On Tuesday, journalism in Washington was placed on hold for about four hours while nearly 1,000 reporters, editors, publishers, TV anchors and illustrious others gathered in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center to say so-long to a famous colleague, now departed. For 43 years, The New York Times carried the byline of R.W. Apple Jr. Known as Johnny to the citizens of the trade, he covered wars, government, politics, elections and presidents and he did it better, faster and had more fun than just about anyone.
It was a celebration of a very full life. When told his reporting days were over, Johnny designed the service himself. No hymns, no prayers, just warm, funny war stories of Apple’s adventures covering the news from 109 countries. Among the 13 eulogists was the Times executive editor during part of the Apple era, Joe Lelyveld, who said, “He got up earlier than most of his peers, considered his beat to be pretty much the whole world, and cultivated a sense of history that extended back further than the considerable history he had witnessed.” Lelyveld then added a compliment that was applauded by all in the assembly, “In his prime it was fair to say he was the best political reporter around.”
Raymond Walter Apple Jr. was born in Akron, Ohio, and educated, unsuccessfully, at Princeton, where he was expelled twice. His father, a grocer, was dismissive of his son’s chosen craft, telling friends that Johnny made his living by typing.
When R.W. Apple was named the Times’ London bureau chief, he set out to find the city’s best French restaurant, dining at 60 in the first few months. It was a sign of things to come. In England he met a young British politician, now Lord David Owen, another of the day’s eulogists, who soon became Her Majesty’s foreign secretary. Owen recalled a dinner where he asked Apple’s opinion about the Middle East. Johnny’s father piped up, “How the hell would he know?”
Apple is credited with being the first to recognize that a one-term Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, really had a chance to win the Democratic nomination in 1976. Paying off a political wager that year, Apple took me to lunch at a little French bistro midway between our offices. Three courses and three bottles of wine later, Apple returned to work. I did not. It was then, I think, that I realized that Johnny Apple was wired differently than most of us, a different DNA.
When he became bored with covering only wars and politics, Apple re-invented himself, becoming a globetrotting food and wine reporter, traveling with his wife, Betsey. The stories he wrote on the restaurant beat are collected in two books, “Apple’s Europe,” and “Apple’s America,” essential to travel on both continents only if you are dining on someone else’s credit card.
Another eulogist, Calvin Trillin, who writes about food for The New Yorker magazine, once suggested that Apple donate his Times expense accounts to the Smithsonian.
Apple’s last article for the newspaper, published just after he died, was a review of 10 restaurants he considered it worth getting on a plane for. They spanned the world, and Apple made it clear that he’d attended all and that the exchequers at the Times could prove it.
As if to demonstrate that one’s influence endures after death, 40 of Apple’s close friends from Washington’s best restaurants and America’s best vineyards organized an elegant buffet in his honor for the guests at the Kennedy Center. What a way to go out!
By the way, they’re replaying it all on C-SPAN.