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“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.