• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Joseph Lelyveld, Former Top Editor of The New York Times, Dies at 86


Jan 5, 2024
Joseph Lelyveld, Former Top Editor of The New York Times, Dies at 86


The former Times columnist Russell Baker, in The New York Review of Books, wrote: “Among the Lelyvelds, confusion, misunderstanding, and too much silence at all levels were the makings of an obviously unhappy family, whose members, if asked, Lelyveld says, would have called themselves a happy family. His book is more like life than memoir.”

Mr. Lelyveld went on to write “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India” (2011), a book, critics said, that stood out among some 30 biographies of Mohandas K. Gandhi for its sweeping examination of Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign to win India’s independence from Britain in 1947 and the life of Hindu asceticism and celibacy that was the foundation of his moral authority.

By also exploring Gandhi’s erotically charged friendship with the German-Jewish architect and bodybuilder Hermann Kallenbach, the book raised protests and was banned in Gandhi’s home state, Gujarat. Mr. Lelyveld rejected assertions that his book had hinted that Gandhi was bisexual.

Mr. Lelyveld’s last book, “His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt” (2016), resurrected the dramas of F.D.R.’s last 16 months when, with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, the president won an unprecedented fourth term, oversaw development of the atomic bomb, met Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, and directed American forces in the penultimate stages of World War II.

Times colleagues often wondered about Mr. Lelyveld’s long pauses and blank stares in conversation. They seemed intimidating, but may have meant something more benign. In “Omaha Blues,” he recalled that to celebrate his and Carolyn’s fifth wedding anniversary, his parents took them to dinner and used the occasion to announce their own plans to divorce after 30 years of marriage.

“It was hard to know what to say,” he wrote. “‘I’m sorry’ wouldn’t have been welcomed. ‘I’m not surprised’ would have seemed unfeeling. ‘Mazel tov’ would have sounded sarcastic. My guess is I mumbled another form of ‘Good luck,’ maybe ‘Bonne chance,’ or simply gave my parents one of those blank stares that my dad, in particular, had always found disconcerting.”


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