The ugly genius of A.M. Rosenthal (1922-2006)

Media criticism.
May 11 2006 7:50 PM

A.M. Rosenthal (1922-2006)

Ugly genius.

A.M. Rosenthal. Click image to expand.
A.M. Rosenthal

Given the richness of the material, would the life of Abe Rosenthal make a better sitcom or a tragedy? Think of casting Tim Allen to play his apish fits of newsroom fury for laughs in Oh, That's Just Abe! Or of hiring George Clooney to trace Rosenthal's heroic rise from sickly immigrant son of a Bronx house-painter to architect of the modern New York Times, and onward to his unhappy decline.

Justice demands both.

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"A weird bastard, but a whiz of a newspaperman," the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee is quoted in Joseph C. Goulden's 1988 book Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times.

Goulden continues where Bradlee begins: 

Rosenthal is a shouter, a curser, a whiner; he keeps a "shitlist" in his head and can hold grudges for years. He is a small man physically but his rages are so violent that he intimidates persons half again his size.

Goulden's bile goes on for 486 pages as he describes Rosenthal as weeper and egomaniac, womanizer and homophobe, chauvinist and tyrant. Other Times historians and memoirists avoid Goulden's malice but confirm his portrait of Rosenthal as an insecure ranter who terrorized his staff and centralized all news judgment into his office.

Rosenthal joined the paper while still a college student, so the New York Times was the only adult life he had ever known as he approached the company's mandatory retirement age of 65 in the mid-1980s. "Rosenthal gave every indication that he would not go willingly, nor would he seriously consider grooming a successor," Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones report in their history The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. Some staffers speculated that he thought himself the paper's "editor-for-life," write Tifft and Jones. "People began comparing Rosenthal to King Lear." 

When finally pastured out to the Times op-ed page by Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger at age 64, Rosenthal embarrassed the institution he worshipped with a frenetic, lampoonable column, "On My Mind," which dragged on for a dozen years.

Yet the ranter rescued the Times from extinction, as today's obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times confirm. He published the Pentagon Papers and established investigative work as part of the Times mix. He "sectioned" the paper so he could expand arts, business, science, regional, and ad-friendly service sections. And he took the franchise national. As you opened your New York Times this morning or clicked to it on the Web, Abe Rosenthal's mind reached out to greet yours.

As difficult as it may be for readers of Rosenthal's column to believe, he possessed a literary gift. No less a stylist than Gay Talese paid homage to him in a 1980 interview, saying:

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