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.
“Of all the foolish things I did when I was leaving,” he says, “was something exemplary: to leave without a follow-up sinecure.” Max Frankel, the courtly editor who preceded Lelyveld, kept an office, and a column in the Times Magazine, upon his retirement. The combustible Abe Rosenthal, who preceded Frankel, carried on from the op-ed page for eleven years before he was finally shooed from the premises. When Lelyveld retired in 2001, he simply went home. He wanted to be a writer again.
Over drinks with the literary agent Andrew Wylie, Lelyveld mentioned a few book ideas, all of which involved conventional reportage on foreign soil. Lelyveld’s lone previous book, Move Your Shadow, was a word-perfect and brutally incisive account of South African apartheid, and it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. He still harbored fascinations with India, China, and elsewhere.
“And then,” Lelyveld recalls, “I started talking about Ben.”
Ben Lowell was a family friend from Lelyveld’s boyhood. He was a rabbi, as was Lelyveld’s father. But while Arthur Lelyveld was for decades a pillar of institutional Judaism—he lobbied President Truman to urge the establishment of Israel—Lowell was an on-again, off-again pulpit rabbi who gravitated toward radical politics and other desperate causes. For a short time, he was also, as Lelyveld writes, “the one adult in my life who seemed consistently and reliably available.”
As Lelyveld spoke to Wylie, he was imagining himself as Lowell’s biographer, dutifully chronicling an admittedly obscure life. Wylie had a different idea. “He said, ‘Of course, that would be a book about your father,’ ” Lelyveld says. “My first reaction to that was resistance.”
In 1996, as Arthur Lelyveld lay dying, a friend asked Joe if he knew about the camp trunk full of family memorabilia in the basement of his father’s synagogue in Cleveland. No, Lelyveld answered, he hadn’t known. He was by now two years into his job atop the Times. He wasn’t much for nostalgia or, frankly, for synagogues. He preferred Yeats and Cummings to anyone’s Bible, tending to see religion as his father’s occupation and little else.
He took some of the documents from the trunk but ignored them until his retirement. When he found himself alone for a week at the family cabin in Maine—his wife, Carolyn, was stuck in New York—he began reading his parents’ letters. A whole world, long buried, came flooding back. Boyhood pain mixed with a reporter’s pleasure. “In a certain sense, I became a little cold-blooded,” he says. “I saw the opportunity for a story.”
The story would have at its core two mysteries. Who, exactly, was Ben Lowell, the shadowy figure who so brightened the life of a sad boy merely by taking him to a few Yankees games and listening to his precocious political chatter? And what had happened within the family to make this boy so sad in the first place?
Lelyveld devotes roughly a third of Omaha Blues to Lowell, particularly his minor collisions with history. Lelyveld has doggedly reported out the details of Lowell’s life, and it is a not-uninteresting life. But Andrew Wylie was right: The guts of this book would concern Lelyveld’s own family.
As an adult, Lelyveld had a vague, chilling memory that his parents had once abandoned him—turned him over for safekeeping to a Nebraska farm family—in the summer of 1943, when he was 6 years old. But in his mind, he couldn’t nail down the particulars, and wondered if he had magnified a lesser trauma.
The letters in the camp trunk confirmed his memory. His father was traveling the wartime U.S. on behalf of pacifism and Zionism. His mother, Toby, was a former actress who decided she needed to do some graduate work at Columbia University. So they sent their son to stay with a family named Jensen in Tekamah, Nebraska, where little Joe Lelyveld helped out with the hogs, attended church services, and wondered what he had done wrong to deserve such exile.
His parents were not well suited for each other, nor for parenting. Arthur was a kind man whose talents and ambitions could not be contained by family life. Toby was impetuous, reckless, and, on occasion, adulterous; there were breakdowns, suicide attempts, and separations. Then came teary reconciliations with her always-grateful husband. By the time Joe was 7, his parents had settled (to use the word loosely) in New York. Having been abandoned once, however, he would become disinclined to challenge his parents—ever, about anything—for fear of provoking another split. So he learned to fret in silence, internalizing their frictions. His father thought him a morose and disaffected boy. “You’ve got to be more outgoing,” Arthur would tell him, as if “outgoing” were a switch to be flipped. His parents were less cruel than selfish, often giving the impression that they simply didn’t like him. This proved crippling. The adolescent Joe Lelyveld was both fragile and steely (as would be the adult Joe Lelyveld).
His parents both lived long, and he struck a sort of détente with each of them. In conversation today, he seems to think that in Omaha Blues he has rendered them with some degree of filial fondness. I think he is deluded. He parses their every criticism; any tidbit of praise is leavened with suspicion. It should be said that all this is done with skill and subtlety. As a writer, Lelyveld has always been a master at summoning moral outrage without resorting to outrageous language. His favorite targets are the institutions where power, corruption, and absurdity coalesce. Here is how he begins Move Your Shadow: “When they are out to demonstrate their decency and goodwill, to themselves as well as to others, white South Africa’s racial theorists are inclined to lose themselves in a riot of euphemisms, analogies, and fatuous forecasts. A lot of words get spilled as the urge to be understood clashes with an aversion to being understood too well.”
Arthur and Toby Lelyveld now get the same treatment. To celebrate Joe and Carolyn’s fifth wedding anniversary, Arthur and Toby took the young couple out to dinner—and then used the occasion to blithely announce their own divorce after more than 30 years of marriage. “It was hard to know what to say,” Lelyveld writes. “ ‘I’m sorry’ wouldn’t have been welcomed. ‘I’m not surprised’ would have seemed unfeeling. ‘Mazel tov’ would have sounded sarcastic. My guess is I mumbled another form of ‘Good luck,’ maybe ‘Bonne chance,’ or simply gave my parents one of those blank stares that my dad, in particular, had always found disconcerting.”
Lelyveld says that he wrote this book for himself, and seriously considered keeping it in a drawer. That would account for the rawness of its emotion. There is also the fact that his own wife was very ill as he wrote, having suffered for years with cancer. She was able to read the first five chapters of the manuscript, but by the final two chapters, she could no longer hold the pages. Amy, one of the Lelyvelds’ two daughters, read it aloud to her, in a hospital bed in the living room. “Carolyn said she liked it very much,” says Lelyveld, “but that I was too easy on my mother.”
The moment that Lelyveld mentions Carolyn’s name—which is not infrequently—he instantly drops his eyes, his chin, his entire posture, speaking in a low and broken voice. They had an unusually strong marriage. “I think we loved each other more over time,” he says, “and people would see it, comment on it—because I’m this kind of squirrely character, but if Carolyn walked into a room, you could see that I would just light up, and vice versa. We were always happy to see one another.” They had met during high school, at Bronx Science, and married soon after Joe graduated from college (he went to Harvard, Carolyn to Brandeis). She died last May, at 64.
When I asked how Carolyn’s dying may have affected the tone of Omaha Blues, he brushed off any relation. But people who know him well disagree. “I think the darkness of the book comes out of his desire to not sugarcoat anything,” says one friend, “but also, the guy was writing this while trying to take care of his dying wife. How could it not be connected?”
When Lelyveld completed the manuscript, he sent a copy to both of his younger brothers, and to each of them he also sent a pair of memoirs: This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, and The Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff, who is Tobias’s brother.
“I really don’t feel like an abused kid, but I’m finding that people are talking to me as if I am.”
“Very clever,” I say. “To show them how one family can yield two different stories.”
“No,” says Lelyveld. “To show them that this is my book, and if you don’t like it, write your own.”
He never set out to be the editor of the Times. He barely set out to be a writer. During high school, he imagined himself a Supreme Court justice. Then, while a junior at Harvard, he spent an hour in the law library and discovered a serious lack of interest in the law. He took one year of graduate history, flirted briefly with psychiatry, then attended the journalism school at Columbia. It was his Fulbright trip in 1960, to Burma and India, that made him a writer. “I just had a passion for being out there in the world,” he says.
At the Times, he was made a foreign correspondent in a very short time, sent first to the Congo. He was subsequently posted in South Africa, India, Hong Kong, and London, with intermittent stops in New York and Washington. From the outset, he was a star, and he wrote more as he wished than as he was told. He had a distinctive, angular style and a surplus of attitude—a sort of cynical moralism, if such a thing were possible. In equal portions, he empathized and skewered. His longer pieces for the Times Magazine were particularly brash: first-person observations spun tight around rigorous reporting. Lelyveld is never mentioned as a pioneer of New Journalism, but perhaps he ought to be, if only for loosening up the Times from the inside.
In the late seventies, Lelyveld was living in Washington and writing a weekly column for the Times Magazine. He submitted a column about Oral Roberts University that, as he recalls it, was deemed anti-Christian by Ed Klein, the magazine’s editor. “Klein killed the column and asked me to substitute for it,” Lelyveld says, “and I said I wouldn’t. Then I quite naughtily submitted the column to a magazine in Chicago called The Christian Century, which was, I believe, the leading Protestant magazine in the country. They accepted it. I said, ‘I don’t expect payment, but you’ll have to call Ed Klein and ask for permission.’” Lelyveld soon got a call from Abe Rosenthal, the Times’ executive editor.
“Did you give Christian Century a column Ed Klein killed?” he asked.
“Yes, I did,” said Lelyveld.
“Why did you do that?”
“To make a point. Klein said it was anti-Christian.”
“Okay, you’ve made your point. Now withdraw it,” Rosenthal said, and Lelyveld did.
As refuge from the blowout at the magazine, Lelyveld was offered a job as the paper’s deputy foreign editor. He accepted, in part because it would at least return him to New York. He was thinking about quitting the Times, but the combination of unemployment and a Washington address held no appeal.
The new job worked out. “I discovered that I had a knack for editing,” he says, “and that while I might be an egocentric and difficult writer, as an editor I wasn’t egocentric at all. I had a cool head and I understood the problems of writers and I could get things out of people.”
Because he had no careerist designs on editing, he soon resumed his correspondent’s life, returning to South Africa for a second tour. In 1986, Max Frankel became the paper’s executive editor, instituting what was widely seen as a reform administration after the long and tumultuous rule of Abe Rosenthal. Frankel brought Lelyveld back to New York as foreign editor. Thanks to the fresh success of Move Your Shadow, he figured he could afford to go off and write more books, which seemed an ideal life. But Lelyveld found he had come to care a great deal about the institution where he had spent more than 25 years.
In 1994, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s publisher, named Lelyveld executive editor—the most cerebral editor in recent memory, perhaps, but also a nearly accidental editor, so disinterested had he been in office politicking. It was true that his journalistic integrity was foremost, and pure; that he was actually a savvy manager and talent scout; and that he could turn practically pastoral when an employee ran into a family or medical problem. What was one to make, however, of his arsenal of blank stares, crooked smiles, and awkward silences? Those who knew him well knew what has been revealed in Omaha Blues: that Lelyveld’s public face was a more complex reaction than simple arrogance, that it was formed long ago in response to a distressingly sad family life.
Most people, however, didn’t know him so well. The role of executive editor is so powerful that the man who assumes it ceases to be seen as merely a man. And Lelyveld hardly helped his own cause. He was impatient with conventional wisdoms, and with convention in general. Junior Times employees learned to make last-second feints at the elevator so as to not be trapped into twenty seconds of Lelyveld’s halting silence. In the press, he gained an immovable image—a brilliant journalist, but a cold fish—and he was bothered less by that image than the fact that the excellence of the newspaper itself was treated as a secondary matter, if at all. “Joe ran a superb newsroom, and under him we produced a superb newspaper,” says Sulzberger. “Under him we entered into the digital age, we broke circulation barriers, advertising barriers, won a plethora of awards. It was Joe who assembled the talent that’s now driving the paper forward. He was a damn fine editor.”
Sulzberger and Lelyveld, each of whom has a country home near New Paltz, socialized regularly on the weekends; their wives were particularly close. As Lelyveld’s 65th birthday approached, it came time for him to advise Sulzberger on the choice of a successor. “Joe played the role of an honest broker,” Sulzberger recalls. “But I knew where he wanted to be—he would have chosen his deputy, Bill Keller.”
It was Lelyveld who turned Keller into an editor in the first place. Keller was a keenly talented correspondent in the Soviet Union and then in South Africa, where Lelyveld once visited him for two weeks to take his measure. In 1995, Lelyveld invited Keller to return to New York as foreign editor, and before long made him his deputy. The two men got along very well. Keller was twelve years younger than Lelyveld and more easygoing, but had a similar taste for journalistic rigor and cool decision-making. (The weirdest proof of their compatibility may have been that Keller’s mother came from Tekamah, Nebraska, the same town to which Lelyveld was exiled as a 6-year-old—although neither of them would realize the connection until Keller read Omaha Blues.)
It had taken a Howell Raines to make Joe Lelyveld lovable. The staff greeted him like a long-lost father.
Keller’s only significant rival to succeed Lelyveld was Howell Raines, who ran the Times’ editorial page and was as brazenly charismatic as Keller and Lelyveld were low-key. To close friends, Lelyveld sometimes revealed a distaste for Raines, particularly the bomb-throwing nature of his editorials. It seemed as if Raines thought the editorial page belonged to Howell Raines, not the New York Times, and Lelyveld feared he would bring the same approach—a blend of egotism and ideology—to the job of executive editor.
Still, as Keller recalls, “Joe went out of his way to not trash Howell to Arthur [Sulzberger]. He thought that his job was to be a scrupulous guide.”
What Lelyveld didn’t know was that Raines was, in fact, trashing him. It had never been customary to actually campaign for the role of executive editor, but Raines tried it. “His campaign theme was, ‘Joe has failed the paper, and I’m going to fix things,’ ” says one senior Times executive. “Actually, it was more insidious than that. It was, ‘I’m going to fix the paper, and it’s not going to cost you a penny.’ He pandered to the business side’s idea that the newsroom was a big leaking sieve.”
As Lelyveld’s sitting deputy, meanwhile, Keller was in no position to campaign for radical change even were he so inclined—which he wasn’t. Like Lelyveld, Keller saw the executive editor’s job as one of stewardship rather than revolution.
But Raines’s revolution campaign was more exciting. The unspoken promise was that he would at the very least bring a personality transplant to the job. If Lelyveld was hard to read and a hairsplitter of Talmudic intensity, Raines was as subtle as, well, a football coach. He regularly cited Bear Bryant as his management hero; the New York Times, Raines liked to claim, needed a “higher competitive metabolism.”
Few people were surprised when Sulzberger chose Raines and not Keller to succeed Lelyveld. But even as he entered his lame-duck period, Lelyveld was clueless that Raines had won the job in large part by attacking him. (Raines declined to be interviewed for this article.)
He got his first big hint when Raines was shown a typographical redesign of the front page that Lelyveld had been planning for months. The redesign was presented to Raines as a courtesy; Lelyveld was still running the paper. But Raines demanded that it be halted. “Howell’s scrapping of it seemed completely gratuitous,” recalls Keller. “I don’t think it had anything to do with Howell disagreeing with what the type should be.”
Lelyveld was stunned and, according to friends, livid; he thought about walking out then and there. Worse yet, Raines was by now unleashing his campaign on the rest of the newspaper. “He took the sports department out to lunch before he took over, after he was named, and spent most of the time pissing on Lelyveld and everything that came before him,” says Robert Lipsyte, who was then a sports columnist at the paper.
Instead of being gracefully and gratefully retired, as even his critics likely felt he deserved, Lelyveld suddenly found himself a Typhoid Mary at the same newspaper where he had enjoyed nearly inconceivable success—at the same newspaper that he was still running. According to friends, he was infuriated, embarrassed, and stung by a betrayal that ran all the way up to Arthur Sulzberger’s office. “He clearly felt that Arthur had, at the very least, been suckered by Howell,” says one friend, “and that he sat and listened to all this stuff Howell said about Joe’s tenure and hadn’t objected or stuck up for him.”
All this, and his wife was sick with cancer as well. These were the circumstances under which Joe Lelyveld stumbled into retirement, just a few days before the September 11 attacks, the circumstances under which he took out his parents’ letters and began work on Omaha Blues.
But after barely eighteen months, with Lelyveld halfway through the book, the circumstances had changed spectacularly. Howell Raines’s charisma and swagger and self-surety—all the things that set him apart from Lelyveld, and had played so well in campaign mode—proved disastrous in their implementation. He had jacked up the paper’s metabolism so much that it began to devour itself. Several prominent writers and editors quit out of disgust with Raines’s demands and seeming disregard for the Times’ tradition of moderation. At the same time, a young reporter named Jayson Blair was writing a series of articles full of fraud and plagiarism. Under ordinary circumstances, Blair might have been seen as little more than a rogue incompetent. But given the growing hostility toward Raines, his crimes were interpreted as a systemic error. Mutiny bloomed in the newsroom, and before long, Sulzberger got the message and ousted Raines.
“If Howell really had been the coach of a football team,” says Lipsyte, “he would have been successful, because jocks are basically sissies and they roll over for alpha males. But what he had was a bunch of nerds, and nerds take it and take it and take it and then show up in the cafeteria with an AK-47. And that’s what happened at the Times.”
Sulzberger promptly contacted Lelyveld. “I wanted two things from him,” Sulzberger recalls. “To help me steady the newsroom and to find his successor.” He says that Lelyveld was initially reluctant to return, “but he did it as a favor to me and also because he loves the institution.”
A friend of Lelyveld’s calls the reluctance “a little bit of an act”—a means of letting Sulzberger suffer, if only a few hours longer, the consequence of his having chosen Raines in the first place. When Lelyveld returned as acting editor, he could not have been more decorous: “This is not a restoration in any personal sense,” he told the assembled staff. “But I hope it’s a restoration of certain values we need to go on putting out the world’s best newspaper. I don’t mean that as a slight on the two admirable men”—Raines and his deputy, Gerald Boyd—“who led you day after relentless day through the titanic story of 9/11 and then bravely stood here yesterday to say their good-byes for the good of the paper.”
It had taken a Howell Raines to make Joe Lelyveld lovable. The staff greeted him like a long-lost father. One of his first initiatives was to reinstate the typographical redesign that Raines had thwarted. He then addressed his other big piece of unfinished business: seeing to it that Sulzberger named Bill Keller to succeed him.
Lelyveld would later admit to friends that he may have taken a bit too much satisfaction in the unexpected reversal of his Times legacy. It is hard to say whether he truly felt this or if, in true Lelyveld fashion, he was merely subjecting himself to the self-flagellation and guilt he so adeptly imported from his childhood. Lelyveld seems resigned to the belief that the things in life most in need of change are the ones most resistant to change. When the journalist Seth Mnookin, working on a book about the Times during the Raines fiasco, contacted Lelyveld for an interview, Lelyveld turned down Mnookin’s request in an e-mail: “Let’s leave things where they stand—I’m the shy, aloof, arrogant, dull, sometimes scheming, status-quo guy who didn’t want to reform or energize the Gray Lady.”
His wife’s death, less than a year after he left the Times for good, tore a chunk out of him. They had been married nearly 45 years. Carolyn had over the years done astonishingly good work with children suffering from AIDS and cancer; she was also Lelyveld’s social half, his normalizing half, his abundant half. After the peripatetic life of a correspondent and the on-call life of an editor, he had been very much looking forward to his retirement years with Carolyn. In anticipation, they were building a huge extension on their nineteenth-century farmhouse upstate. It was designed by their daughter Amy, an architect in New York. (Their other daughter, Nita, is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.)
One day last month, I spent a few hours in the house with Lelyveld. The old half, with low ceilings and uneven floors, was cluttered and cozy; the new half, with soaring ceilings and a wall of windows looking onto a hardwood glen, was grandly serene. The new master bedroom had a second-story porch attached to it, floating in the air like a tree house. “The idea,” he said, almost inaudibly, “was that I would have made coffee in the morning and brought it out here to Carolyn.”
Later, driving into New Paltz, I asked if he would consider remarrying.
“I don’t have a position on that,” he said. I couldn’t help smiling—it was the sort of nonanswer that would have made Lelyveld the reporter seethe. He may have felt the same, for a minute later, he produced an explanation more in keeping with the writer he is: “I’m not happy being alone all day, all night, all the next day, and all the next night.”
He is working hard to reclaim his writer’s life. He has a notebook full of ideas for books and magazine articles, and Omaha Blues is the biggest step yet toward his most important goal: establishing his identity beyond the New York Times. That is why he won’t publicly discuss the latter years of his career, and particularly the turbulence provoked by Howell Raines.
Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t drop an occasional hint. During one conversation, I referred to the period when Lelyveld “came back to rescue the paper,” but then stopped myself and said, “Well, maybe rescue is too strong a word.”
Lelyveld’s half-smile spread to perhaps three-quarters. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I think I can live with rescue.”