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Johnny, we're so glad we knew ye

Published October 8, 2006

R.W. Apple Jr., the legendary New York Times reporter who died of cancer last week at 71, may be the best newspaper journalist never to win a Pulitzer Prize. But he had something even better: an expense account that matched his outsized appetite for gourmet food and taste for fine wine. His extravagant expense accounts were the stuff of legend, and that they were approved says all you need to know about how much his newspaper valued Apple's work.

In his 43 years at the Times, as a war correspondent in Vietnam and a brilliant political reporter at home, as bureau chief in Lagos, Nairobi, Saigon, Moscow and Washington, Apple took command of a news story the way he took command of a restaurant menu or wine list. He was a fierce competitor whose knowledge of almost any subject set him apart from the pack. He had few peers when it came to writing about politics, wine, food, art and architecture. He could be pompous and short-tempered one minute, gentle and caring the next. But he was bigger and better than the sum of his character flaws.

The obituary in his own newspaper said it best: "With his Dickensian byline, Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites, Mr. Apple, who 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, and his encyclopedic knowledge, grace of expression - and above all his expense account - were the envy of his competitors, imitators and peers."

Last week, in newspaper tributes and online exchanges, old friends and colleagues recalled their favorite Apple stories, and, of course, many of them involved his epicurean adventures and expense account living. There was the time when, as the paper's London bureau chief, Apple and the Times' managing editor visiting from New York feasted on a sumptuous dinner. When the enormous tab arrived, instead of deferring to the boss, the normal protocol, Apple picked up the check and explained, "You'd better let me get that. They'd never believe it coming from you."

Jack Germond, a legendary political reporter and a friendly competitor also known for his love of good food and drink, recalled in his tribute in the Baltimore Sun how he and a group of other political reporters once claimed Apple's reservation at a Kansas City steak house.

Apple failed to appreciate their sense of humor when he arrived and realized what had happened. Germond writes: "So we decided to make amends and ordered a bottle of wine - actually a Lancers Rose that was carbonated and came in a pseudo-earth jug for about $2. When it was delivered, Apple, by now red-faced, ordered it taken away. Nobody was going to see Johnny Apple drinking jug wine. (His dinner companion, another Times reporter, insisted he would drink the wine, so the compromise was that the bottle was kept on the floor.)"

But enough of these stories. Johnny Apple should be remembered not for his expense accounts but for the zest and professionalism he brought to his work. He was a huge presence in American journalism. As his friend Germond wrote, "He was always on stage, whether covering a presidential campaign or reviewing a small restaurant in Provence, always speaking louder or writing more colorful prose than everyone else, usually unabashed in claiming credit, deserved or not ... . He has accomplished a rare thing by leaving a hole in American journalism that no one is likely to fill."

As his colleague in the New York Times Washington bureau back in the '80s, I saw Apple at his best. The Washington editor, Bill Kovach, had left to be editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after he was passed over for the top job in New York. The bureau was leaderless just as the Iran-Contra story was breaking wide open. Apple had returned to Washington from his London post a few months earlier with the title of chief correspondent.

Apple stepped up to the challenge. He held the dispirited bureau together and personally took command of the Iran-Contra affair, filing one front-page story after another while directing the bureau's wider coverage. It was a tour de force.

The way things are going in print journalism these days - the job cuts, the blogs and, of course, the crackdown on expense accounts - I wonder if Johnny Apple would choose a newspaper career again, or if newspapers would still value a bigger-than-life character like him in any cost-benefit analysis.

Richard Holbrooke, a longtime Apple friend and former U. S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in the Washington Post last week: "It is impossible to call Johnny Apple's death the end of an era, because he belonged to no specific era, only to himself. But the journalistic standards he stood for are eroding under the assault of the 24-hour news cycle and the endless stream of mostly unprocessed data and rumor and commentary, all mixed into one messy stew (Johnny would say "cassoulet")."

Apple, he said, had become "one of the last defenders of standards whose loss will be very costly to all of us."

Toward the end of his career, Apple stepped back from the hurly-burly of news and, along with his wife, Betsey, roamed the world writing about restaurants, wine and travel destinations. This global gourmet always traveled with his own pepper mill. To no one's surprise, he spent his last days planning the music and menu for his memorial service. No doubt it will be a grand affair.

I hope heaven has a five-star chef and a divine wine cellar. If not, Johnny Apple will be in hell.

[Last modified October 8, 2006, 06:37:11]

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