Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Johnny Apple - My Stories

“I’m very ambivalent about the power I have and the way it’s used. Yet I would be transparently un-candid if I didn’t say I do enjoy it enormously.” R.W. Apple Jr.

"None who ever watched him fill up a room as he walked in can easily accept that no room will ever be as full again." Hodding Carter

I'm having trouble with the news that Johnny Apple died. The New York Times, print journalism--hell, all journalism--lost one of its true greats. And I lost a significant piece of my past. So no matter how difficult, I have to weigh in.

Apple and I met long ago (it's hard to believe how long), when I was only a pup, he already a Times tiger on his way to becoming a living legend. And by the way, though his nickname was officially "Johnny," our crowd just called him "Apple," as he called himself.

Apple was such an exceptional presence. A personage. Grand and grandiose, brilliant and blustery, witty and wise, gourmet and gourmand. He could bark. Roar. Make lesser men quake. Not so large in those earlier years, but always larger than life.

And yet. The back story: Apple was a pussycat. Gentle and sweet. Even a little naive. No matter his privileged upbringing, prep school, Princeton and Columbia, inside was still a kid from the Midwest. No matter his driven, aggressive climb to international media stardom, he retained a genuine aw shucks quality.

And no matter his eccentric, often outlandish style and the exalted circles in which he traveled, Johnny Apple was remarkably unpretentious at his core, and in his soft, generous heart.

Some personal snapshots from the salad days:

The Interview: Apple came to Harrisburg in the early 70's to interview then Governor Milton Shapp. I was his press contact. Jeez, was I green.

As we prepared to start, I plunked a tape recorder down on the table in front of us and turned it on. (My boss had told me to record the interview. He meant take notes. Oops.) Apple merely raised an eyebrow, leaned over and whispered, "The reporter usually does the taping, but thanks, you can just make me a copy."

After the interview he took mortified me to dinner and without condescension explained the rules of the professional media road. A process I would be privileged to watch him undertake over and over with blazing speed and rarely a moment's hesitation.

The Process: Apple on the road covering a story was a sight to behold. First the rally, caucus, personal interview -- or all three. Next the hometown politicos' favorite bar for the schmoozing, the war stories, the local dirt. Then the real work began.

Reclining pasha-like on hotel bed or couch, an overflowing ashtray on the table next to a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, puffing on yet another cigarette Apple worked the phone, and his sources on the other end.

I never knew how he did it -- he seemed to talk as much as he listened. But you could tell when he had the story and the lead by the sudden gleam of triumph in his eyes. He'd hang up the phone, light a new cigarette, grab his old typewriter and begin to pound away.

Apple could also talk while he typed, never losing his fierce concentration or the thread of a simultaneous conversation. It was a gift. And in a time without computers, he had only the contents of his own deep, copious memory for facts and details. Yet he rarely missed a one.

Finished, he'd call the desk at the Times and dictate his story, always closing with the same demand: "don't f**k it up." And would loudly rant over the inevitable edits. As good as his pieces were in print, I'm glad I heard so many of them unedited in his own words.

Charades: Playing word games with Apple was not for the faint of heart. Or the barely literate. A friend reminded me of one game of charades when the opposing team had to act out Apple's choice, a quote from Dorothy Parker: "One man's Mede is another man's Persian."

Another friend remembers, "He saved my ass ... When it was my turn, I got "Thus Spake Zarathustra." I was nauseous. I started with the third word and managed to convey that it sounded like "zero." Then, bless his heart, Apple shouted out the answer, correctly of course."

Shopping: As much as he was a journalist's journalist and a man's man, Apple was also a true romantic. He loved women. We mystified him, but he strove valiantly to understand us. He was in his way old fashioned. And master of the grand gesture.

One time he decided to take me shopping for clothes. We're not talking Target here (actually Target didn't yet exist). We're talking Saks and Bendels.

It was an experience I'll never forget, reminiscent of a scene from a 1940's black and white movie. A bevy of saleswomen scurried back and forth at Apple's command with armfuls of clothes. Apple sat like a potentate, legs crossed, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other as I modeled outfit after outfit. And he decided nay or yea.

None of those pricey items went on Apple's legendary expense account ... at least I hope not.

London: As New York Times London bureau chief, Apple lived his dream of the perfect sophisticated life. His townhouse in Belgravia--the exclusive, tony area of London where the royals live--was a pure gem. His houseman was polite, savvy and discreet. His kitchen resembled a cover of Gourmet magazine. Apple cooked -- such a big man, so incredibly graceful in the kitchen. Not a wasted motion. Not a spoon left un-tasted.

We visited many London restaurants--you never 'ate' with Apple, you 'dined'--where Apple seemed to know everyone and vice versa. Then one day he told me we had a formal dinner to attend. I hit the beauty salon at Harrods for the full treatment, hair, nails, make-up. I remember how much he liked my dress, jewelry and mink coat. (Relax, it was my grandmother's, a "ranch mink" from the 20's.)

A car arrived and off we went ... to a dinner for Henry Kissinger at the official residence of His Spanish Majesty's Representative to the Court of St. James. Another movie set, this one in full color with sparkling crystal, china, gems and conversation. La Creme de la Creme of London and diplomatic society.

Apple trusted me to swim on my own and I'm proud to say I didn't sink. Seated next to a Parisian media mogul, I managed to wow even myself by conversing entirely in French. And remembered to turn occasionally to chat with the gentleman to my right, whose identity I've totally forgotten.

Even though Kissinger was the guest of honor, Apple was the star of the show. It was always that way -- whether in a small group or a large gathering, a fine restaurant or a foxhole, a living room or a press room, Apple dominated. Not only by choice, but also by sheer strength of personality.

Johnny Apple was that rare human being who's an actual force of nature. He was bright and brave and big and brash and bold. He left an imprint on everyone he met. Which is why so many others' personal remembrances are equally infused with the incomprehensibility of his death.

I haven't seen Apple in years, but still his presence in the universe was somehow comforting, part of the timeline of my life. Which is why his death is so discomfiting. We were a lot of things to each other back in the day. He was my mentor, my teacher, my shoulder, my confidant. I was his pupil, his source, his sounding board, his confidant. He was older and wiser, but so intensely curious, I became his teacher as well.

Bottom line, we were friends. And stayed friends even as our lives ultimately moved in different directions.

There came a time when everyone but Apple knew that Betsey Brown was the love of his life. Eventually he realized it too. And the result was by all accounts a marriage made in heaven.

When they meet there again some day, I just know he'll have a gorgeous meal, the perfect wine and a hellova story waiting for her.

Apple and I did communicate occasionally the past couple of years by email. I read his pieces, sent him a few of mine. The last email I got read simply, "Nice job. Don't let them f**k it up."

Not if I can help it, Johnny, I promise.

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