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Let it Bleed


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:44 pm
Talk about front-page news. In the opening pages of John Darnton’s Black & White and Dead All Over, merciless editor Theodore S. Ratnoff turns up dead in the newsroom, a note in his trademark purple ink pinned to his chest with the spike he once used to impale cancelled stories. The journalistic saw “If it bleeds, it leads” has rarely been taken so literally.

Ratnoff was the scourge of a fictional newspaper that bears more than a passing resemblance to Darnton’s day job. In a waggish press release, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor writes, “Some have suggested that Black & White and Dead All Over, which is set in a major New York City metropolitan daily of international repute, may be a roman a clef. Such a rumor may have come from the fact that I have worked over four decades at the New York Times and that I have never worked at any other newspaper.” Could this be why the Times Book Review headlined its rave, “Anybody We Know?”

From the aerie-like deck of his New Paltz retreat, the author insists, “The characters are not always one-for-one. I put pieces together.” After a pause, he adds wryly, “Some pieces are bigger than others.” Most of the novel’s wittily encoded cables were lifted verbatim from legendary reporter Homer Bigart; a fatefully bad lede is based on an actual one by a now-deceased colleague.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” the semiretired Darnton shrugs, though Black & White provides ample proof that he not only can make it up, but can also make it hilarious. Kirkus Reviews called the satirical mystery a “multifaceted, gloriously entertaining thriller.” The LA Times weighed in with “deliciously sharp, wise, and hilarious. A love letter to an endangered species.”

That species, of course, is print journalism. Darnton’s insider view of a news industry threatened by rising costs, diminishing profits, corporate greed, and a vanishing readership gives his novel additional bite. So does his undiluted affection for the hard-drinking, work-driven newsmen of past generations.

“When I was in college, I didn’t know anybody who wanted to be a reporter. It didn’t seem like a profession,” says Darnton. This may sound a bit disingenuous—his father, a New York Times war correspondent, was killed on the job when John was an infant; his mother later became the Times’ first women’s editor—but he explains that in those days, reporting “was a craft, not a profession for experts. Papers hired reporters off the street, sometimes literally. They didn’t recruit from the Ivy League.”

Darnton was not strictly Ivy League, either. Accepted by Harvard, he was expelled from Andover during his final semester for signing into his dorm and then sneaking out to a bar (a background he gave to a character in his fourth novel, The Darwin Conspiracy). Harvard rescinded its offer, and Darnton attended the University of Wisconsin, where he met his future wife Nina on the first day of school.

Meanwhile, his older brother Robert graduated from Oxford and went to work for the Times, landing a police beat in Little Italy. “Here’s this accomplished academic, covering grisly murders,” Darnton says, shaking his head. “It was a bad fit.”

But Robert Darnton’s kid brother fell hard for the romance of hardbitten newsmen playing cards on hot nights, occasionally glancing up at different colored lights in the window (“so you’d know at a glance which paper was phoning”) and eating calamari on Mulberry Street between two-alarm fires. In 1966, John was hired as a New York Times copy boy, running a mimeo machine. (“My hands were purple to the wrists.”)

Copy boys were expected to write on the side and move up through the ranks. “I’d never written a story, not even for the college paper,” Darnton recalls. He pored over the daily edition, following certain bylines, and soon became a general assignment reporter. As Connecticut correspondent, he covered the Black Panther trials in New Haven. Next came a high-pressure stint on night rewrite. Once Darnton and a colleague were assigned Man in the News features on two Supreme Court nominees, to be announced by President Nixon in a televised speech at 8. The Times’ first-edition deadline was 7:30. The national editor told them breezily, “We’ll hold the paper for you.”

“And we did it,” Darnton marvels. “That was a lesson. The copy will come from somewhere. There won’t be a black hole underneath your name.”

He covered City Hall during the mayoral transition from John Lindsay to Abe Beame. “I was rescued by the fiscal crisis,” he says, with the skewed logic of a true newshound. “I’ve had great luck in that wherever I go, mayhem and chaos follow.” The possible bankruptcy of New York City was a huge international story, and Darnton was right on its pulse.

When the Times planned to open a new bureau in West Africa, Darnton was sent to select a location. A hotel clerk in Accra told him on a Tuesday that he could “probably” place a phone call to New York by Saturday, so Ghana was out. But one of the hotel’s other guests was the high commissioner of Nigeria, who knew Darnton’s byline and got him a visa to Lagos.

After a one-hour flight that stretched into six, and a close call with a haughty customs official, Darnton took a late cab to the house he’d share with an Australian reporter. They awoke to martial music and a radio announcement that the government had been overthrown in a coup d’etat.

“Coup d’etat?” Darnton remembers thinking, “I didn’t know where I was.” He wandered onto the street, somehow finding his way to the Reuters bureau. British reporter Colin Fox scooped him into his sportscar, and off they went. “The streets were deserted except for tanks. Guys were yelling at us from gun turrets,” Darnton recalls. They found the bloodstained car of the head of state, abandoned where he’d been gunned down. Darnton managed to file a story on Reuters’s telex machine—a rare commodity in the Third World—and slept on the office floor. The next morning, while he was out interviewing American officials, government forces trashed Reuters’ office, arresting Fox and throwing him out of the country.

The coup was abortive. Darnton set up his bureau, sending for Nina and their two young daughters. The night they arrived, the American diplomat living next door dropped off a cold six-pack of beer, saying, “You’re going to need this.”

From the new Lagos bureau, Darnton covered a third of the continent. It was the era of Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy.” “Africa was the newest chessboard for the Cold War,” Darnton observes. His byline, once buried, inched steadily toward the front page. Some of his stories were critical of the Nigerian government, including an expose on infant mortality rates and a story about local pirates preying on international freighters from dugout canoes. Darnton also befriended the revolutionary cult singer Fela Kuti. It was this last offense that finally got him arrested, strip-searched, and deported with his whole family. They wound up in Kenya, where he covered the Rhodesian Civil War and the fall of Idi Amin, earning the prestigious George Polk Award.

Darnton’s instinct for arriving at a historical moment continued with his next assignment in Warsaw. The rise of Solidarity brought “an incredible roller-coaster ride of stories.” Filing a late-breaking dispatch in December 1981, he discovered his telex and phone were both dead. It was the beginning of martial law, and Poland was under a news blackout. The remaining American journalists were forced to settle for filing a joint news report, subject to official approval. “We called it ‘the camel,’” scoffs Darnton, who smuggled his own stories out via “pigeons”—departing Westerners whom he approached in hotel lobbies and airports. The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of Poland’s crisis left Warsaw in Marlboro cartons and boot linings, and on rolls of film shot by a German photographer.

The Darntons moved on to Spain, where their son Jaime was born, then returned to New York. Nina wrote for Newsweek and the New York Post, and John became the Times’ culture editor. “Editing uses a different part of the brain,” he asserts. “But the real change was fiction.”

Darnton’s first novel was based on—what else?—a newspaper article. After reading that Neanderthals lived at a time overlapping our own Homo sapiens ancestors, he found himself musing, “What if there was a small band remaining somewhere?” He wrote 100 pages and shelved it, until he heard someone else had made a movie deal on a similar concept. He put his unfinished novel up for immediate auction, and Steven Spielberg bought the movie rights.

The movie was never made, but Darnton’s Neanderthal was an overnight bestseller. He followed it up with three more science-based thrillers, The Experiment, Mind Catcher, and The Darwin Conspiracy. Then he started researching a family memoir about his father’s death in the remote World War II theater of Papua New Guinea. Black & White and Dead All Over “was an avoidance book,” he admits. The opening scene came to him, and he wrote it down “just for fun.” Then he started plotting the rest, and got hooked.

Does the veteran newsman and novelist prefer truth or fiction? John Darnton sits back in his cedar deck chair, surveying the Shawangunk Ridge. “It’s much more satisfying to create something out of whole cloth,” he replies. “And you don’t have to check your quotes.”

  • Jennifer May
  • Jennifer May

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