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The Scoop of His Life

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.”