Recalling a top man who had grace and wit

April 25, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Rummaging through my files last week, I came upon a letter written 24 years ago by Patricia Pullan, who was The Sun's representative in Paris, addressed to Richard O'Mara, who was The Sun's foreign editor. When I became foreign editor in 1991, I inherited a box full of decades of correspondence between poohbahs in Baltimore and the newspaper's foreign correspondents.

I made copies of the most delightful letters, telegrams and telex messages. I confess I also trashed one letter from me to O'Mara, written when I was the Middle East correspondent. It was a most embarrassing letter, six pages of single-space typewritten groveling over one of the hugest expense accounts ever turned in to the newspaper.

But this is not about me; it is about a man who was possibly the most delightful individual ever to own a newspaper anywhere. His name was Gary Black. From 1956 to 1984, he was chairman of the board of the A. S. Abell Company, which owned and operated The Sun. He was the scion of a family that owned the newspaper for most of the 20th century. I think of him often, particularly around this time of year. This Thursday will mark my 35th anniversary at the newspaper.

Black was in a class of his own. He was born in luxury and lived in luxury. Delightfully, he thought his foreign correspondents should live in luxury, too.

One year, Black made one of his occasional round-the--world tours of The Sun's foreign bureaus and told correspondents to purchase all sorts of things from better housing to better cars and clothes. Immediately, Paul Banker, the managing editor whose budget would have been tapped for all these goodies, made his own round-the-world tour canceling all the purchase orders.

The Pullan letter from Paris? Here's what it said: "I have booked Gary Black Sr. into the Ritz ... on the floor he always likes, overlooking the Vendome side garden, without connecting sitting room. Should he require the latter, I will alter the reservation to a suite on the same floor."

Then, in a gesture to economy, Pullan wrote, "On previous visits, I arranged a Cadillac and chauffeur for the whole visit. Maybe this will only be required for arrival and for departure?"

Black loved Cadillacs and he loved suites. During the grouse-hunting season, he kept a suite at Claridge's, one of the poshest and rather exclusive hotels in London. Cadillacs were not de rigueur in London, so he settled for a Daimler limousine about the size of Queen Elizabeth's.

Black came to see me in Beirut in 1974. Messages came from Baltimore alerting me that he would be traveling with his son Gary Jr. and his daughter-in-law, Mandy. They would require the best accommodations in Beirut and, of course, Black would require a Cadillac limousine. The accommodations were easy enough; the Blacks took over the Presidential and the Ambassador's suites at the famed St. George's hotel. The Cadillac was not so easy. There were plenty of Benzes in Beirut but no suitable Cadillacs. And Black, who had earned a Bronze Star for service in Europe during World War II, would not sit in a German car.

It took me two weeks to locate something suitable. This turned out to be the bulletproof 1956 Fleetwood used by Camille Chamoun when he was president of Lebanon. I found it buried under a dusty tarpaulin. It still had the flagstaffs.

"Polish it up," I told the car's caretaker. "Make sure the engine's working, and get yourself a chauffeur's cap. You'll be driving Mr. Gary Black, and we don't care how much it costs."

This was fun.

Now, many people who traveled in the rarified environment of privilege and high birth in Baltimore in those days were insufferable snobs. But Black was not. In fact, the poorer people were, the more comfortable he seemed with them. He never interfered in the news operation and decidedly did not want to be written about in the newspaper, except when he was caught doing something wrong. When he was cited by federal wardens for shooting over a baited field on the Eastern Shore, he insisted on coverage.

Black was of medium height, always a dapper dresser. He was dark-haired and handsome with some astonishing tattooing on his body. He loved the newspaper, and he loved the people who worked here. Never once did he act as if he knew more about newspapering than the people he had hired to do it for him.

And he seemed able to laugh at himself in a way that comes only with a lot of self-confidence.

I once asked him if it were true that when he had been sent as a young man to get some newspaper experience at the Milwaukee Journal, he had taken his own valet. Yes, he laughed.

Was it true that he had actually complained about his typewriter to an editor in Milwaukee, saying, "No matter how hard I hit the keys, none of he letters came out capitals"?

Yes, he howled, that was true, too.

He was equally candid about his lifelong bout with alcohol, which he finally won late in life. Late in life, too, he had more money than even he could use. The sale of The Sunpapers in 1986 netted him a huge fortune.

The last time I saw him, he invited me to lunch at the Maryland Club. This was a few months after the $600 million sale of the paper, and he was dying of cancer.

"What are you going to do with all that money, Gary?" I joked.

"Jeff," he said, "I'd give back every dime to live longer."

Black died in October 1987. He was 72. They say you can't take it with you, but he did. Not the money, of course, all the rest - the personality and a touch of class that would have been the envy of Midas.

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