The legendary Times-man was generous with his journalistic advice, even as he taught an invaluable lesson in self-help, writes Sarah Wildman.
Throughout my childhood, I knew the names of very few journalists, but I always knew who Anthony Lewis was.
On its own, that may not seem remarkable, since anyone who read the newspaper in the past half-century knew his name. Lewis died Monday at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after what was effectively a lifetime appointment at The New York Times, for which he wrote, almost uninterrupted, from 1948 through 2001, first as Supreme Court correspondent, then as London bureau chief, and finally as one of the most beloved op-ed writers of his time.
Growing up I read him, in part, because he was the first Jew I ever knew who took up the cause of the Palestinians at a time when doing so, in the Jewish community I grew up in, was considered not courageous but self-hating. I also read him, in part, because multiple, well-read copies of his Pulitzer Prize–winning Gideon’s Trumpet, his first book (but his second Pulitzer, at only 36), sat on shelves around my parents’ home.
But the real reason I began to read Tony Lewis religiously, and so young, was that he was the first cousin of my mother, Margot, and I thrilled to the connection, however tangential, to someone so brilliant.
The story in my family is that when my mother’s parents died, both too young—her mother when she was 9 and her father when she was 17—only three cousins out of dozens stepped forward to help her. One was Tony Lewis. It was a quiet kindness he offered her, a shoulder, a willingness to talk. And while she didn’t, say, go to live with him and his wife at their Martha’s Vineyard home, she never forgot that he was kind to her, and loving, and unafraid of her, at a time when that was what she needed most, in a family that didn’t know how to handle an orphaned teenager.
It was his fealty to justice and kindness—the very things that made his legal writing so important and compelling, the things that continue to make him essential reading for journalists and lawyers alike—that also made him an unusually caring cousin.
Because of this I always viewed him with a mix of gratitude and awe, but when I saw him at family functions, I would stand back shyly, always too embarrassed to say that I wanted to be a writer, too, and that the way he wrote, and the subjects he wrote about, were an inspiration to me.
Years later, when I was a college sophomore, Tony came to speak on my campus. At the end of his talk I hung back, while the crowd surrounded him, waiting until I was the last one, and then I blurted, “I’m Margot Lewis’s daughter!” His face immediately shifted out of the placid, guarded, friendliness of the Scheduled Speaker into ambroad, welcoming smile. “Well, hello, Margot’s Daughter!” he said, as though he’d always been the father or uncle I had always, selfishly, wished him to be. And then, we talked, for the rest of the evening, if not as peers then as relations much closer than we ever had reason to be. We talked about politics and journalism, about our family, about my mother—who by then had had breast cancer, the same disease that had taken Tony’s sister when she was in her 40s.
Despite his demanding schedule, he seemed to care deeply about what had happened to all of us, whether we were happy, why we weren’t in better touch. He pushed back his next meetings.
When I graduated and decided I would try to be a journalist, Tony was there, as he’d promised, to offer advice and to read my work. With some reluctance, he introduced me to Peter Beinart, who had just been named editor of The New Republic. Peter liked an essay I’d written for The Washington Post, and offered me a job as his assistant. I called Tony to thank him, but instead of accepting the thanks he recoiled. He cautioned me that nothing in life comes easy, that he hadn’t gotten me the job, that it had to be my own work that opened doors. He couldn’t, shouldn’t—and wouldn’t—do it for me, he said. While he was pleased it had worked out, he was dismayed that I would think he had anything to do with it.
Over the years I continued to send him stories I wanted him to see, hoping for his praise, but I never again asked for his help. I realize now that his best advice was to stand on my own—that nothing in life comes easy. Still, journalism is a tough life, and it was always easier to have a bit of confidence when I knew that somewhere in the background, he was cheering me on.