SALACIOUS sex and juicy gossip have usually been things Americans had to get from sources other than the New York Times, a place that until very recent years tended to pretend neither existed.
Books about the Times and memoirs by Times writers have invariably been leaden with reverence for the newspaper and its owners and written in a style suggesting the authors were always on the verge of falling on their knees to give thanks for having been allowed to work there. This caused some of them to become unhinged with lachrymose awe, as when food writer Craig Claiborne confessed in his 1982 autobiography, "I am not ashamed to say that there were times when no one knew, in solitude, I was literally moved to tears when I reflected on my association with the paper."
Now, a new book about the Times, "The Trust," fleshes out, in more ways than one, the history of the paper and its owners, the Ochs and Sulzberger families. Fortune says "the parade of infidelities, rivalries and nervous breakdowns resembles an Upper East Side Falcon Crest." Some of the reviews make the book sound like a Maureen Dowd column allowed to run to 870 pages.
Eye at the keyhole
Harold Evans, writing for the Los Angeles Times, said, "One feels guilty having one's eye pressed unwaveringly at the keyhole of so many intimacies," which include "the adulteries, the jealousies and petty betrayals, the wild conceits, the drinkers, the drug abusers, the chancers and the compulsive womanizers."
Brill's Content said, "Peyton Place, or even Melrose Place, would have trouble competing with all the infidelities, divorces, nervous breakdowns and alcoholic binges of the assorted Ochs descendants."
And a reviewer at Newsweek wrote that "by the end of this fascinating family portrait, the reader has just one question: How on earth did this bunch of self-important, undereducated, prejudiced skirt-chasers ever produce the New York Times?"
There is more than a bit of man-hating spleen in this last comment. If you read the book, you find the Ochs and Sulzberger women, including the in-laws, numbered an unusually high percentage of incorrigible trouser-chasers.
You might suspect the family despises this book until you consider that virtually all the sleaze in it is the result of their having blabbed their heads off. Why they were so foolish is left a mystery, but I suspect it's because after four generations of it, this surprisingly normal family got sick and tired of being flattered, fawned over and worshiped as publishing deities and civic goody goodies and were seized by an urge to take their clothes off for the authors and for the adulating Times-reading public.
The larger message here may be that our current urge to unclothe public figures is revealing far more than their nakedness. It is telling us what most sensible people have always known, that it is perfectly possible to have affairs, father children out of wedlock, drink too much, go slightly mad, even lie about it and still be, say, an effective member of Congress, and that presidents of the United States, governors of Texas or publishers of the Times can be as messy in their private lives as they can be successful in their public ones.
Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.
Pub Date: 10/01/99