Media Circus - A heart, a brain and a good pair of shoes

With the passing of J. Anthony Lukas, journalism has lost one of its giants.

Published June 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

two months before J. Anthony Lukas committed suicide last week, he was telling a class of journalism students at Columbia University about discovering a collection of century-old letters. The letters had been written by Frank Steunenberg, a former governor of Idaho and the man whose assassination in 1905 begins Lukas' forthcoming book, "Big Trouble." Lukas had located them, along with source materials ranging from fire-insurance maps to detectives' notes, during a decade of the tireless reporting for which he was renowned by his literary and journalistic peers.

Lukas recounted this particular feat of research with typical modesty. He was attending a family reunion of Steunenberg's descendants when one heir ambled up to him and asked, "Would you be interested in seeing a box of old letters I have?" Lukas lifted his brows, parted his lips, and murmured, "Would I." Before long, he had the keys to the man's home and free run of the Steunenberg correspondence.

During that same appearance before the class, however, Lukas hinted at the toll his epic efforts and lofty standards often exacted. "I was sitting at home in the dark, with a glass of Jack Daniel's, as is my wont," he said of one especially bleak evening, "and then Linda came in and said, 'Oh, Tony.'"

The tone Lukas ascribed to his wife, editor Linda Healey, was one of affectionate chiding. It left the impression that Lukas was mocking his own black moods, now that he was distant enough from them. Far from seeming disappointed with "Big Trouble," he projected the satisfaction of having wrestled a massive challenge to the ground.

Now it is painfully apparent that the crippling self-criticism never abated, that it drove Tony Lukas at age 64 to extinguish the luminous example that was his life. "Big Trouble" -- a history of the almost literal class warfare that broke out between mining interests and radical unionists in Idaho early in the century -- will be published posthumously in the fall. And Lukas will be forever commemorated by the Pulitzer Prize he won reporting for the New York Times and by the rare trinity of Pulitzer, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award he received for "Common Ground," his magisterial account of the Boston school-busing crisis.

Despite all those accolades, Lukas never became a celebrity, even to the reading public. Spending seven years on "Common Ground" and 10 more on "Big Trouble," he could not match the ubiquity of his friend and contemporary, David Halberstam. Nor did his labors achieve quite the fame of Robert Caro's in pursuit of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. In an era when memoir is the first resort of too many writers, he rarely employed the first-person pronoun.

But among journalists and authors and editors, Lukas enjoyed a respect no author surpassed. Such admiration attested not only to his great talent but to his great heart, which he was ever ready to share with younger writers, many of whom had measured their own ambition against his daunting dimensions.

"He was our hero," said Melissa Fay Greene, the author of "Praying for Sheetrock" and "The Temple Bombing," two books about civil rights. "He set the bar. Yet he wore his laurels so gracefully, with such lightness and generosity of spirit, as if they belonged not to him but somehow to a community of writers. 'Look what I've done, look what I've brought back from the front lines where journalism touches literature,' he seemed to say to those of us who also were trying to write a new kind of nonfiction. And then: 'Let me show you the path I took; perhaps I can give you a leg up.'"

Lukas' own path began with daily newspapers -- the Harvard Crimson, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times. He won the first of his Pulitzers for "The Two Worlds of Linda Fitzpatrick," his 1967 article for the Times about a teenager's journey from wealth in Greenwich, Conn., to death in the hippie colony of Greenwich Village. Covering the Chicago Eight trial for the Times, during which the defendants often screamed "Bullshit!" to protest the proceedings, Lukas coined the euphemism "barnyard epithet."

The Linda Fitzpatrick murder and the Chicago Eight trial inspired Lukas first two books, "Don't Shoot -- We Are Your Children" and "The Barnyard Epithet and Other Conspiracies," which were followed by a volume on Watergate, "Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years." When Lukas later referred to these books, though, it was with a mixture of frustration and dismissal. He was searching for a way to narrate contemporary history on a vast scale and, to paraphrase John Coltrane, he couldn't yet play the music in his head.

Then, in 1976, Lukas spotted a news photograph of an anti-busing rally in Boston. It captured a group of white protesters attacking a black passerby, nearly impaling him with a flag staff holding Old Glory. Lukas would later say that having grown up without any real sense of community -- he was shipped off to prep school by his volatile parents -- he was obsessed with the subject of it. And in that single image he saw his beloved Boston being torn asunder.

Lukas built "Common Ground" around the experiences of three emblematic families intimately affected by the school-busing controversy. The Twymons were lower-class blacks whose children were being bused into white schools as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan. The McGoffs, working-class Irish, vehemently opposed the imposition of that plan on their neighborhood high school. And the Divers typified the WASP elites whose well-intended social engineering had loosed this disaster.

Such a thumbnail description barely hints at the grandeur of the book. Lukas not only followed all three families in meticulous detail, but he traced the story of each back to its headwaters -- among the Puritans, the famine-era Irish, the black slaves. He delivered the resulting saga not with the authorial intrusions and dubious ethics of New Journalism, then in its vogue, but with a combination of a historian's mastery of original source material and the city-desk values of accuracy, fairness and shoe-leather persistence. These Lukas raised to the level of transcendent literary virtues.

What Lukas most savored in "Common Ground" were those tiny moments that many readers might not recall but which, taken together, composed the book's fabulously rich texture of social history. He invariably mentioned the brief passage about the Irish neighborhood's tradition of "looping" -- stealing a car and circling it around a particular block as a way of flouting WASP authority. A research trip to Georgia yielded a single riveting passage from a letter Lukas found in an abandoned plantation house. Sending a wedding present during Reconstruction, the black family's former master wrote, "I am sorry that I cannot give him a Negro, but I must do the next best thing left, that is give him a mule."

Beyond the awards "Common Ground" brought Lukas, it established the standard for younger journalists with aspirations. "It was the Bible for our generation," said Alex Kotlowitz, the 42-year-old author of "There Are No Children Here," an account of two boys' lives in a Chicago housing project. "It's what gave us the guts to do what we've done. All you have to do is read the first scene to know how much energy and effort went into the reporting. You read it, and if you were in the profession, you knew the work that went into it. It was intimidating and inspiring at the same time."

In even more direct ways, Lukas played mentor, role model and guardian angel for his protigis. After Nicholas Lemann completed "The Promised Land," his book about the black migration from the rural South to the urban North, Lukas sent him a lengthy, precise evaluation of its narrative structure, character development and other literary techniques. "It was kind of Herr Doktor Professor Lukas," Lemann recalled. "There was such a sense of responsibility about it. It was as if he felt this was his duty."

Mike Kelly, a columnist for the northern New Jersey newspaper the Record, came in for a different sort of support. His book about the consequences of a racial shooting in an integrated suburb, "Color Lines," was heading for publication in 1995, and even many of Kelly's friends in journalism had reneged on promises to provide the back-cover endorsements known as blurbs. Then, one day, Kelly's editor called to read aloud a fax that had just arrived from Lukas, lauding the book as a "stunning piece of social history."

"I felt like someone had reached out and anointed me," Kelly remembered. "And the reason is that Tony did what every person who works on a newspaper dreams about doing. He took the pad and pencil craft and took it to another level. He took it to an art form."

In the last few months of his life, Lukas served as a formal advocate for writers, having been elected president of the Authors Guild. He was assembling a panel of authors, including Lemann, James Gleick and E. Jean Strouse, to study the so-called "mid-list crisis" -- the increasing reluctance of publishers to take on serious books of modest commercial potential. He was reporting and writing an article for the guild's bulletin on the recent demise of Basic Books and of Addison-Wesley's trade division, two developments in that crisis.

Lukas himself hovered far above the tenuous existence of mid-list writers, but he offered them the same compassion and empathy he had offered the three families of "Common Ground." In his first letter as president to the guild's members, he recalled throwing away the early drafts of "Common Ground" once the book was finished, only to learn the pages had been blown loose from a torn garbage bag and were fluttering through the Upper West Side. Seized by the fear he would be either plagiarized or sued for libel, he scrambled to the street to collect them.

"Now, some of you may write this weirdness off as the paranoia that besets so many writers on the eve of publication," Lukas put it. "My wife tells me all writers go bonkers in the fortnight before pub day. But, let's face it, even paranoids have enemies. It's a dangerous world out there for writers."

And it is an incomparably poorer and lonelier one without J. Anthony Lukas. His last literary event will convene at noon on Friday. Then, at the hour when publishing houses would normally shut early for summer weekends, at the hour when Lukas and Linda Healey and so many other from the community of letters would be decamping for Sag Harbor, a memorial service will commence. Tony Lukas, having borne witness so eloquently to what he once termed "life in all its stubborn particularity," will live again, however briefly, as the subject of such witness.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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