Remembering Arthur Gelb

Arthur Gelb was a master builder, the Robert Moses of newspapering. His eyes danced when he told stories about dreaming up the multi-sectioned.
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Arthur Gelb was a master builder, the Robert Moses of newspapering.

His eyes danced when he told stories about dreaming up the multi-sectioned New York Times. His daring creativity helped save the newspaper at an earlier secular choke point that was every bit as life-threatening as the transition from print to digital happening now.

Arthur never got the news alert that newspapering was no longer the rollicking craft that greeted him when he became a copy boy in the 1940s with a newsroom filled with Damon Runyon (or at least Joseph Mitchell) characters and bookies. He captured this world brilliantly in his book City Room.

He got a tremendous kick when I was named Managing Editor, the job he had when he retired from the newsroom in 1989. He regularly called me with great story ideas and loved it when we broke a big one. "Ride that story!" he'd bellow. He believed that a good story had a thousand angles and that it was a sin to leave them unexplored.

Part of being his professional progeny involved meeting the most interesting people. Arthur introduced me to everyone, from Vanessa Redgrave to his pal Gay Talese. He was most excited about introducing me to Abe Rosenthal, the former executive editor who was his collaborator in creating the modern Times. Arthur set up lunch at the Four Seasons but the occasion fell flat when I asked Abe an irritating question about the Pentagon Papers. "You told me she was smart," Abe snapped. Arthur's face turned a little gray, but we roared over that one for years.

Maureen Dowd introduced me to Arthur shortly after I joined the Times in 1997. We sat at the upstairs bar at Sardi's for hours talking about everything. He reminded me of my own father, who dated showgirls and was once written up in Earl Wilson's column before the Army and my mother tamed him. Arthur and my dad were both bon vivants who milked life in New York City for maximum excitement. They got a kick out of things.

Maureen captured Arthur's heart in a special way. She was one of the talented kids Arthur discovered and brought to the Times, a cast that included Frank Rich, Michiko Kakutani and others. From 1997 to our last dinner in Lincoln Center last year, the topic that most interested and excited Arthur was Maureen. He was just bowled over by her talent and wanted me to be as protective of her as he had been, an impossible assignment.

During his last years at the Times, Arthur had a cozy den of an office near Maureen. It was the office of the Times Foundation, but it was really the shrink's office. When I knocked to say hello, invariably one of the most accomplished writers on the paper would be sitting with Arthur, getting the private counseling and encouragement that produced excellence.

Arthur and Wendy Wasserstein would take groups of students, mostly underprivileged ones, to theater. The students had won special Times scholarships (Arthur also headed the Times' fantastic scholarship program in its heyday). I was sometimes dubious that they would enjoy some of the experimental plays Arthur and Wendy picked. But Arthur would then regale me with stories about how a particular play inspired one of the students. He believed fervently in the theater's transporting power.

There was a night honoring Arthur a few years ago at the Gramercy Arts Club. Everyone who was anyone in the New York cultural world was there. Some of the guests were quite old. Arthur had goody bags for each of the guests that contained City Room and O'Neill: Life With Monte Cristo, the definitive biography of Eugene O'Neill he co-authored with his beloved wife, Barbara. The tomes were a weighty pair. At the end of the evening, everyone was teeter-tottering in the snow, weighted down by the books, broken wrists be damned. Because any words connected to Arthur Gelb were treasures.

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