Media Circus: The last gentleman columnist

Remembering Murray Kempton.

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when Murray Kempton took ill earlier this year, Newsday ran a small notice in the space where his column appeared. It was a case study in euphemism, stating simply that “Murray Kempton is recuperating from surgery.” As one of my colleagues here at Newsday remarked, it allowed us to indulge in a form of group wish-fulfillment: If we said he was recuperating, maybe he would.

You could say we were “in denial,” but we all knew, and regularly discussed, just how ill Murray really was. He had been admitted to the hospital first with an undiagnosed intestinal ailment, then diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There was a more complicated, and a more selfish, response behind our insistent disbelief: We somehow couldn’t bring ourselves to imagine the paper without Murray Kempton. Now we will have to: He died Monday.

It was easy to think of Murray as indestructible. Although he was at an age when many people settle into dotage, he could, and did, run circles around us all. After New York Newsday folded in 1995 and op-ed space shrank in the Long Island mother edition of the paper, Murray complained regularly about only being able to file his column two times a week instead of four.

Nor was his energy surplus merely mental: There was the legendary bicycle. Until just a year or so ago, Murray could be spotted coursing fearlessly through the streets of Manhattan on a three-speed, turned out in a suit, press badges draped around his neck, Walkman vigorously engaged. (He never did learn to drive.) Murray, a courtly, pipe-smoking gentleman with disconcertingly erect posture, could, in such moments, resemble a kamikaze bike messenger. It was the sort of juxtaposition that he himself savored: the sweet, forever unexpected tumult of life, rendered unremarkably on a city street.

The same energy also fueled his writing. Murray’s columns discoursed knowledgeably, and beautifully, on the mundane and the notorious, the heroic and the abject, the maligned and the malfeasant. Murray wrote with uncanny precision — albeit often in baroquely structured sentences — about a dizzying host of events and characters: the selections of popes and presidential nominees, the sad inevitabilities of police brutality trials and welfare bureaucracies, the travails of John Gotti and Jean Harris, the genius of Frank Sinatra and A. Philip Randolph.



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And no matter what the subject, it was elevated to pure, edifying pleasure in Murray’s telling. His gift for language positively glowed in a profession increasingly dominated by boilerplate prose and flatulent jargon — where phrases such as “inside baseball,” “red meat” and “show me the money” pass for color and wit. Of all the windy “analysis” expended on the relations between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton, none approached Murray’s incisive reading: “Each is the other’s wall against the public’s alarm for its woe.”

Likewise, one would search in vain for a more astute, and heartbreaking, summation of the prospects for a second Clinton term than Murray’s: “Mightn’t it precisely be the long-seasoned habit of postponing our promises that condemns us to have forgotten what they were on the morning when we greet the arrival of an unshackled chance to keep them?” Writing on the epidemic of sexual harassment in women’s prisons, Murray could blithely toss off this epigram, masquerading as a transition: “The occasions of redress for the abused are rare, stingy and disdainful of the equities owed to the respectable.”

Of course, Murray could also erect fearsomely tangled sentences. He relished recounting the story of how a libel trial against him had been dismissed when the presiding judge couldn’t figure out what the offending column was supposed to be saying. Yet even when his readers were compelled to stop and parse (or re-parse) his diction, the effort was always richly rewarded. Consider this description of the embattled liberalism of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes: “His interior … would break forth in jagged protuberances abradingly insistent that the president put his attention to the overrunning sores of social injustice.” It’s the sort of language that would give a migraine to, say, A.M. Rosenthal, but it also allows us to imagine the anguish of a federal bureaucrat as Milton might have.

In politics, as well, Murray was also given to unexpected flourishes. An unapologetic left-liberal and a former member of both the Communist Youth League and the Socialist Party, he confused and disappointed many loyal readers by confessing that he intended to vote for Bob Dole. (Privately he joked about his improbable ballot: “You can choose the lesser evil, but I’m going to go for the real thing.”)

When Murray was first hospitalized, I joked with him that he would have to recover speedily, since the paper was subbing the glib neocon Charles Krauthammer in his accustomed space. Ever the self-deprecating gentleman, Murray replied that he was grateful for Krauthammer: They had both been awarded Pulitzers the same year, and their shared distinction reminded him how little such laurels meant. With much the same humility, he spoke of his appointment with “the recording angel,” and his frustration that he couldn’t fix its hour more precisely. “I need to know when to start listening to St. Matthew’s Passion,” he complained. He finished the call with the same words he used at the end of most conversations: “God bless you, my friend.”

That was the last time we spoke, but I am fortunate enough to have another, wondrously handwritten memento of Murray in all his true, irreducible glory. Last November, before his illness, a vigilant Newsday proofer had excised the idiomatic term “good girls” from one of his columns on grounds of sexist anachronism. He had used the expression in a passing reference to Maureen Dowd, whom, he protested to Newsday style-keepers, often referred to herself as a girl. Nevertheless, he relented, allowing the word “ladies” to take the place of girls — a compromise he came to rue when the column appeared on Sunday.

While other columnists in the same situation might protest “PC” restraints on their cherished artistry, Murray characteristically felt his standing as a proper gentleman had been unjustly impugned. At the risk of invading a privacy he guarded scrupulously, I cannot resist quoting at length from his written response to the change:

On Friday I made reference [in my column] to conversations with “good girls” and was told that Newsday’s style forbids that expression. My view of style is that its relevance is largely confined to syntax, a discipline which concededly requires close attention for any editor engaged with practices as slovenly as mine often are.

It’s a pity that newspapers ever started to speak of “style” when they were really talking about propriety, another discipline from which I lapse far less frequently than I do with syntax … “Good girls” is no more a term of derogation than ‘guys’ was when Martina Navratilova applied it to her brothers on the tennis circuit. Nor is it worsened when it refers to females beyond their salad days … “Good girls” would have passed without a bump, but I had in my haste to fall back on ‘ladies,’ which shook the very engine out of the car.

I am confident that your colleagues will tell you that I am far from unamenable to suggestions and objections but this one was plain nonsense and added some damage to my copy, which I already damage enough myself with no need for this sort of assistance.

I am confident that I shall never again see such marvelous copy, or know such a toweringly decent man. God bless you, my friend.

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