The Quiet Exit of Homer Bigart
A writer found the legendary reporter at a New Hampshire farmhouse. And again, after his death, at Halberstam's place.
By Karen Rothmyer
Karen Rothmyer is the author of "Winning Pulitzers"(Columbia University Press). Bigart is the subject of a forthcoming book,"Forward Positions: The War Correspondence of Homer Bigart," edited byBetsy Wade.
In late September, a group of friends and acquaintances of the late Homer Bigart got together in the New York apartment of David Halberstam to reminisce about their journalistic colleague. From fellow World War II correspondents such as Walter Cronkite, who recalled going on bombing raids with Bigart in Europe, to New York Times veterans such as R. W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., who remembered how thrilled he had been as a young reporter when Bigart once told him, "Nice job, kid," the evening was full of jokes and laughter and sharply etched memories of a man who was respected and loved.
"He was what he was because he was the best," said Harrison Salisbury, who acted as master of ceremonies for the evening. Describing how he used to see Bigart hunched over his typewriter in wartime London long after the other correspondents had repaired to Fleet Street watering holes, Salisbury recalled, "He was always the last man to finish his story and his story was always better than anyone else's because he put so much time into it."
Bigart, who died last April at age 83, won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his World War II coverage and one for his coverage of the Korean War. In a career that spanned the late 1920s through the early 1970s, first at the New York Herald Tribune and later at The New York Times , Bigart became a legend among his fellow journalists not only because of the quality of his work but also because he was so clearly a newspaperman's newspaperman. One of the loudest laughs of the evening at Halberstam's came when New York Times reporter John Kifner recalled an occasion years ago during a riot when he was calling in a story to Bigart. "I said, 'Jeez, Homer, I'm going to have to cut off because there's like a hundred people that are going to push this phone booth over on me,' " Kifner recalled. "And he said, 'Well,' – he'd been harassed by editors and so on through the night – he said, 'at least you're dealing with sane people.' "
As I listened to the stories, my thoughts went back to my efforts a few years ago to locate Bigart in connection with a book I was writing about Pulitzer Prize winners. Bigart was not to be found in the card catalogue, the newspaper index, or the pages of "Who's Who." Some people thought he was dead, but the closest I could come to that was an obituary for his first wife. When I finally tracked him down, living in retirement with his third wife in a New Hampshire farmhouse, I began to understand how Bigart could have been so famous among his peers and yet left almost no public trace. A stranger to the lecture circuit and the book tour, a reporter who had never felt comfortable anywhere other than in the world of newspapers, Bigart was more interested in telling stories than in trying to remember what had happened to his prize citations.
At moments, as I looked at his white hair and ruddy face, I could still see and hear traces of the younger Homer Bigart. He'd been an ordinary-looking fellow of medium build who dropped cigarette ashes all over his clothes. His most pronounced characteristic had been a terrible stutter that tended to make him shy in small groups – at least until some new absurdity prompted one of his razor-sharp one-liners. When I met him, the cigarettes were long gone and the stutter virtually undetectable. The wit, however, remained. Explaining to me that here in New Hampshire he was a liberal surrounded by Republicans, Bigart said with a sly grin, "They're harmless but they're awfully steadfast."
On that gentle spring day as we sat talking, Bigart kept trying to press a glass of gin on me as he apologized for what he said might be a wasted trip on my part. Nothing he'd done was that remarkable, he assured me; his memory, I should be aware, was failing. Yet for the rest of the afternoon, he told tales that displayed the same eye for detail and self-deprecating humor that had endeared him for so many years to his readers and, perhaps even more, to his journalistic comrades.
Growing up in the 1920s in northeastern Pennsylvania, Bigart said, was not so different from growing up today. "All kids thought, like they do in the present generation, that they didn't have to really work; they were going to get richer and richer. I decided that I would become an architect because it sounded so prestigious and so easy. Especially easy. I went to what was then Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh and quickly discovered that if you were going to be an architect you at least had to learn how to draw. But I couldn't even do that. The only passing grade I got was in English, so I decided that about the only thing I could do was to become a newspaperman."
Bigart said he never really liked war but that being a war correspondent saved him from having to write obits and features. "I tell you, I'll never run down war. I got sent to London and those first few months were about the happiest ones I think I've ever spent in journalism. I liked the people and I liked the city. There was sort of a lull in the air raid war so you had the excitement of being in a war area without any real danger."
As for Hiroshima, where he was one of the first reporters allowed in after the bomb was dropped, Bigart was curtly dismissive of those who would rewrite history. "At the time we thought it was just a hell of a good raid, just another big bomb. We were still full of the war spirit and Japan was an all-out war. We felt we had to win it and that we had to practically exterminate the enemy. I'm very suspicious of people's expressions of shock now. They've forgotten how we felt then."
Bigart's final dispatch of the war, a typical piece of straightforward reporting, datelined "In a B-29 over Japan," began: "The radio tells us that the war is over, but from where I sit it looks suspiciously like a rumor. A few minutes ago – at 1:32 a.m. – we fire-bombed Kamagaya, a small industrial city behind Tokyo....Peace was not official for the Japanese either, for they shot right back at us." The dispatch ended with the scene inside the bomber on the way back to base. "Everyone relaxed. We tried to pick up San Francisco on the radio but couldn't. The gunners took out photos of their wives and girlfriends and said: 'Hope this is the last, baby.' "
A few years after World War II came Korea, where Bigart had his own battle to fight with fellow Herald Tribune reporter Marguerite Higgins. At a time when women war correspondents were virtually unheard of, Higgins displayed a fearlessness and ferocious competitiveness that, according to Bigart, threatened to get both of them killed. "She was a real trial to me," Bigart recalled. "When I came out I thought I was the premier war correspondent and I thought that she, being the Tokyo correspondent, ought to be back in Toyko. But she didn't see things that way. She was a very brave person, foolishly brave. As a result, I felt as though I had to go out and get shot at occasionally myself. So I resented that." Higgins, Bigart and four other correspondents shared a 1951 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.
A decade later, Bigart was back on the battlefront again, this time in Vietnam. There, in 1962, he encountered Neil Sheehan, then a young UPI correspondent. Sheehan, who played a major role in the Pentagon Papers and later wrote a book about Vietnam, described Bigart at the memorial gathering as a tough but patient teacher who showed him how to learn from what he didn't see as well as what he did see. Once, Sheehan recalled, he went out with Bigart on two American-orchestrated missions, before and after which Bigart insisted on what Sheehan regarded as tedious and unnecessary military briefings. "You said you'd find them here; did you find them?" Sheehan remembered Bigart asking. "You said this unit was going to be here; was it there?" After the second mission, during which they encountered no Viet Cong in two days, Sheehan vented his annoyance. "On the way back in the car I complained, 'Jesus Christ, Homer, we spent two days walking through the rice paddies and we don't have a story.' He looked at me and he said, 'You don't get it, kid. They can't do it. It doesn't work. '" Sheehan said he then went beack and wrote a critical analysis of U.S. policy in Vietnam. "That to me was Homer," Sheehan concluded. "Take nothing for granted. Find the truth. Get it if you can."
One of the last to speak was one-time New York Times Managing Editor Seymour Topping, who first met Bigart in the early 1950s during the French Indo-China War. In the hours after President John Kennedy was shot in 1963, Topping and Bigart were asked to put together material on the president's policies. When they finished, they went to have a drink. "And then Homer went into the phone booth to call his wife, Alice, who worked for CBS," Topping recalled. "I turned around from the bar and there was a glass front on the phone booth. And Homer, tough correspondent, was weeping as he told his wife the story about the president. That was enough for me. I put down my drink and I walked out in Times Square. The lights were down, and I guess I was weeping too. And I thought about Homer, this tough correspondent whom I had known over all these years and then I thought about the tenderness in him. And that was another thing that made him such a great correspondent."
When I heard about Homer Bigart's death, I felt a sense of loss that went beyond regret at the passing of a great reporter. Bigart belonged to an era of newspapering that has already receded into myth. He was a link with a time in journalism when reporters were paid by the word, when the idea was to stay as far away as possible from the office, and when the best thing about the job was hanging out with the other working stiffs, preferably in an establishment offering free food and liquid refreshment. The memorial evening, as pleasant and nostalgic as it was, showed how far journalism has traveled since Bigart's day: There were as many pinstripes as you'd find on Wall Street, and the waiters were offering sparkling water along with the canapés.
Good-bye, Mr. Bigart, and here's looking at you. l