J. Anthony Lukas
Nieman Class of 1969
Lukas, a two-time Pulitzer winner, is best known for his bestselling 1985 book Common Ground, about school busing and race relations in Boston. In braided structure, voice, detail, depth of reporting and elegance of writing, the book is a masterwork of journalistic storytelling. It won both the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the National Book Award, and, in 1999, a group of distinguished journalists led by New York University Professor Mitchell Stephens named it No. 28 on the list of the top 100 works of 20th-century U.S. journalism. (No. 1: John Hersey’s Hiroshima; No. 2: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.) Here’s how Lukas came to the idea: “My last book before Common Ground dealt with (a) theatrical subject — Watergate,” he once told a National Book Foundation interviewer. “But after I finished I realized that I’d been looking at it from long distance: I wanted to get closer to my next subject. Yet I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Most writers, I think, want to write the kind of books they like to read. So, not having read about anything much except Richard Nixon for a couple of years — what a depressing thought! — I went down to a bookstore on Fifth Avenue and picked out seven brand new hardcover books that looked compelling. The second book I read was Friendly Fire and I was so taken by the way C.D.B. Bryan seemed to be at the breakfast table with the Iowa farm family that he wrote about, I decided then and there that I wanted to do a book with a family — or several families — at the center of it. The precise arena came a few months later when I read a news story about an angry crowd that drove Teddy Kennedy off a speaker’s stand in Boston and into the Federal Building which bore his brother’s name, just as school desegregation was beginning there. I remember asking myself, ‘What in the world is going on when Ted Kennedy is driven to shelter by his ‘own people,’ Boston’s Irish Catholics?’ When a reporter asks himself, ‘What in the world is going on?’ that’s generally a pretty good starting place for a story — or a book. In fact, absent that kind of obsessive curiosity, I can’t produce a successful book.” A reporter since college (he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson), Lukas started in newspapers (Baltimore Sun, New York Times) and then moved into magazines (The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, Harper’s), and books. While at the Times, he won a Pulitzer for a story about an affluent young Connecticut woman caught up in the deadly drug culture of the 1960s. A year later, he returned to Harvard, as a Nieman Fellow. He committed suicide in 1997, at age 64, shortly after finishing his latest book. The Nieman Foundation and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism give annual awards in his honor, including the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.
—Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, epic. Excerpt:
Sunlight struck the gnarled limbs outside his window, casting a thicket of light and shadow on the white clapboards. From his desk high under the eaves, Colin Diver could watch students strolling the paths of Cambridge Common or playing softball on the neatly trimmed diamond. It was one of those brisk afternoons in early spring, the kind of day which in years past had lured him into the dappled light, rejoicing in his good fortune. But here he lurked in his study, walled in by books, overcome by doubt.
People kept telling him this should be the best time of his life, the moment he’d been slogging toward these past three years. He was about to graduate near the top of his class; he’d won a highly prized position on the Harvard Law Review, and even before graduation had a place reserved for him at a distinguished Washington law firm. Altogether his prospects were splendid. But he’d been in the doldrums all that late winter and early spring of 1968.
—“The Two Worlds of Linda Fitzpatrick,” his Pulitzer-winning New York Times story about an affluent Connecticut teenager murdered amid the hippie drug culture of the 1960s. His opening:
The windows of Dr. Irving Sklar’s reception room at 2 Fifth Avenue look out across Washington Square. A patient waiting uneasily for the dentist’s drill can watch the pigeons circling Stanford White’s dignified Washington Arch, the children playing hopscotch on the square’s wide walkways and the students walking hand in hand beneath the American elms.
“Certainly we knew the Village; our family is at 2 Fifth Avenue,” said Irving Fitzpatrick, the wealthy Greenwich, Conn., spice importer whose daughter, Linda, was found murdered with a hippie friend in an East Village boiler room a week ago yesterday.
Mr. Fitzpatrick spoke during a three-hour interview with his family around the fireplace in the library of their 30-room home a mile from the Greenwich Country Club.
For the Fitzpatricks, “the Village” was the Henry James scene they saw out Dr. Sklar’s windows and “those dear little shops” that Mrs. Fitzpatrick and her daughters occasionally visited. (“I didn’t even know there was an East Village,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve heard of the Lower East Side, but the East Village?”)
But for 18-year-old Linda–at least in the last 10 weeks of her life–the Village was a different scene whose ingredients included crash pads, acid trips, freaking out, psychedelic art, witches and warlocks.
If the Fitzpatricks’ knowledge of the Village stopped at Washington Square, their knowledge of their daughter stopped at the unsettling but familiar image of a young, talented girl overly impatient to taste the joys of life.
Reality in both cases went far beyond the Fitzpatricks’ wildest fears–so far, in fact, that they are still unable to believe what their daughter was going through in her last weeks.
—Big Trouble, his last book, a historical narrative about an Idaho labor leader tried in the murder of the governor. Excerpt:
It began to snow just before dawn, chalky flakes tumbling through the hush of the sleeping town, quilting the pastures, tracing fence rails and porch posts along the dusky lanes. In the livery stables that lined Indian Creek, dray horses and fancy pacers, shifting in their stalls, nickered into the pale light. A chill north wind muttered down Kimball Avenue, rattling the windows of feed stores and dry goods emporia, still festooned for the holidays with boughs of holly, chains of popcorn and cranberries. Off to the east, behind the whitening knob of Squaw Butte, rose the wail of the Union Pacific’s morning train from Boise, due into the Caldwell depot at 6:35 with its load of drowsy ranch hands and bowler-hatted drummers.
Sounding up the slope of Dearborn Street into Caldwell’s jaunty new subdivision of Washington Heights, the whistle brought an unwelcome summons to the former governor of Idaho, Frank Stunenberg, as he lay abed that final Saturday of 1905. The governor — as he was still known, five years out of office — had spent a bad night, thrashing for hours in sleepless foreboding. Now while the snow piled up beneath his cottonwoods, he burrowed deeper under the bedclothes.
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.