would scurry away from Lelyveld at cocktail parties, fearful of being associated with a regime that had been suddenly devalued.

Raines, meanwhile, introduced to the newsroom his own form of arrogance, a more virulent strain, which in the end proved deadly. He was dismissed within two years, having left the very institution a wreck. Lelyveld was called upon to return, which produced a more triumphal coda than he could have written himself. He stayed just long enough to restore order and to ensure the installation of his original choice, Bill Keller, as executive editor.

Now, a year and a half later, Joe Lelyveld has published a memoir. You might expect it to settle scores, or to gloat, or to at least dutifully recall the events that led to Lelyveld’s holding (twice) the headiest job in American journalism. But the book is not remotely a reminiscence of the New York Times. It isn’t even quite a memoir—“a memory loop” is what Lelyveld calls it, or “an inquiry into aspects of my life.” Omaha Blues is a wholly eccentric and occasionally thrilling book in which Lelyveld stakes claim to the writer he was and is; it is also more wrenchingly intimate than anyone had reason to expect.

I really don’t feel like an abused kid, but I’m finding that people are talking to me as if I am.”

Lelyveld, looking severely unmanagerial in black Levi’s and a charcoal sweater, smiles the small, crooked smile he is known for. His very quiet apartment, eleven stories above Riverside Drive, is filled with a wan winter sunlight. The smile betrays nothing and invites nothing; it is simply there, a proxy for . . . what: Shyness? Wryness? An awkward benevolence?

Friends and family have been reading advance copies of Omaha Blues. They have been complimentary, and taken aback—as if strolling through a museum expecting a Renoir and instead coming upon a Lucian Freud. “The book is extraordinarily open about things that he wouldn’t normally be open about,” says Joan Didion. Bill Keller says, “I thought it was very brave of Joe to write this book. He’s not someone who shies away from inconvenient truth, but he’s also not the kind of guy who’d lean over a dinner table and say, ‘Let me tell you how grim my life was.’”

It isn’t that the book is scandalous, quite, at least not on a scale that matters to anyone beyond the Lelyveld family. And the abuse that Lelyveld half-jokes about is of the emotional variety, nothing more gruesome than that. The book centers on his own childhood, which was unhappy, and his parents, who were the cause of his unhappiness; he renders a complicated and brittle family portrait that, whether he meant it or not, serves as a psychological blueprint for anyone who ever wondered what was going on behind that crooked smile.

“It almost became a kind of self-therapy,” Lelyveld says of the writing. “I had lived with the sense all my life that, at an early age, I was abandoned by my parents, that I was incidental to what was going on in their lives. But I thought that something was wrong with my grasp on reality. And that if I sat down with a therapist, we could straighten all that out. But I never wanted to do that. If I started opening those doors, I’d fall down a shaft and I would be sitting in some therapist’s office twice a week for the rest of my life. I thought, I’m a functioning, reasonably happy person doing pretty much what he wants to do in life, and I don’t want to be diverted. Anyway, I couldn’t afford it. I was never a depressed person, but I could be—in old-fashioned language—melancholic at times. And there were times when, you know, I just had to be made conscious.”

There may be readers who feel that a former executive editor of the Times shouldn’t be offering his self-therapy as literature; there will be others, of course, who clamor for it. Regardless, the book is deeply emotional, perhaps because its long gestation period was bracketed by a pair of family deaths. And the actual writing of the book was provoked by another sort of death: Lelyveld’s retirement from the newspaper where he had spent nearly 40 years.


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