By: Allan Wolper
It was a real estate story I will never forget.
My son, Richard, had flown to New York City from Utah to buy a West Side apartment that would serve as a pied-a-terre for him, his wife Traci, and their children. After two days of racing through coops and condos, he telephoned to say he?d found a wonderful place on West 67th Street. “We?ll have to chop down a couple of walls,? he told us excitedly. ?But it?s great. I want you to look at it.?
The apartments he liked were two adjoining studios in a building that looked and felt like turn-of-the-20th-century New York. A perfect place for an artist or a writer. We didn’t know just how perfect.
But they would have to be gutted to become inhabitable. Our
friends and family examined every corner of the first studio, seeking out the hidden horrors associated with New York apartments, then we herded ourselves into the next one.
While Traci and my son discussed whether an architect could turn
the studios into a livable apartment, my wife and I scanned the floor-to -ceiling bookshelves that filled one of them. We were taken by the marvelous collection of books written by David Halberstam, including “The Best and The Brightest,” “The Powers that Be,” and one of my favorites, “Summer of ’49,” the story of a Yankee-Red Sox pennant race.
Some of the books were cloistered in wrappings used by collectors to safeguard valuable first editions. We wondered whether the owner of the apartment had been a bibliophile or a journalism scholar.
Then my wife spotted a letter to Halberstam from Graham Greene, and we began to suspect that we had wandered into the writing home of one of America?s most important journalists. Greene sent the letter in response to a scathing review that Mary McCarthy had written in the New York Review of Books on “The Best and The Brightest.”
We knew for certain that we were in the late David Halberstam?s office when I spotted a five-by-seven Pulitzer Prize certificate hanging
unobtrusively in a corner of the office that he had won as a New York Times correspondent for his coverage of the Vietnam War. His desk was filled with pictures of his family.
Soon I felt myself backing up to the door. ?We have to go,? my wife whispered, in a voice that reflected our feeling that we had become
interlopers in a very private space.
Stories of Halberstam sometimes included a picture of him sitting at the desk we had seen in his studio, his long frame hovering over his computer. It was a space he obviously cherished, even though he once
complained laughingly that he was often awakened at 1:30 a.m. by
the car alarms of ABC television employees who worked in the
?Yet, I must admit I like living here,? he said in the 1995 article in The New York Times that he used to chide the ABC parkers. ?I stay of my own choice, not merely because of inertia or because I am already here. It is my city, among other reasons, because it is a good city to be a writer in.?
We made our visit to the studios on June 24, a little more than a month after Halberstam had been killed in an automobile accident in Menlo Park, Calif., in a car driven by a journalism student from Berkeley. Halberstam, 73, was the author of 15 books and showed no signs of slowing down. He was killed on his way to an interview with Y.A. Tittle to research a book on the 1958 championship playoff between the Giants and The Baltimore Colts, to be called ?The Game.? He had started working on the football book even as he was correcting the galleys on ?The Coldest Winter,? an examination of the two most important battles of the Korean War. That volume will be published on September 25 by Hyperion.
Much of the material in his studio office will be shipped to Boston University. ?David was an intensely loyal person,? Jean Halberstam told me in a telephone interview this week from her summer home.?He had promised the papers to B.U. several years ago and he always kept his word.?
She said that when we visited the office, it had been in the best shape
it had been in years: ?We had put a lot of his stuff in those boxes you saw on the floor.”
When I asked about the Graham Greene note, she replied, ?It was a wonderful letter. Graham had said Mary McCarthy was probably mad that David hadn?t included the fact she had spent a weekend in Saigon. That letter was priceless.?
At one point, the Halberstams had considered buying the next
door studio, but eventually decided against it. ?I told him that was exactly what we needed, some more space for him to throw his papers and books on the floor,? Jean Halberstam told me.
“Mac,” the building’s elevator/doorman, says that Halberstam?s spirit permeated the building. ?I can still hear his deep voice,? Mac said with a small smile, ?asking me how I was doing. How I was feeling. He really wanted to know. He sure was a nice man.?
When I was chatting with Jean Halberstam, she told me that she had gotten word that someone had bought her apartment. She asked me whether it might have been my son. I told her I didn?t think so, but I would check. I called Utah and found out that?s exactly what happened.
I felt torn. At first I had secretly hoped that he would not be the one to knock down the walls that had kept David Halberstam?s literary life safe for so many years. Now I had become an indirect, partial custodian of that life.