Murray Kempton: Journalist of Sacred Rage

By Dennis Duggan

  
The great Murray Kempton.

From my desk in Newsday’s Park Avenue office I can see Murray Kempton sitting under a cloud of pipe smoke, his earphones on, typing out his 10,000th plus column by now and as usual walking “wide of the cosmic,” because for Kempton the story starts in the streets before it ever gets to the Supreme Court.

Those of us who have had the great, good fortune to work alongside Kempton have grown accustomed to his face, to his usual greeting, “hello, fellow worker,” and to his habit of trying out his stories on us. It is when he falls to our level of hand-wringing and imploring whatever Gods supply columnists with stories that we understand that even icons put their pants on one leg at a time.

But it’s when his columns appear that we appreciate being in the same room with him. People often shake their heads and joke about Kempton’s baroque style but it is almost always done with the good-natured acceptance we reserve for those who have risen above the muck and often soar with the eagles.

His columns seem to defy the “worm of time,” a favorite Kemptonian expression. Murray worries about the passage of time and his ultimate fate as much as anyone I know. Read his collection written under the title, “Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events” (Times Books/Random House) and you’ll see what I mean. Most of such collections have yellowed at the edges minutes after being published. Not fit for fish, even. But as much as Murray shies from the cosmic, it is that aspect of his work that keeps his writing moored to Planet Earth, but fit for whatever Gods read the papers.

He wrote in my book, “For Dennis. friend of the friendless,” a compliment I treasure. He once wrote to me that I had saved him “from the ashbins of history.” I don’t have a clue what he means but I know that like many of us who earn our living in the papers and who have been thrown over the side from time to time, the ashbins are always there.

“If this pppppplace were a bbbbank,” Homer Bigart remarked when a note posted on the late and lamented Herald Tribune bulletin board carried the name of a new city editor, “ther’d bbbbe a rrrrun on it,” he said.

In July of last year, they rolled out the ashbins once more, this time at New York Newsday. Thank God, Kempton survived, but the editors cut him back from four columns a week to two and stuck him in the editorial pages. Kempton, of course, was unhappy about this, just the way Cecil Fielder moped when Darryl Strawberry started the first game of the post-season baseball series. Kempton believes that “the more times you get to the plate, the more hits you get.”

Murray the K, as his friends sometimes call him, will be 79 years old December 16th. When he turned 70, New York Newsday put out a special six-page, in-house tabloid celebrating “The Kempton Decades.” One reporter described him as looking like an “Episcopal Church bishop on a slum tour,’ inside the Manhattan Criminal Court Building where Mark David Chapman had come to be tested for his ability to be brought to trial.

Kempton is most at home in the courtrooms where the courtroom guards, along with the judges and the defense and prosecution lawyers regard him with a deference they give to few of the rest of us. In his March, 1993 New Yorker profile “The Last Gentleman,” Pulitzer prize-winning author David Remnick recalls an oft told Kempton story. It involved then Mayor Edward I. Koch who didn’t appreciate Kempton’s assessment of him or his administration, to wit:

He (Koch) “has bullied the ill-fortuned and truckled to the fortuned,” Kempton wrote adding for good measure that “to walk in his wake has been to stumble through a rubble of vulgarities and meanness of spirit.”

The friction between Kempton and Koch came to a head one afternoon during a press conference at City Hall. Kempton arrived late, and as he sat down, the chair beneath him collapsed.

“Here comes Murray Kempton breaking my furniture!” Koch declaimed. But Kempton, emerging from the wreckage responded, “it’s the people’s furniture, Mr. Mayor.”

There is no other place but in a Kempton column today that you will find mention of Bertolt Brecht, Schubert’s “Lullaby,” Stendhal or Bessie Smith. In one reminiscence he chatted with Louis Armstrong on Basin Street in New Orleans. Kempton asked Louie about a record he had played as a young man called “When You’re Smilin’,” and the jazz trumpeter told him he had copied the style of yet another trumpet player who he said “had kicks in him.”

No one writes the way Kempton does. No one even tries to imitate Kempton’s style. There is a whole generation of Breslin imitators and as Breslin says in his new book, “I Want to Thank My Brain For Remembering Me,” he gave work to a new generation of Irish American reporters. Breslin has often said that “If you don’t blow your own horn. no one else will.” But even Breslin, like Kempton a Pulitzer prize winner, admires Kempton, and says that “He brought honor to the city room.”

But he also brings wonderment and insights that only come from being soaked in the brine of passing time. You don’t ever really have a conversation with Kempton. You wait for him to pause and try to insert something that is even remotely on a par with what you have been hearing for the past few minutes. Think of a harmonica being played with the Budapest String Quartet.

Newsday columnist Paul Colford recalls a typical encounter with Kempton with great relish, even though it lasted long enough to cause him to worry about getting his own column completed.

“He talked about the old, European monarchies,” recalls Colford, “and about the Dewey-Truman campaign of 1948. Then he mentioned Fats Waller and his music and finally Rupert Murdoch.” Colford says he was “enthralled” by the conversation, an emotion that others similarly transfixed recall. The word gentleman does come to mind when you think of Kempton.

The word “gentleman,” comes to mind when you meet Kempton. He is a wiry man, just under six feet tall whose slim build hasn’t changed in the fifteen or so years that I have been working alongside him at New York Newsday and now at Queens Newsday. It’s not that he doesn’t eat junk food — I have seen him strolling through the city room munching on the contents of a bag of potato chips, his earphones clamped around his head and thoughts of his next column swirling through his head. It’s just that his body’s genetics work more efficiently than any Weight Watchers program.

And while it is Breslin who reminds his biographers that he invented the “gravedigger” theory of journalism and that he has climbed more stairs than anyone in history to get his stories, Kempton has quietly gone about his business appearing on the scene and then quietly leaving it to the rest of us while he composed his column. He told Remnick that “I need a scene, something to look at. I’d rather die than try to write out of my head…”

In a city where there are too many thumbsuckers and pundits, it is reassuring to see Kempton biking through traffic, ignoring the horn-blowing of exasperated motorists, his pants cuff’s tied with a clamp, on his way to the courthouses or to City Hall. One favorite story told about Kempton was his crack to another reporter at the Jean Harris trial. “What do you think of her now’?” he was asked.

“Well, I was with her for the first three shots.” was his reply.

On his 75th birthday which was celebrated by his friends and colleagues, with champagne and a string quartet, in the Newsday offices, a big basket of flowers arrived. They had been sent by Carmen (“Snake”) Persico’s wife since Carmen had been exiled to jail for almost forever. He also got an American flag sent by Senator Daniel Moynihan, himself an intellectual, but wise enough to recall the streets in Hell’s Kitchen where his character was formed.

“I’ve always taken honor seriously,” says Kempton, who also values good manners. He graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1939, wrote political tracts for some left-wing groups in New York and joined the New York Post in 1942 and he has carried off most of the prizes that the great ones do.

But one has eluded him and it gnaws at his soul. It is the Meyer Berger award, named for the New York Times columnist and given by Columbia University each year. The year he won the Pulitzer he attended a luncheon honoring the Meyer Berger winners. One was Jim Dwyer who now writes a column for the New York Daily News. “I never won the Berger,” Kempton complained. “You’ve just won the Pulitzer, Murray,” someone reminded him.

“The Pulitzer is named for a publisher,” said Kempton. “The Meyer Berger is named for a reporter.”

Silurian News, November 1996

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