By: Joe Strupp
When word came into The New York Times at about 7 p.m. Monday that former Times scribe David Halberstam had died in an auto accident, columnist Clyde Haberman was about to leave the newsroom.
But since the paper did not have a Halberstam obituary ready (as it does for so many other notables), Haberman, a 30-year Times veteran who had known Halberstam, was drafted to write the story of his life, and death, completing the arduous task in just over an hour. “I was two seconds from leaving,” Haberman told E&P. “Had it been 30 seconds later, it would not have been me.”
Haberman said he was forced to track down information and some past interview comments, along with quotes via phone from the author’s wife, Jean, for the story. “I had to do all of this scurrying around that anyone would have had to do,” he said. “I had some help from colleagues who made some calls. We had it ready for the national edition [and the Internet] by 8:15 p.m.”
Obituary Editor Bill McDonald, who has at least 1,000 pre-written obituaries on file, said Halberstam’s good health and active lifestyle made him seem less likely to require an obituary soon, despite being 73 and a legendary Times figure. “I’m sure his name has come up, but we write them closer as they get older,” McDonald said. “There is no cut-off or science to this or formula.”
Haberman said he likely would have gotten more examples of Halberstam’s works and interview quotes, noting that the use of a recent NY1 interview was done partly because it was so accessible. “What I would have done differently, for sure, was to spend more time researching speeches he had given, but there was no time for that,” Haberman said. “Clearly, he said more reflective things about the craft of journalism.”
Although Haberman was not a close friend of Halberstam, he said “we bumped into each other from time to time,” adding “I was not an illogical choice” to do his obituary.
McDonald praised Haberman’s work under pressure, saying “he did a great job.” “It might have been more expansive if we had a day or two to write it.” McDonald said Halberstam’s obituary was not affected in any way by the lengthy obit for former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, which began on Page One and jumped to two full inside pages.
Yeltsin’s obit was actually written in 2001, McDonald said, noting that it ran at about 6,500 words, but was some 1,000 words longer before being edited for Tuesday’s paper.