Steve Oney
Nieman Class of 1982

picture-21-245x300Oney spent 17 years reporting and writing a book that ABA Journal in 2011 named one of the 30 books every lawyer must read. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank chronicled, in epic detail, the most notorious lynching in American history, of a Northern Jewish factory owner wrongly targeted in the death of a 13-year-old Atlanta girl. In a 2004 issue of Nieman Reports, Oney wrote about the press sensationalism surrounding the 1913 crime, citing publications including the William Randolph Hearst-owned daily newspaper The Atlanta Georgian: “The Georgian’s coverage of the Phagan murder employed almost every armament in Hearst’s arsenal. Stripped down the center of the paper’s first front page devoted to the story was a photo of Mary Phagan’s body snapped at the morgue. A banner headline emblazoned over the masthead offered a ‘$500 Reward’ for exclusive information leading to the perpetrator’s arrest and conviction. Despite the fact that the weather was dry, a feature story quoted the victim’s grandfather demanding vengeance while standing in a torrential downpour. (‘It wasn’t raining, but it might have been,’ the reporter who wrote the article confessed years later.)” Oney is also, of course, a skilled magazine writer. His “Casualties of War,” a 2007 story in Los Angeles magazine, was a finalist for the National Magazine Award, and he has written for publications including TIME, GQ, the New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review. He’s got the storyteller’s eye for deconstruction, too, as you can see in his Storyboard piece on Roy Blount Jr.’s classic profile, in Sports Illustrated, of the raconteur Jerry Clower.


>“The Lynching of Leo Frank,” the 1985 Esquire story that preceded his book. Excerpt:

Under the cover of the lengthening shadows of a sleepy August afternoon in 1915, five Model T’s loaded with armed men quietly departed the northwest Atlanta suburb of Marietta. The men had told their wives they were going fishing. But this was no ordinary group of anglers. To avoid identification, several members of the party—whose number included mechanics, telephone linemen, explosives experts, a doctor, a preacher, and a lawyer—wore leather goggles. To escape detection, the drivers took different back roads out of town. By the time light was gone from the summer sky, the men were alone in the Georgia countryside, barreling south through cotton fields toward Milledgeville, 175 miles away.

In his quarters at the Georgia State Prison Farm just outside Milledgeville, Leo Max Frank lay in bed. A nervous, circumspect Brooklyn Jew whose bulging eyes and wiry build lent him an unfortunate resemblance to a praying mantis, Frank had been convicted in 1913 of killing Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old Marietta girl who worked for him at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta. Frank had been condemned to die for the crime, and his conviction had been upheld by both the Georgia and the United States supreme courts. Nevertheless, Georgia governor John Slaton believed the evidence was inconclusive—on June 21, 1915, the eve of Frank’s execution date, Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. That night an angry mob marched on the governor’s mansion, burning Slaton in effigy. “Our grand old Empire State HAS BEEN RAPED!” wrote Tom Watson, the legendary populist editor of The Jeffersonian. “Hereafter, let no man reproach the South with Lynch law: let him remember the provocation; and let him say whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.” Four weeks after the commutation, one of Frank’s fellow inmates attacked him in his sleep, slitting his throat with a butcher knife. If another prisoner, a surgeon convicted of murder, hadn’t stitched Frank’s wound, he would have died.

Still, as the early evening hours of August 16 wound down, Frank remained hopeful. The seven-and-a-half-inch gash around his neck had healed quickly, and he’d written a friend that his survival was a sign that the worst was over and vindication was near. In his battle for exoneration, Frank was counting heavily upon a campaign being waged in his behalf by northern Jewish leaders, among them Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times. Frank also took faith from the support of his wife, Lucille, whose steady stream of letters always promised a happy ending.

>Oney’s account of reporting and writing And the Dead Shall Rise, via the University of Georgia. Excerpt:

To say that the research and writing of And the Dead Shall Rise was a battle in its own right—one that exhausted my youth and my wallet while testing my inner being—is an understatement. The difficulties were numerous. First, the research was overwhelming. My office was stacked floor to ceiling with thousands of letters, legal documents, and newspaper clippings that had to be annotated before I could write a word. Worse, after seven years of research, the advance money from my publisher ran out. This would have been difficult anywhere, but in Los Angeles—where many of my friends have grown wealthy creating TV shows and writing screenplays—it was doubly so. All I can say is that I did not quit. Luckily, my wife believed in me and in the book, and she supported me through a long time of uncertainty.

In ways I could not have initially predicted, the lengthy process of writing And the Dead Shall Rise ended up working to the book’s advantage. It was only two summers ago that Leo Frank’s letters to a journalist who covered the case for Collier’s Weekly were donated to the American Jewish Archives. Thus, in my book you hear for the first time what Frank was thinking and feeling as he went through his ordeal. Similarly, I benefited from the recent bequest of the transcript of Gov. Slaton’s clemency hearing to the Emory University Library. This document, thick as a New York telephone book, contains much new evidence suggesting Frank’s innocence.

The book’s depiction of the lynching also benefited from my having spent so long in the trenches. I ultimately interviewed at length the children of six participants. The daughter of one gave me access to a list of everyone involved that her father had kept in the family Bible. I got to know three people who were at the lynch site and saw Frank’s body hanging there. One of these people, Narvel Lassiter, is pictured in my book, peering out from behind the oak tree. He was only 9 years old. Most interesting of all, I ferreted out how the masterminds of the lynching in effect took over the state prison system. The lynching was conceived in Marietta, but it was run through the legislature. One of the crime’s architects was chairman of the prison subcommittee.

>“Manson: An Oral History,” from Los Angeles magazine, about another notorious crime, the Charles Manson murders. Excerpt:

Rugged and eerily beautiful, the property at the High Western end of the San Fernando valley, where the killers launched their bloody attacks, now stands empty and unmarked. The old Spahn movie ranch burned down in the 1970s, and the land remains undeveloped. Gone, too, is the Benedict Canyon house where the first night of slaughter occurred. Those who look for 10050 Cielo Drive—and many do—look in vain. It was demolished in the 1990s, and the Mediterranean villa that replaced it bears a different address. The hillside residence at 3301 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, where the madness continued on the second night, is intact, but it also has a new street number. As for Barker Ranch, the desert hideaway to which the murderers fled, it burned this spring.

Still, the events that transpired at these places have left an indelible scar on Los Angeles’s psyche. The murders, so bizarre, so arbitrary, could have happened only here. For 40 years the city has been haunted by the names of the victims, usually run together as Tate-LaBianca. It is important, though, to remember them as individuals. On the first night: actress Sharon Tate, 26, who had starred in Valley of the Dolls and was married to director Roman Polanski; hairstylist Jay Sebring, 35; Voytek Frykowski, 32, an old friend of Polanski’s from Poland; and Abigail Folger, 25, Frykowski’s sweetheart and heiress to the coffee fortune. Steven Parent, an 18-year-old delivery boy, simply happened to be there. On the second night: Leno LaBianca, 44, president of Gateway Markets, a small grocery store chain, and his wife, Rosemary, 38, who ran the clothing shop Boutique Carriage.

>“Casualties of War,” from Los Angeles magazine, about Los Angeles County service members killed in Iraq. Excerpt:

One morning in November 2002, Chris walked through the drab blue door for the first time. Instead of desks lined up in neat rows, there were casually arranged round tables. At the entrance was an area reminiscent of a library checkout counter. In a cubicle formed from tall black filing cabinets sat Cheryl Holland. A 58-year-old mother of two and a teacher in the Antelope Valley School District since 1974, Holland projects empathy and toughness. Almost every inch of her work area is covered with photographs of kittens, singer Céline Dion, and former NFL quarterback John Elway. She loves nothing more than to talk about making a difference in children’s lives. Then she’ll square her jaw and declare that if a student ever hit her she’d deck him.

“When Chris’s parents decided it was time to put the brakes on his tailspin,” Holland says, “it was the luck of the draw that he was assigned to me. I took one look at him and realized he just needed a little time to get his head out of his ass. He thought he could continue to be a slacker. He thought he could just go through the motions. I told him that wasn’t going to fly here. I told him I’d be nice if he did his work, but if he didn’t I’d get down and dirty.”

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.

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