The Writing Life: Joe Lelyveld's Truth

Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, recently published a biography of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "His Final Battle: The Last Year of Franklin Roosevelt." The book has attracted rave reviews. An earlier biography by Lelyveld of Mahatma Gandhi, published in 2011, attracted controversy because some Indian critics averred that the author implied that Gandhi -- one of the founders of modern India -- had a homosexual relationship in the early 1900s when he was a lawyer in South Africa. I wrote a defense of Lelyveld on April 1, 2011, for India's national newspaper, The Hindu, which I'm reproducing here because I believe that what I said then is still relevant:

Joseph Lelyveld may be many things -- not all of them pleasant -- but a falsifier of facts and misinterpreter of men he's definitely not. That's why the over-the-top assaults by Indian politicians on his authorial integrity seem so clueless and churlish. Anyone who's known the fastidiously careful Mr. Lelyveld would be amused by the attacks, which, among other things, have him suggesting in his new book -- Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India -- that Mahatma Gandhi was homosexual. In the aggregate, Mr. Lelyveld is painted by the pols as a deeply sinister figure with an agenda of his own.

No one has articulated what that agenda might actually be and why Mr. Lelyveld might want to implement it. Of course, the usual canards are being recklessly bruited about by the usual suspects -- Zionist, agent provocateur, enemy of the Indian polity, underminer of traditional values, and so on -- as if those who shout don't have dark secrets of their own. The jeremiads are certain to get more colourful in coming days. Stay tuned.

Pained as Mr. Lelyveld must be as these public protests become shriller, a part of him might even want to summon a smile. And why not? Since there's no such thing as bad publicity, sales of his 425-page book are certain to soar.

But Joseph Lelyveld, sinister? Please.

He's actually just plain old-fashioned Joe, a by-the-book newspaperman who rose from being a copyboy -- a peon -- to executive editor of one of the world's elite dailies, The New York Times. You don't get to the top of an international publication's masthead by fibbing your way around.
Neither do you get to be an acclaimed author by playing fast and loose with the world as it is. His memoir of South Africa during the apartheid years, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White, won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The prize also went that year to another former New York Times foreign correspondent, J. Anthony Lukas, author of Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.

They had both served in India by the time they received their Pulitzers but neither man's award-winning works concerned the subcontinent directly. Mr. Lelyveld continued on his trajectory of gaining organisational power. Lukas wrote another magnum opus, Big Trouble, whose sweeping narrative covered the early 20th century, focussing on conflicts between miners and mining officials in the American state of Idaho. Before the book was published, Lukas hanged himself in his New York apartment. He had been suffering from depression for at least a decade.

I bring Tony Lukas into this essay about Joe Lelyveld because both men genuinely liked India when they lived there -- and it showed in their reporting, which was empathetic without being egregiously emotional. I have always believed that the best foreign correspondents who covered India were Lelyveld, Lukas, (the late) Sydney H. Schanberg, also of the New York Times, and my late mentors, A.M. Rosenthal, who -- as Joe did much later -- went on to become The Times's executive editor, and James W. Michaels, who was in India during Independence for a wire service and eventually led the Forbes magazine in its glory days.

They were smart reporters. They felicitously captured the cultures, customs and contradictions of the world's largest democracy. They told their stories as they saw them, but you knew that India had touched them. Each man obviously carried a valentine for India, and you at once understood that the struggle within the reporter was not about how to tell his yarn but about holding back his heart. Each man was immune to accusations of fabrication. And why would you want to make up things about India, anyway? The rich tapestry of daily life, the daily drama of development that these reporters relayed to their global readers possessed a vibrancy and vitality that was impossible to conjure up unless rooted in reality. The high adventure of India, Abe Rosenthal called it.

Of those five brilliant men, only Tony Lukas did not aspire to an editorship, and, of course, he never became an editor. I wish, though, that Joe Lelyveld hadn't become one either.

He wasn't very good at it. His people skills seemed handicapped by shyness, perhaps an affliction traceable to his traumatic childhood with a strong rabbi for a father and a sensitive, fey figure for a mother. Mr. Lelyveld wrote in Omaha Blues, a memoir of growing up, that the youngest of the three Lelyveld brothers had not been fathered by Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, who had gained international fame for his leadership role in Reform Judaism, and for his support of civil rights in America, and of Israel's right to exist.

I've always held that the sensitivity Joe Lelyveld had amply demonstrated in his reportage from India, South Africa, Congo, London, Hong Kong, Vietnam and China, and in his books, did not necessarily carry over into his dealings with people. As a reporter, he was always tuned in to others' feelings; as an editor, he wasn't always terribly considerate toward his juniors, or especially mindful of their sensitivities.

I've probably read everything that Joe has ever written. But I learned long ago that while one might be an admirer of his style and savvy, there was no percentage in being an admirer of the man. Joe is uncomfortable with admiration, however genuine, and to me he always seemed a deeply unforgiving man.

I think that I can trace it back to the summer of 1968 when, while still a student at Brandeis University, I was serving as a summer intern at the New York Times. Joe Lelyveld had just returned to New York after his India stint. Spotting him in the cavernous Times newsroom, I approached him for an interview. He cordially agreed. I wrote it up for an Indian newspaper -- not The Hindu -- and I thought that was that.

But years later, after I was promoted to being a reporter for The Times, Sydney Schanberg told me that Mr. Lelyveld held it against me that I had gotten his words wrong. I probably did -- would Joe ever lie? -- and my version of his reality may have been different from his own. And years later still, after I had become a Times foreign correspondent in my own right and Joe was my editor, I could never push away the sense that Joe was out there, scolding silently. His editor's sarcasm -- maybe it was wit? -- didn't much reassure me as I traversed Africa and the Middle East, dealing with the dictators and fledgling democrats out there, and with demons of my own.

I once very nearly told Joe that I wished he hadn't left the correspondent's camel for the editor's saddle. But I wisely kept my own counsel. Joe was never one to laugh easily, and I always felt that he bore grudges.

I don't want to seem petty or jejune: I will leave settling scores for my memoirs. This is, after all, Joe Lelyveld's special moment in the sun, with mostly laudatory reviews of Great Soul, and with promising sales. He's already had many bright moments in a glorious career spanning six decades -- (he's 79 now) -- and Joe's bound to produce more magazine journalism in his post-editorship life as a reborn reporter. I hope that he also turns out more relentlessly researched books such as his Gandhi biography. What he writes matters.

My point, I suppose, is really this: Whatever one's view of Joe's extraordinary journalism and puzzling personality, what he writes matters. It matters because he is always the model reporter -- even when he's donning the cap of an author: thorough, sceptical, a man who feels for his subjects, a man who synthesises cannily, a writer who is always accurate and graceful. There aren't nearly enough of Joe Lelyvelds out there.

And say this for Joe: It's impossible to imagine him making things up about Gandhiji, or about anyone he may be writing about. The Joe Lelyvelds of this world simply don't lie. They don't need to. They value truth -- just as Gandhiji did.