David Halberstam, whose writings probed American life from its failures in war and civil rights to its sports glories, was mourned Tuesday by some of the best and brightest of his generation.
“In his public life, he was a Mount Rushmore of a figure, but I loved him for his kindness,” writer Michael Arlen, a close friend, told about 1,000 people at a memorial service for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who died on April 23 in a car crash at the age of 73.
Singer-songwriter Paul Simon sang “Mrs. Robinson,” accompanying himself on guitar, from the altar of Riverside Church. Yarrow, from the famed folk trio “Peter, Paul & Mary” and who lived in the same building as Halberstam, sang “Sweet Survivor.”
Writer Gay Talese and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin also attended the service at the progressive, politically involved church. It was an appropriate place to celebrate the life of a man who seemed to be on a mission to save the world — through a kind of journalism that was not only a craft, but his calling.
Born in New York during the Depression, the son of a surgeon, Halberstam was the grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution in Poland and Lithuania.
Fresh from Harvard University, he covered civil rights in the South while working for a tiny newspaper in Mississippi.
“Without David, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings. He made us fly higher,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who met him then and called Halberstam “a great witness of our nonviolent revolution ... and we will never, ever be the same.”
By 1960, Halberstam was writing for The New York Times in Washington, D.C., then moved to the heart of African strife, in Congo. In 1962, the Times sent him to Vietnam, where he became an expert in exposing military misinformation and won a Pulitzer for his reporting.
President Kennedy had committed U.S. troops to Vietnam with the advice of White House aides Halberstam considered brilliant but arrogant, dubbing them “The Best and the Brightest” — his 1972 best-selling book chronicling U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
It was “the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time ... where our power wasn’t applicable,” he later said.
That’s also how Halberstam felt about the current Iraq war. His 2002 best seller, “War in a Time of Peace,” examines how the lessons of Vietnam have influenced American foreign policy.
Died on his way to an interviewHalberstam’s 15 best sellers range from “The Breaks of the Game,” which some consider the best book about pro basketball, to books about the auto industry (“The Reckoning”) and the mass media (“The Powers That Be”). “The Coldest Winter,” an account of a key battle of the Korean War, is to be published posthumously in the fall.
Halberstam had given up day-to-day reporting by the late 1960s, instead writing books and magazine pieces and “Turning Journalism Into History” — the title of the talk he gave to students at the University of California, Berkeley, two days before his death.
Halberstam died in Menlo Park, Calif., when the car in which he was a passenger was hit by another vehicle.
He was working on a book about the 1958 NFL championship between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, considered by many to be one of the greatest games ever. He was on his way to interview NFL Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle when the crash occurred.
With his tall, patrician bearing, the graying but vital Halberstam could be spotted walking his dog to Central Park and greeting doormen and parks workers in his deep baritone voice.
Other times, he would stroll through a local supermarket to buy groceries; he was seen one night reaching into a basket of inviting sundried tomatoes to enjoy a taste.
But his mind took paths far from the ordinary — as described in her eulogy by author Anna Quindlen, a former Times columnist.
“One of our sons said that on the phone, David sounded like God,” Quindlen said.