Writer Halberstam dies in car crash

Times Staff Writers

David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose sweeping career as a newspaper reporter and author included coverage of the civil rights struggle in the South and the Vietnam War as well as probing accounts of media barons and sports legends, was killed Monday in a car crash in the Bay Area.

Halberstam, a front-seat passenger in a car that was broadsided, was 73.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 25, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Halberstam obituary: The obituary of writer David Halberstam in Tuesday’s Section A said the first NFL title game televised nationally was the 1958 contest between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. The first nationally televised title game was the 1951 contest between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns.

Winner of the Pulitzer in 1964 for his Vietnam coverage for the New York Times -- groundbreaking reporting that questioned the nation’s ability to win the war and lifted him into the ranks of the country’s leading journalists -- Halberstam went on to write 21 books. He was praised Monday by fellow authors and journalists for the scope of his work and the expansiveness of his approach in tackling his topics. They also lauded his courage and integrity.

His 1972 book about the missteps of American leaders in Vietnam, “The Best and the Brightest,” became a classic, and the phrase “best and brightest” entered the American lexicon -- albeit without the irony the author intended.


“In an age when journalism was practiced by some very talented people, David stood out as one of the great reporters of his time,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Neil Sheehan, who was United Press International’s Saigon bureau chief when he met Halberstam, then with the New York Times, in the fall of 1962.

“He had tremendous moral and physical courage, which made him such a great foreign correspondent,” Sheehan said. “He had an abiding curiosity about everything, and he had an extraordinary energy. David never seemed to get tired, no matter the demands. And his talent grew. He went from daily reporting for the New York Times, first in the Congo and then in Vietnam, to writing a whole series of wonderful books, always based on original reporting.”

Sheehan recalled that when the South Vietnamese suffered a major defeat in 1963, both he and Halberstam tried to get out to the battle site to report on what had happened. When the American military denied them a ride out on an airplane, he said, they called the commanding general.

At a briefing the next day, he said, “the briefing officer was a brigadier general who proceeded to scold us for having the temerity to call the commanding general at night to ask for a ride in an airplane.”

“I could see David get angrier and angrier. Finally, his arm shot out and he said, ‘General, you do not understand. We are not corporals; we don’t work for you. We work for our editors. If you’ve got any complaints about us, contact our editors. We’ll call the commanding general at home any time we need to, to get our job done. The American people have a right to know what’s going on over here.’ And he deeply believed in that.”

A.J. Langguth, an emeritus professor of journalism at USC who knew the writer since both worked for the Harvard Crimson student newspaper in the early 1950s, said Halberstam headed to the South to launch his career after college because “he recognized in 1955 that race relations was going be the big story of our youth. While the rest of us went off on fellowships and the like, he went down there for $50 week.”


Langguth, like others, said one of Halberstam’s great strengths was that he was indefatigable. He noted that a “Doonesbury” comic strip -- which also poked fun at the author’s perceived writing excesses -- once portrayed a Halberstam interview subject being wrung dry by his persistent questioning.

“David would not stop. He would ask a question, get an answer, then ask another question and get another answer, then another answer and just build on it,” Langguth said.

Halberstam “had a healthy sense of anti-establishment feeling but also great patriotism. He had a great sense that when [authorities] had gone and lied to him in Vietnam -- and they did -- they were lying to the American people. He made it not personal but a crusade.”

Halberstam was born April 10, 1934, in New York City, the son of a surgeon father and a teacher mother.

He died Monday from massive internal injuries suffered in a crash involving three cars at 10:35 a.m. in Menlo Park near the Dumbarton Bridge, the San Mateo County coroner’s office said. Three others were injured.

Coroner Robert Foucrault said a specific cause of death would not be determined until an autopsy was performed today. Law enforcement authorities said they had not determined blame or whether to file charges.

The collision occurred just after the car in which Halberstam was riding crossed the busy Dumbarton commuter bridge westbound en route from Berkeley.

The driver, Kevin Jones, a first-year graduate journalism student at UC Berkeley, was trying to make a left turn at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road when his 1996 Toyota Camry was broadsided by an oncoming car. The impact forced the two cars into a third vehicle.

Halberstam was wearing a seat belt, Foucrault said. Jones was originally reported to have suffered a punctured lung and other injuries and was taken to Stanford Medical Center, but he was released later in the day.

Another victim of the crash was taken to Stanford, authorities said. A fourth injured person drove to another hospital for treatment. Their names were not disclosed.

Jean Halberstam, the writer’s widow, said two police detectives arrived at the couple’s home on West 67th Street in New York just before 6 p.m. local time and asked her to call the Bay Area coroner’s office. “The coroner gave me a brief description of the accident,” she said. “He said the car that hit them was driving at high speed.”

At the time of the accident, Jean Halberstam said, her husband was on his way to interview retired football quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book he was researching titled “The Game,” about the Baltimore Colts’ dramatic 23-17 championship victory against the New York Giants in 1958. It was the first NFL title game televised nationally and also the first sudden-death overtime game in the league’s history. Halberstam planned to show how football was transformed into a vastly more popular spectator sport.

Halberstam had arrived in the Bay Area on Saturday to give a lecture that night titled “Turning Journalism Into History” at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

“David Halberstam was one of those amazing writers who had covered all of the greatest stories of the second half of the 20th century, from civil rights to the Vietnam War,” said Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism. “He had just finished a book on the Korean War. He not only wrote about history, but he lived through it. He was able to combine history and current events in a way that made his reporting indispensable.”

Halberstam was scheduled to fly Monday to Los Angeles. Among other plans, he was supposed to appear Thursday at a fundraiser for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. It was to be an onstage conversation with Times media columnist Tim Rutten, an old friend. The theme was to have been the similarities and differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

On Monday evening, veteran journalist Karl Fleming and his wife, writer Anne Taylor Fleming, were waiting for Halberstam to arrive at their Brentwood home for dinner.

Fleming, who was a Newsweek reporter in Atlanta during the height of the civil rights movement, said he met Halberstam in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 when they both were writing about the slayings of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. “He had just come back from Vietnam. We met in Jackson and spent most of the summer together,” Fleming said.

A deep friendship evolved. “He never turned down any reporter’s plea for help,” said Fleming, who called Halberstam “a person of totally unswerving integrity.”

In his books, which he focused on after leaving the New York Times in 1967, Halberstam was known for examinations of politics and modern culture such as “The Powers That Be” -- an important examination of the role of several key family-owned media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times. But he also loved sports, and devoted a third of his books to that passion.

His first was “The Breaks of the Game,” which chronicled the Portland Trail Blazers from the inside during the team’s 1979 season. In a 1980 article in The Times, reporter Mark Heisler described a tenacious Halberstam as he tried to learn the payroll figures for the Trail Blazers while researching his book.

“Blazer General Manager Harry Glickman became defensive enough to accuse David Halberstam, who is in town doing a book on the franchise, of taking the club’s accountant to lunch so he could learn the payroll,” Heisler wrote.

“Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize winner who made his reputation covering Vietnam, had endured the considerable displeasure of [military leaders in Vietnam] as well as the president of the United States trying to get him fired, so he was less impressed than he should have been. In a hall in Memorial Coliseum on a game night, where this exchange took place, he shouted back that Glickman was a ‘... small-minded twit.’ ”

Other sports books followed, including “The Amateurs,” about the run-up to the 1984 Summer Olympic trials in rowing; “The Summer of ‘49,” about the pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox; “October 1964,” about the World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals; and race relations in baseball.

Halberstam’s most recent book on sports, “The Education of a Coach,” focused on New England Patriots head Coach Bill Belichick.

His 2002 bestseller “War in a Time of Peace” was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. His latest book, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” was scheduled by his publisher, Hyperion, to come out in September.

Writer Gay Talese called Halberstam one of the great historians of his time. “David set the record straight,” he said. “If Halberstam reported something, you could believe it. There was never any doubt in a serious reader’s mind.”

Jean Halberstam, who was surrounded at her home late Monday by Talese and other family friends, said her husband was also toying with the idea of a book about New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “That was the great thing about David. He was always looking forward, always asking ‘What’s next? What can I learn? What don’t I know?’ ”

Along with his wife, Jean, Halberstam is survived by their daughter, Julia, also of New York City. Halberstam and his wife were married in 1979 after being introduced by “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who died in 2005.


Times staff writers Henry Weinstein, Elaine Woo, J. Michael Kennedy, Dennis McLellan and Valerie J. Nelson, Josh Getlin contributed to this report.



Major works by David Halberstam


* “The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era” (1965)

* “The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy” (1969)

* “Ho” (1971)

* “The Best and the Brightest” (1972)

* “The Powers That Be” (1979)

* “The Breaks of the Game” (1981)

* “The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal” (1985)

* “The Reckoning” (1986)

* “The Summer of ‘49” (1989)

* “The Next Century” (1991)

* “The Fifties” (1993)

* “October 1964” (1994)

* “The Children” (1998)

* “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made” (1999)

* “War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals” (2001)

* “Firehouse” (2002)

* “Teammates” (2003)

* “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War” (due in September 2007)


* “The Noblest Roman” (1961)

* “One Very Hot Day” (1968)

Source: Contemporary Authors