By: Jim Rosenberg
A memorial service was held May 1 aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, in New York for longtime crime and combat reporter, author, journal editor, movie producer and philanthropist Michael Stern. He died April 7 in Florida. He was 98.
Stern was a journalist for much of his life. But in recent decades he was best known for starting a Parkinson’s disease foundation, aiding work on Huntington’s disease, and collaborating with the late philanthropist Zachary Fisher — to create an Alzheimer’s disease charitable organization and an Alzheimer’s research center under Nobel laureate Dr. Paul Greengard, house families visiting hospitalized military personnel, and convert the scrapped aircraft carrier USS Intrepid into a floating military museum.
On the Intrepid, Fisher’s nephew Ken remarked: “Mike was always there” – for the Allies’ arrival in Rome, Mussolini’s death and Dachau’s liberation, for finding and interviewing Salvatore Giuliano “decades before Mario Puzo wrote ‘The Sicilian,'” and for the causes he championed.
Born almost 99 years ago on one of the last farms in Brooklyn, N.Y., Stern left journalism studies at Syracuse University shortly before graduating to work as a sports writer, taking a job at the New York Journal, then, according to The New York Times, moving to the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald. Years later, after Stern became a celebrated writer, the university awarded him a degree.
In the 1930s, Stern wrote for several crime magazines and worked part time for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, where his work contributed to convictions of prostitution ringleaders and to the subject of his first book. Another of his seven books, Flight From Terror, was co-authored with early Nazi official and journalist Otto Strasser, who escaped to Canada after opposing the party’s direction.
Stern joined the Army in 1943 as a war correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance, following the fight from North Africa on to Italy, where, the next year, he and correspondent Fred Rosen made it into Rome ahead of General Mark Clark’s forces. Stern remained in Italy for 50 years. During that time he wrote his autobiography and other books, edited a weekly science journal and produced several films, including 1988’s Run for Your Life.
He returned to the United States to live about 15 years ago, but maintained life-long personal, political and philanthropic contacts in Italy, where he was made a cavaliere ufficiale in 1998.
Surviving are a daughter, Margaret, a granddaughter, Margaret Ann, and a son, Michael Jr., who retired as production director of the Post-Standard, Syracuse, in 2007. A lawyer and Syracuse University alumnus like his father, Mike Stern worked part-time as a Post-Standard photographer, then went straight into newspaper management training after graduation, limiting his practice of law to pro bono representation.
“My father made a phone call, and I was fired” from a summer job as an Associated Press photographer, Mike Stern told E&P. It was January 1961, and the teenager was expected to be back at college within days. Instead, he was packing a bag and about to leave Italy to cover the killing of Patrice Lumumba in the recently independent Belgian Congo.
“He cared about it,” Stern said of his father’s regard for journalism, “but he didn’t particularly talk about it,” having “been out of journalism for quite some time.” It was a characteristic others observed. “Mike never talked about the past… always the future,” U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney remarked at the memorial in New York.
Nevertheless, through last year Stern attended events at the Overseas Press Club, which he joined in 1947.
Stern got his start in journalism at newspapers but made it his career at magazines. Among his many stories, often the best remembered related to war and crime.
In the first, a sensation in this country, Stern uncovered the murder of an OSS officer by two of his own men behind enemy lines. Directing air drops to non-communist partisans, Major William Holohan was said to have been shot at the direction of and for payment by Italian communists. The story provoked defamatory accusations by a then-widely circulated communist daily, which Stern successfully sued.
In the other, published here but a sensation in Italy, Stern managed an interview with Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano, who, as a sort of Robin Hood, had long eluded police. Mike Stern describes a photo of his father and Giuliano sitting within view of a police checkpoint, which appears in the background.