A.M. Rosenthal, 84; Venerated Editor Recast the N.Y. Times

Times Staff Writer

A.M. Rosenthal, the brilliant, tyrannical editor who transformed the New York Times into a livelier, more literate newspaper and defied the Nixon White House as the newsroom’s key champion of publishing the Pentagon Papers, died Wednesday at a hospital in New York City. He was 84.

The Times said Rosenthal had had a stroke two weeks ago and never recovered.

Both feared and revered during his 55 years at the Times, Abe Rosenthal was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who began his managerial ascent in 1963 when he was named city editor. Promoted to managing editor in 1969 and executive editor in 1977, he dominated the paper for 17 years -- a period marked by tumult and innovation.


During his tenure, he pushed a radical redesign of the newspaper that drew badly needed new readers without sacrificing quality.

He saw the staff win 23 Pulitzers for work done during his years as the top editor, including the prize for meritorious public service for the paper’s role in what historian William Manchester once called “the most extraordinary leak of classified documents in the history of governments” -- the publication of the classified Vietnam War history called the Pentagon Papers.

The overhaul he directed at the behest of publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger modernized the Gray Lady of journalism -- a venerable institution that had been known for its long columns of type and penchant for recording the news in a solid, if staid, manner.

Rosenthal brought in more upscale readers and advertisers during the financially shaky 1970s through the creation of smartly written, graphically appealing themed sections, including Weekend, Living, Home, SportsMonday and Business Day. The new format eventually was emulated by major newspapers around the country.

“We had to do something to shake up the good ole Gray Lady. It worked. It changed people’s perceptions of what the New York Times was all about,” Sulzberger said in a recent telephone interview. He called Rosenthal “a very powerful editor ... the right man at the right time.”

The new sections’ emphasis on feature-oriented coverage prompted staffers to joke that a section called “News” would be added, but Rosenthal insisted that the essential character of the Times had not been compromised. He remained devoted to traditional news coverage and in 1980 launched a national edition, which now is widely circulated across the country.

He was especially adamant about “keeping the paper straight,” or free of bias. When the newspaper erred, he insisted that it admit its mistakes in a daily Corrections column, which he introduced in 1972. He later added the Editor’s Note, which addressed flaws such as errors of omission and lapses in taste and standards.

At the same time, he was hidebound in some of his convictions. He was opposed, for example, to the use of “gay” to denote a homosexual and to the title “Ms.” for women who did not want to indicate marital status.

“He was at least as much a traditionalist as he was an innovator, and he kept the paper on course,” said former Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld, who knew Rosenthal for more than 40 years.

One of Rosenthal’s foremost achievements was the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, which vaulted an obscure former defense analyst named Daniel Ellsberg into the national limelight and sparked an unprecedented confrontation with the federal government.

After the Times had published three installments of its series on the documents, which detailed a long history of bureaucratic deceit over the purposes and scope of the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration won a restraining order to block further publication.

The case wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the government’s prior restraint of the classified documents was unconstitutional.

Rosenthal supported the war and understood that publication of the papers would bolster the antiwar movement, but he assured Neil Sheehan, the reporter to whom Ellsberg had leaked the documents, that “the degree to which they offended the government ... would not be a problem,” former Times correspondent David Halberstam wrote in his classic 1979 book about the media, “The Powers That Be.”

Publishing classified government documents put the paper at risk of being charged under the federal Espionage Act and could have ruined it financially, but Rosenthal insisted that the Times print extensive excerpts, in addition to stories based on them, so readers could judge the papers’ merits on their own.

Rosenthal was not the only editor at the Times pressing for their publication -- the ultimate approval had to come from Sulzberger -- but his “was the key decision,” Halberstam said.

“He was the greatest editor the Times ever had,” said Alex S. Jones who, with Susan E. Tifft, wrote “The Trust,” a 1999 history of the Sulzberger family and the New York Times. “His greatest contribution was his leadership during the Pentagon Papers.... He made Punch believe that [publishing the papers] was essential to the credibility of the Times, even though it was putting the Times at risk.”

Rosenthal “unquestionably did more than anyone to move the paper ahead even in the most difficult of times,” former Managing Editor Arthur Gelb wrote in his memoir “City Room,” published in 2003. “It’s true he was something of a monomaniac about the Times. But he was a brilliant monomaniac.”

When mandatory retirement ended Rosenthal’s reign in 1986, he was seen as one of the last of a generation of powerful, idiosyncratic editors, a group that included the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and the Boston Globe’s Thomas Winship.

Rosenthal remained at the Times for 13 years longer as an associate editor and op-ed page columnist. After a bumpy start that inspired critics to suggest a better name for his column -- “On My Mind” was “Out of My Mind” -- he found his voice and established himself as a conservative commentator who frequently promoted human rights, the security of Israel and America’s war on drugs. From 2000 to 2004, his column appeared in the New York Daily News.

Rosenthal’s early life was full of tragedy. Born Abraham Michael Rosenthal in Ontario, Canada, he was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who died of injuries from a fall when his son was 12. Abe also lost four of his five older sisters to illnesses.

At 17, he was hit with terrible leg pains that mystified doctors. He was placed in a full body cast and left to languish in a Harlem hospital, where he was told he would never walk again. Unwilling to accept that as his fate, one of his sisters pleaded to have him admitted as a charity case to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Doctors there diagnosed his illness as osteomyelitis, an infection that can cut blood flow to the affected bone. After a complicated operation and months of recuperation, the young Rosenthal was able to throw away his crutches.

After graduating from New York’s DeWitt Clinton High School, he entered City College of New York, where he landed a $12-a-week job in 1943 as a campus stringer for the New York Times. He began by writing up church services on Sunday mornings, an assignment the newspaper gave all rookies.

After a year, he summoned the courage to ask for a permanent job and was stunned when the city editor agreed to hire him. He quit college and quickly distinguished himself as an agile reporter who wrote graceful stories with lightning speed, composing his stories in his head before typing a word.

“Those of us who observed Abe were beyond jealousy. He clearly had a gift that could not be duplicated,” Gelb wrote.

By 1946 Rosenthal was covering the fledgling United Nations -- a plum assignment. He remained on that beat for eight years before getting a coveted job as a foreign correspondent in India and Pakistan.

“He was a great foreign correspondent .... And he was not shy,” recalled Alvin Shuster, a former foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times who worked with Rosenthal for more than 20 years at the New York Times as a Washington correspondent and bureau chief in London, Saigon and Rome.

“Abe said with a smile that the best lead in the history of the New York Times was his,” Shuster said. “He was in Pakistan and went to a city called Hell, and his opening sentence was: ‘The road to Hell is paved.’ He loved that.”

He went next to Poland, where he wrote probing reports on the Communist regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka. His unflattering profile of the Polish premier resulted in his expulsion from the country in 1959. Rosenthal’s reporting from Poland won not only the Pulitzer Prize but also honors from the Overseas Press Club, the Newspaper Guild of New York and the George Polk Memorial Award.

One of his most memorable pieces from Poland was written after a visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where more than a million Jews had been murdered in gas chambers. He did not expect his highly impressionistic piece to be published, but it was eagerly accepted by the paper’s magazine and became a journalistic classic.

“And so there is no news to report from Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion,” he wrote, “that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died there...”

He reported from Switzerland and Japan until 1963, when he was lured back to New York to shake up the Times’ moribund metropolitan staff. What some feared a handicap -- his several years’ absence from the city -- Rosenthal turned into an asset.

“Rosenthal was now seeing New York as a foreign city, his fresh eye stimulated by sights and sounds that other New Yorkers might not notice,” Gay Talese wrote in “The Kingdom and the Power,” a bestselling 1969 history of the New York Times.

He assigned investigative stories on city hospitals, ramped up coverage of public education and assigned pieces on interracial marriage and the increasing visibility of gays. His initiatives energized some staffers and alienated others.

“Rosenthal wanted to touch the nerve of New York,” wrote Talese, a former Times man. “He wanted his staff to scratch beneath the surface and reveal something of the complexity and conflict of the city. He wanted the stories to be accurate and complete, but also interesting, and some older Timesmen ... became resentful and helped to spread the word that the new policy was to ‘fake’ stories and over-dramatize events.”

Said Lelyveld, who was one of the first reporters Rosenthal hired when he became city editor: “Abe gave the paper a shaking it really needed and lifted its ambitions, both for better writing and broader coverage. He was a breath of fresh air.”

After New York City’s fiscal crisis in 1975, budget worries also gripped the Times. Facing perilous declines in ad revenue and circulation, Sulzberger began to press for a major editorial overhaul, including the paper’s expansion from two to four parts.

Rosenthal resisted at first, fearing that the move “would require him to deal more closely with the business side of the Times,” Tifft and Jones wrote in “The Trust.” But when he was convinced that the paper was close to going into debt, he relented and, according to the authors, “threw himself into the project with typical dervishlike energy.”

Rosenthal sometimes explained the decision: “Instead of putting more water in the soup, we put in more tomatoes.”

The first new section was Weekend, shepherded to publication in early 1976 by Rosenthal’s highly creative deputy, Gelb. The last section created was Science Times. Initially opposed by the paper’s business side because it lacked an advertising base, Rosenthal forced it into being by borrowing space from other parts of the paper. It eventually became one of the most profitable sections after the home computer boom of the 1980s took hold.

By the mid-1980s, overall readership had grown by 150,000, and operating profit was rising. The Times was again thriving, and no one disputed that Rosenthal had been a major force behind its renaissance.

His managerial style was another matter. Emotional and unpredictable, he could be warm and caring one minute and brutal the next. As he neared the Times’ mandatory retirement age of 65, unflattering articles began to appear in publications such as the Village Voice and the Washington Journalism Review.

Rosenthal was portrayed as an autocrat with a volcanic temper, quick to banish offending subordinates to journalistic Siberia. He once demoted a reporter for selling a book to a company other than the Times’ book division. He had famous feuds with James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, and Max Frankel, who succeeded Rosenthal as executive editor. Staffers called him various uncomplimentary nicknames, including King Lear, Louis XVI and Captain Queeg.

In his last years, he also was accused of steering the paper to the right. He promoted reporters with conservative views and jokingly called those who covered beats such as poverty and race “Commies.” His explanation was that it was necessary to turn the paper slightly to the right to offset its tendency to tilt left.

“I’m perceived, somewhat to my astonishment, as a man of the right. I’m not; I am a centrist on many things, which means I am left and right,” he told the Washington Post in 1986.

His personal life was also in disarray. He had separated in 1985 from his wife of 36 years, the former Ann Marie Burke. In 1987, he married a Vogue editor, Shirley Lord. He is survived by Lord; sons Jonathan, Daniel and Andrew; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Rosenthal’s long career at the Times came to an abrupt end in 1999 when his column was canceled by Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. Although the newspaper, in official accounts, would not say whether the veteran journalist was fired or retired, Rosenthal told Editor & Publisher magazine: “You can hardly call it a retirement.”

In the Times’ story announcing his departure (written by columnist Clyde Haberman, whom Rosenthal, in a legendary fit, had once fired), he acknowledged that “there’ll be people dancing” at the news that his era had finally come to an end.

“Abe made plenty of enemies,” Jones said, “but when he was on his game, there was no one better.”