Remembering David Halberstam

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Jul 7, 2011 Comments Off Renatta DeBlase

David HalberstamOn Monday evening April 23, I was deeply saddened to learn that renowned Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author Davis Halberstam had been killed in an automobile accident in San Mateo, California, en route to interviewing a former star of the New York Giants for his next book about baseball. Obviously, the term “retirement” wasn’t part of Mr. Halberstam’s vocabulary, for, although he was 73 years of age at the time of his death, he continued to write books and magazine articles, and to lecture about journalism at some of America’s finest universities. On Saturday, April 21, two days before his untimely death, he gave a lecture about journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

After hearing the announcement of his death on the news (referred to repeatedly by newscasters as the author of The Best and The Brightest, event though he wrote twenty-one other books and hundreds of magazine articles, especially for Harper’s and Vanity Fair), my thoughts immediately returned to the summer of 1958, when I met Blanche Halberstam, David’s mother, and was a guest at her apartment in Winsted, Connecticut. At that time, my brother Ronald and I had been invited by the owners of the residence (a Connecticut judge and his family) where she lived to spend the weekend at their home and to do some sightseeing, which certainly appealed to me! I was given a guest room in Mrs. Halberstam’s apartment to avoid overcrowding in the main residence, which was a stately New England Mansion.

I remember her vividly, a tall, vivacious, beautiful woman about 50 years of age, with a classic profile that even Hollywood stars would envy, and beautiful white (almost platinum) hair worn in an up-swept style similar to a French twist, which was a popular style during the fifties. She explained that she was a widow (I believe Dr. Halberstam, an army surgeon, died before his 5oth birthday of a sudden heart attack), had raised two wonderful sons, and was so devoted to her husband’s memory that she would never dream of remarrying. She spent her days teaching at an elementary school in Winsted, Connecticut, and returned to her home each night to read and to wait to hear from her sons. Her apartment was beautifully furnished and filled with books and current magazines.

Michael, her oldest son, had recently graduated from medical school, had gotten married, and was practicing medicine in Alaska because he wanted to help indigenous people. Blanche explained that Michael’s marriage must have “been made in heaven” because he and his wife were so devoted to each other. Their marriage wasn’t based on a 50-50 commitment, she emphasized, but a 100% commitment by each party, and Blanche’s observation would prove to be correct in 1980, when Michael was murdered by an intruder in h is Washington home and his wife remained dedicated to his memory.

David, at the time, she continued, had graduated from Harvard and was a journalist covering the civil rights movement in the South for a southern newspaper and was looking forward to a successful career in journalism. Years later, I read that he was one of the principal journalists from the North who covered the Emmett Till murder trial, which, it has been stated, started the civil rights movement in the United States and brought world attention to the problems in the South. There were times during this period when Blanche did not hear from David and feared for his safety, only to learn that he had been busy covering events that proved to be of great historic significance. The rest of David’s career is now an important part of history.

Blanche was very proud of her family’s Jewish heritage, and I read in later years that David’s paternal grandfather had been an orthodox rabbi in New York City. Little did we realize that weekend during the summer of 1958 that David would go on to be one of the New York Times’ finest journalists, would cover Vietnam, and for his courage and talent in writing about the war in Southeast Asia, would receive the Pulitzer prize at the age of 30 and would go on to write twenty-one non-fiction books, each of which is considered peerless.

Following that weekend visit, I exchanged letters with Blanche for a while and through my brother and friends heard that she lived a very long, useful, and enjoyable life. Rest in peace, Mr. Halberstam, we will miss you.