A singular figure at the N.Y. Times

R.w. Apple Jr. 1935-2006

October 05, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

R.W. Apple Jr., who in more than 40 years as a correspondent and editor at The New York Times wrote about war and revolution, politics and government, food and drink, and the revenge of living well from more than 100 countries, died yesterday in Washington. He was 71. The cause was complications of thoracic cancer.

With his Dickensian byline, Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites, Mr. Apple, who inevitably was known as Johnny, was a singular presence at the Times almost from the moment he joined the metropolitan staff in 1963. He remained a colorful figure as new generations of journalists around him grew more pallid. His encyclopedic knowledge, grace of expression - and his expense account - were the envy of competitors, imitators and peers.

Mr. Apple enjoyed a career like no other in the modern era of the Times. He was the paper's bureau chief in Albany, Lagos, Nairobi, Saigon, Moscow, London and Washington. He covered 10 presidential elections and more than 20 national nominating conventions. He led the Times' coverage of the Vietnam War for 2 1/2 years in the 1960s and of the Persian Gulf war a generation later, and he chronicled the Iranian revolution in between.

As a political correspondent, Mr. Apple, beginning in 1972, paid attention to the Iowa precinct caucuses when they were still largely ignored by the national press. Four years later, he helped turn the caucuses into an important test of a candidate's strength by being one of the first reporters to spot the potential appeal of a little-known former governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter.

In later years, he turned the same searching, childlike curiosity to writing about food, architecture and travel from around the nation and the globe.

For a generation, the Times turned to Mr. Apple to write front-page "News Analysis" articles, putting great events of the day into longer-term perspective. His best were 1,200-word tapestries of history, erudition and style; the worst were clear and concise, but reflected conventional wisdom that sometimes proved wrong.

"Newspaper people love impossible dreams," he once told Lear's magazine. "I suppose we're reckless sentimentalists. If we didn't love impossible dreams, we would not still be working in an industry whose basic technology was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries."

Mr. Apple was no manager, and he could be cruelly short-tempered with hotel clerks, copy editors and political aides. In his days as Washington Bureau chief, in the mid-1990s, his editing might involve bursting out of his corner office to complain that one reporter had "misspelled fettuccine Alfredo!" or that another had referred to Ann D. Jordan, the consultant, corporate director and wife of Washington super-lawyer Vernon E. Jordan, as a "socialite."

But he was a natural role model, and his colleagues and competitors all watched what he asked, and what he wrote, and what and where and when he ate and drank, and they did their best to follow suit, albeit with much less apparent ease, capacity or zest. When, in an Indian restaurant in Uganda, he warned his dining companions, "No prawns at this altitude!" they listened up.

"I used to say that Johnny grew into the person he was pretending to be when we were young," Joseph Lelyveld, a contemporary who rose to become the Times' executive editor, told the writer Calvin Trillin in a 2003 profile of Mr. Apple in The New Yorker. "Now I wonder whether he actually was that person then, and the rest of us didn't know enough to realize it."

Drama, and a lot of dash, followed Mr. Apple as night follows day. He was the pool reporter sent to the deck of the USS Forrestal in 1967 when a fiery accident nearly killed one of the ship's pilots, Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain 3rd. From that incident he formed a lifelong friendship with the pilot, who went on to become a United States senator.

It was Mr. Apple, or so the legend goes, who told Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. It was Mr. Apple whose relentless questioning elicited from Ronald L. Ziegler, Richard M. Nixon's press secretary, the admission that his previous explanations of the Watergate affair were "inoperative."

Mr. Apple's dinner guests - at his Georgetown house, his farm near Gettysburg, Pa., or his English cottage in the Cotswolds - were apt to include not only leading politicians but also prominent figures in architecture, cuisine and the arts. He thought nothing of beginning a sentence, "The first time I made lunch for Julia Child ..."

Mr. Apple joined the Times as a brash and ambitious recruit from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. He quickly became one of the highest-paid reporters on the local staff. In his first year at the paper, his byline appeared 73 times on the front page. A citation for an early publisher's award, an in-house prize, described his impact:

"In the interests of efficiency, The New York Times recently equipped its main office with automatic elevators, a Centrex switchboard, a two-faced Universal Jump clock, a Goss press with magnetic amplifier drive, a jam-proof Jampool conveyor belt and a 185-pound, water-cooled, self-propelled, semi-automatic machine called R.W. Apple Jr."

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