A gargantuan tribute to a master of living large

Friends bite at chance to salute R.W. Apple

December 06, 2006|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- There were glasses of fine wines, plump Massachusetts oysters dotted with California caviar and plenty of rollicking stories. It was too much of everything and that, of course, made it a fitting tribute for R.W. "Johnny" Apple, who for the past four decades wrote with legendary gusto about politics and food for The New York Times.

Yesterday, bright lights from politics, journalism and cuisine filled the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater in Washington's John F. Kennedy Center to celebrate the colorful life of the correspondent, who died in October at age 71. After a string of speeches recounting Apple's antics, the crowd was treated to lunch prepared by chefs of Washington-area restaurants.

Newspapermen like Apple may be the stuff of the stone ages, but yesterday the dinosaurs rumbled.

Four presidents - both Presidents Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - sent tributes. "He was the kind of guy you could trust," said George H.W. Bush in a message read to the crowd by Apple's stepson, John Brown.

"He could cut through the smoke and mirrors and get to the heart of an issue," said U.S. Sen. John McCain. The Arizona Republican recalled that he had met Apple when both were in Vietnam, McCain as a Navy pilot and Apple as a foreign correspondent. Apple took McCain on a tour of Saigon, the senator recalled, introducing him to a cast of characters in a hotel bar that rivaled the exotic creatures depicted in Star Wars.

Joseph Lelyveld, who for many years was Apple's boss at the Times, said Apple sometimes had trouble obeying editors. "He had a glorious lust for life and was a great competitive journalist," Lelyveld said. But, he said, "Johnny did not always do what I told him."

Several speakers recounted Apple's food adventures. Author Calvin Trillin accompanied Apple on his search for good local eats, including an expedition to Baltimore where Apple declared the crab cake at Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market as the best in the universe. Not many people could eat as much as Apple, said Trillin, who nicknamed his friend "Three-Lunch Johnny."

Trillin also marveled at the extent to which Apple could get his eating and drinking escapades covered by his newspaper expense account. At a grand dinner in Paris marking Apple's 70th birthday, the talk among the 55 guests, Trillin said, was whether the guest of honor was going to be able to "lay this whole thing off on The New York Times."

Trillin suggested to Apple that he donate his expense account records to the Smithsonian Institution, so fledging journalists could learn from the master. "He appeared to give the matter serious consideration," Trillin said.

Alice Waters, the Berkeley, Calif., chef often credited with reviving the use of fresh, local ingredients in American restaurants, said Apple was the kind of enthusiastic eater that restaurant owners "love to have in the dining room."

"When Johnny was at a table, the energy in the whole room picked up," she said.

Later at lunch, as waiters carrying tuna tartare and glasses of vintage chardonnay moved around her, Waters said Apple's food journalism was a service to the nation. "Food is our common language," she said. "It gives meaning and beauty to our lives. Johnny got that, and he could shout it out to others."

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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