My Halberstam Experience
The David Halberstam I knew was all the things people have written about him since his death in a car accident this week: overbearing, a great reporter, quick-witted, pedantic, perhaps with a high opinion of himself. To me, he was also generous beyond reason.
While I was working for Newsweek's Japanese edition in 1987, we decided to do a Q&A with Halberstam, as he had just published The Reckoning, considered the definitive tome about the rise of Japanese automakers at the expense of Detroit. It wasn't hard to find him – he was in the Manhattan phone book. I called him up, and my bureau chief, Fukiko Aoki (Pete Hamill's wife, by the way), and I went over to his lovely high-ceilinged apartment, complete with an inside terrace and a floor-to-ceiling bay window, on west 67th Street. He was gracious and well-informed, and intelligent, and gave good sound bite answers. (I've scanned the interview as I submitted it to my editors -- there are 6 pages, you can get by swapping in the page number in the url. A piece of the way it appeared is in the image, above.) I remember him being extremely complimentary of Hideko Takayama, with whom I later worked in the Newsweek Tokyo bureau, for the tremendous help and research she had done for him on his book.
Halberstam and I kept marginally in touch, and a couple years later, when I was applying for a Fulbright fellowship, a good friend well-versed in academe asked if I knew any high-profile journalists with name recognition who could write a recommendation. I asked David, and much to my surprise, he most generously said he liked me, thought I was a "smart kid," and "yes." In person, he talked exactly the same way he did on air, droning in his deep, booming voice, seeming to lecture, talking in long sentences with lots of commas and few periods, and absolutely not liking to be interrupted. He took a recommendation I had written for him, rewrote it beautifully, and sent it in. I got the fellowship and went to study at Tokyo's Sophia University for a year.
While I was in Japan, David came over on a tour – he was something of a celebrity there – and while he didn't schedule me in, we did bump into each other at an event he was headlining. I said "hi," as he walked through the halls with a leading politician he was interviewing. He winked and nodded – odd gestures for him, I thought – and kept walking.
Throughout the years, I would occasionally do a little something for Daviod – send him a fact or a contact for something he was working on. A number of years after the Fulbright, I called to ask him something, and he very gruffly hung up the phone, very unfriendly. I wasn't sure what I had done to piss him off. Perhaps I had not done enough for him? Maybe he was just in a bad mood that day. I never knew, and never asked. I would occasionally see him walking around the neighborhood after 1997, when I joined ABC News, with offices on west 66th Street, but there was never a flash of recognition from him, and I never tried very hard to say "hi." I did see him in the building occasionally, when he was going for an interview on Nightline or one of the other shows. Even when he said "hi" in the ABC halls, I don't think he knew who I was.
What is most tangible to me, though, is his generosity in doing something for someone he didn't know very well and whom he didn't have to help. I’m not sure I would have gotten the fellowship – a wonderful experience, and chance to really learn Japanese – without his generosity.