Joseph Lelyveld, Former Top Editor of The New York Times, Dies at 86

Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for his book “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White,” died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Janny Scott, his partner of 19 years and a former Times reporter.

Cerebral and introspective, Mr. Lelyveld was for nearly four decades one of the most respected journalists in America, a globe-trotting adventurer who reported from Washington, Congo, India, Hong Kong, Johannesburg and London, winning acclaim for his prolific and perceptive articles.

Coming home, he rose up The Times’s editorial pyramid to its pinnacle, the executive editorship, arguably the most powerful post in American journalism. In seven years at the helm, from 1994 to 2001, The Times climbed to record levels of revenue and profits, expanded its national and international readerships, introduced color photographs to the front page, created new sections, and ushered in the digital age with a Times website and round-the-clock news operations.

Mr. Lelyveld presided over one of the world’s largest and most influential news organizations — with 1,200 reporters and editors in New York, Washington and an archipelago of 16 regional, 11 national and 26 foreign bureaus — all the while taking strides to diversify the staff’s racial and gender profile, although some critics called the efforts insufficient.

Mr. Lelyveld announced to the New York Times newsroom in 2001 that the staff had won two Pulitzer Prizes.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.

He directed coverage of the major news of his era — the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, the O.J. Simpson and Unabomber cases, the sex-abuse scandal involving Catholic priests, a war in Kosovo, and the election campaign that elevated George W. Bush to the presidency.

His staffs won multiple Pulitzer Prizes for reporting — on racial attitudes and contemporary life in America, federal tax loopholes, the work of the Supreme Court, drug corruption in Mexico, Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan and the sale of technology to China, and for feature and deadline reporting. Seventeen members of his staffs were Pulitzer finalists.

With the internet still in infancy, Mr. Lelyveld kept The Times’s focus on traditional print journalism as the paper took modest steps into digital publishing with a website that, like those of most news organizations at the time, did not charge for online subscriptions, hoping to expand readership. (Despite sharp print advertising declines and meager web income, The Times did not put online content behind a paywall until 2011.)

Mr. Lelyveld retired a week before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and coverage of the biggest story of the new century fell to his successor, Howell Raines, a hard-driving former political reporter and editor of the editorial page. Mr. Raines’s staff won a record seven Pulitzers in 2002, six for its 9/11 work. But a year later, The Times was hit by a scandal that led to an interim encore by Mr. Lelyveld.

In June 2003, after weeks of anguish over disclosures of journalistic fraud and plagiarism by a reporter, Jayson Blair, and the resignations of Mr. Raines as executive editor and Gerald M. Boyd as managing editor, Mr. Lelyveld, at the behest of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., returned to work to restore calm and credibility to the paper’s damaged reputation until a new leader could be named.

Traumatized by the scandal and exhausted by Mr. Raines’s demands for greater production, the staff largely welcomed the return of Mr. Lelyveld, who professed some reluctance, having embarked on a new career writing books and freelance articles. Six weeks later, Bill Keller, a columnist and former Times correspondent who had been Mr. Lelyveld’s managing editor and his choice as a successor, was named the executive editor.

“Joe ran a superb newsroom, and under him we produced a superb newspaper,” Mr. Sulzberger told Stephen J. Dubner for a 2005 profile of Mr. Lelyveld in New York magazine. “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.”

Foreign Postings

Mr. Lelyveld’s reputation as a journalist was secure long before he wrote “Move Your Shadow” (1985). Exploring ordeals and absurdities under South Africa’s apartheid system of racial separation, the book was based on his two reporting tours in Johannesburg, the first in 1965-66, when he was expelled after 11 months by a government displeased with his work, and a second from 1980 to 1983.

In a review for The Times, the author and journalist Ted Morgan wrote: “The executive branch, the judiciary, the legislature, the military, the police are all harnessed to the lunatic proposition that 15 percent of the population (that being the percentage of whites in this country of 32 million) should hold all the power, almost all the wealth, and two-thirds of the land, at the expense of 85 percent of the population. In his calm, judicious way, Mr. Lelyveld takes us on a tour of this cockeyed system.”

The son of an eminent leader of Reform Judaism, the Harvard-educated Mr. Lelyveld briefly considered careers in psychiatry and the law. But he earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, and, while traveling in Burma (now Myanmar) and India on a Fulbright scholarship, he discovered his passion for writing, especially about international affairs.

“I found, through sheer dumb luck, that newspapering suited a deep need I seemed to have to not know what was going to happen next in my life,” he said years later in a commencement speech at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “I found that I thrived on surprise, and that there were people who might pay me to cultivate this instinct.”

Mr. Lelyveld, right, and a colleague in the Times newsroom in 1965. A globe-trotting adventurer, Mr. Lelyveld reported from Washington, Congo, India, Hong Kong, Johannesburg and London.

He joined The Times as a copy boy in early 1962, and soon won notice on the radio-broadcast desk, crafting news bulletins for the Times-owned WQXR on the sunrise shift: eight newscasts and thousands of words a day — a sink-or-swim test of nerves and lucidity under pressure, with hourly deadlines to hone fast, accurate writing skills. In those days it was a starting gate for many who became Times reporters. In Mr. Lelyveld’s case, it was the beginning of an institutional climb that had more to do with skill, drive and incisive intelligence than personal charm, in which some colleagues found him wanting.

“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,” Mr. Dubner wrote. “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.”

Promoted to reporter within months, Mr. Lelyveld handled financial news and general assignments in 1963-64 with aplomb, mastering the markets and urban riots, politics and preparations for the World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens. After covering local and national assignments for three years, he became a foreign correspondent in Congo, chasing the conflicts and personalities of emerging African nations.

Mr. Lelyveld in 1969 with clowns in the Himalayan state Sikkim, where he was covering a New Year’s celebration. Credit…The New York Times

Landing in a five-year rebel war against Moise Tshombe, the premier of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Lelyveld hit the ground running. “Can the government be restored where it has been destroyed?” he wrote. “Can it be created where it has simply been missing? Will it take on functions beyond disbursing salaries? When the more lurid possibilities of Congo are peeled away, these dry questions remain unanswered.”

Moving to India, he won in-house publisher’s awards in 1967 for a Times Magazine piece, titled “Communism, Kerala Style,” which appraised the results of elections that swept the Congress Party out of power in India’s most populous state, and for a news article on the plight of the homeless in the sprawling metropolis of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

In two years as New Delhi bureau chief, he covered Indian border wars with Pakistan and China, two crippling droughts and two successions of prime ministers. In Lucknow, he wrote of Hindi-speaking students agitating to ban English. And in isolated Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, he found ancient artifacts replaced by wrist watches, phones and sneakers.

The China Beat

Mr. Lelyveld returned to New York in 1969 and for three years took on general assignments and special reporting projects, including a Black Panther trial in New Haven, a series on a fourth-grade public school class in Manhattan and a criminal negligence case against Senator Edward M. Kennedy over the drowning of an aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, when Mr. Kennedy drove off a one-lane bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass.

His domestic reports on major stories of the day were trenchant and personally satisfying, but he longed to return to the life of a foreign correspondent. A new challenge soon came along.

Mr. Lelyveld, center, at work in the Times newsroom in 1970. He joined The Times as a copy boy in 1962.Credit…Bob Hayman/The New York Times

In anticipation of opening a bureau in China, The Times asked Mr. Lelyveld in 1972 to undertake intensive Chinese language studies at Cambridge University in England. Foreign language training before a reporter’s posting abroad is a common practice followed by The Times and other major newspapers. But China did not permit The Times to open a bureau when Mr. Lelyveld completed his training, and from 1973 to 1974 he covered China and Southeast Asia from Hong Kong. Most of his attention was focused on political and economic developments in China. With American involvement in the Vietnam War winding down, he covered events in Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Burma.

Mr. Lelyveld was brought back to the United States in 1974 and assigned to the Washington bureau. He went on to cover the 1976 presidential campaign. In 1977, he wrote a column, “In America,” for The New York Times Magazine on the nation’s moods and preoccupations

Then, at his request, he returned to South Africa, in 1980, to cover the unfinished business of apartheid. For three years he traveled through crowded Black “homelands” and white cities, documenting apartheid for Times articles and for his book on South Africa, which shared the 1986 nonfiction Pulitzer with “Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families” by J. Anthony Lukas, a former Times correspondent. His second South Africa tour was followed by a two-year posting as a correspondent in London, after which he returned to write for The Times Magazine.

Mr. Lelyveld with the reporter Charlayne Hunter in 1970. He established reporter-trainee programs and internships to raise the number of minority and female journalists in the newsroom.Credit…The New York Times

He was the foreign news editor from 1987 to 1989. In 1990, he succeeded Arthur Gelb as managing editor, the No. 2 job in the newsroom, under Max Frankel, the executive editor. When Mr. Frankel retired in 1994, Mr. Lelyveld succeeded him in what The New Yorker called “a triumph of merit.”

At the same time, a rising star of the staff, Gerald M. Boyd, was named an assistant managing editor, the first Black journalist to reach the newsroom’s top rung of leadership, known as the masthead. Mr. Boyd later became deputy managing editor and, after Mr. Lelyveld’s retirement, managing editor under Mr. Raines.

In a memoir, “My Times in Black and White,” published posthumously in 2010, Mr. Boyd said that minority reporters and editors under Mr. Lelyveld had achieved progress “in numbers and assignments,” adding: “Not only were there some journalists of color in management, but others held coveted assignments in Washington, on the national staff or abroad.”

Mr. Lelyveld, center, escorted Fidel Castro of Cuba on a tour of the Times newsroom in 1990.Credit…Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Mr. Lelyveld sent recruiters to minority conventions and established reporter-trainee programs and internships to raise the number of minority and female journalists in the newsroom.

“The efforts improved diversity and the morale of many at the paper,” Mr. Boyd wrote. “But they probably added to the smoldering anger of whites on staff who believed that minorities received special treatment.”

In 2000, Mr. Lelyveld’s last full year as editor, the Times Company, driven by its flagship newspaper, recorded its best financial year in its history, amassing revenues of $3.5 billion, including $1 billion from advertising; profits of $636,000; and circulations of 1.1 million on weekdays and 1.7 million on Sundays. It owned The Boston Globe, 15 daily papers and eight television stations. Fortune magazine ranked it No. 1 in the publishing industry in its list of the world’s most admired companies, and a top workplace for people of color and women.

Son of a Rabbi

Joseph Salem Lelyveld was born in Cincinnati on April 5, 1937, the oldest of three sons of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld and Toby (Bookholtz) Lelyveld. His father was a Zionist and civil rights crusader who was beaten by white segregationists in 1964 while helping to register Black voters in Mississippi. He served congregations in Cincinnati, Hamilton and Cleveland in Ohio, and in Omaha, Neb. Joseph recalled his parents as emotionally distant and their marriage as troubled, ending in divorce.

His mother, a Shakespeare scholar and former actress, left the family in Omaha to study for a doctorate at Columbia University. She attempted suicide and had extramarital affairs, Mr. Lelyveld acknowledged in his writings.During World War II, his father traveled to promote pacifism and Zionism. Left behind, the boy was shunted around — to a farm family of Seventh Day Adventists in Nebraska, to grandparents in Brooklyn, and then to his parents’ apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he attended Public School 165.

Mr. Lelyveld told New York magazine that he had “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.” He told David J. Garrow of The Chicago Tribune in 2005, “I became guarded, pensive and unusually but not happily self-sufficient.”

He was a brilliant student, graduating from the elite Bronx High School of Science and then Harvard with high honors and a bachelor’s degree in English literature and history in 1958, followed by a master’s degree in American history in 1959. He earned another master’s, from Columbia’s journalism school, in 1960.

In 1959, he married Carolyn Fox, who pioneered New York City’s first program for children with AIDs, at the Bronx Hospital Daycare Center. She also founded programs for children with cancer in South Africa. She died in 2004.

In addition to Ms. Scott, he is survived by two daughters from his marriage to Ms. Fox, Amy and Nita Lelyveld, and a granddaughter.

Joseph Lelyveld in 2001. When he rose to executive editor of The Times, The New Yorker called it “a triumph of merit.”Credit…Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Besides a Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Lelyveld’s journalism won awards from the Overseas Press Club and the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship and two George Polk Memorial Awards from Long Island University.

After retiring from The Times, he freelanced for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker and wrote well-received books, notably a memoir on his childhood, “Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop” (2005). Based partly on letters and photographs found in a family trunk, it explored his early turmoil, dislocations and friendship with a rabbi who became his surrogate father. Writing the book “almost became a kind of self-therapy,” he told New York magazine.

The former Times columnist Russell Baker, in The New York Review of Books, wrote: “Among the Lelyvelds, confusion, misunderstanding, and too much silence at all levels were the makings of an obviously unhappy family, whose members, if asked, Lelyveld says, would have called themselves a happy family. His book is more like life than memoir.”

Mr. Lelyveld went on to write “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India” (2011), a book, critics said, that stood out among some 30 biographies of Mohandas K. Gandhi for its examination of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign to win India’s independence from Britain in 1947 and the life of Hindu asceticism and celibacy that was the foundation of his moral authority.

By also exploring Gandhi’s erotically charged friendship with the German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach, the book raised protests and was banned in Gandhi’s home state, Gujarat. Mr. Lelyveld rejected assertions that his book had hinted that Gandhi was bisexual.

Mr. Lelyveld’s last book, “His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt” (2016), resurrected the dramas of F.D.R.’s last 16 months when, with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, the president won an unprecedented fourth term, oversaw development of the atomic bomb, met Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, and directed American forces in the penultimate stages of World War II.

Times colleagues often wondered about Mr. Lelyveld’s long pauses and blank stares in conversation. They seemed intimidating, but may have meant something more benign. In “Omaha Blues,” he recalled that to celebrate his and Carolyn’s fifth wedding anniversary, his parents took them to dinner and used the occasion to announce their own plans to divorce after 30 years of marriage.

“It was hard to know what to say,” he wrote. “‘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.”

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