When journalist-turned-activist Michael Elliott addressed his retirement party Tuesday night—with a few hundred admirers from all over the world crowded into an art gallery near the Washington, D.C., headquarters of rock-star Bono’s global poverty- and disease-fighting ONE Campaign—there was zero sense that this would be the Liverpool-born Elliott’s last public speech.
His friends knew that he’d been fighting cancer for the past 2-½ years, braving brutal bouts of chemotherapy, surgery, scores of medical procedures and multiple hospital stays, “but there wasn’t an elegy quality to his remarks that I could detect,” said one of the partygoers, Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief of Time magazine, where the 65-year-old Elliott had spent much of an action-packed journalism career before leaving in 2011 to become chief executive officer of ONE.
“I knew he’d been sick and he thanked his oncologist in his remarks,” Scherer said, “but he gave the impression that he was living with cancer but it was mostly behind him…He talked about how he was going back to Crete to hike in the White Mountains…He had tons of energy. He was the host of the party. He was smiling. He was cracking jokes. He was shaking hands.”
Perhaps the only hint of the finality in the occasion—but it only seems noteworthy in retrospect—was when the guest of honor made a joke that included a passing reference to mortality.
“As Billy Crystal said at [Muhammad] Ali’s memorial service, you’ve got to the halfway point now,” Elliott began his remarks after a lengthy toast by ONE board chairman Tom Freston, a campy performance by a Paul McCartney impersonator (Elliott’s Liverpudlian roots were a leitmotif), and video tributes from 19-year-old Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai and U2’s Bono (who crooned a Mike Elliott-specific parody of the Beatles tune, “When I’m 64,” retitled as “Now I’m 65”), plus accolades from various volunteers in the 7-million-member non-profit.
“Well done!” Elliott quipped.
As the man of the hour held court with his friends late into the night, hoisting adult beverages and telling old stories while sporting his trademark Australian kangaroo-skin bush hat, nobody could have known that he was, in fact, the life of the party at his own wake.
The news of Elliott’s death Thursday evening—apparently from a raging infection that his compromised immune system just couldn’t cope with—came as a devastating blow when it began to leak out on social media Friday morning in what soon became an outpouring of grief and disbelief.
“We’re all still kind of in shock,” said Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs, still unable to process Elliott’s passing. “As you can imagine, it’s a tough day.”
Gibbs, the first female boss of the 93-year-old newsmag, later issued a heartfelt tribute, one among countless eulogies from Elliott’s massive Rolodex of friends and colleagues.
“Michael is one of the very few people I’ve ever known who deserved the description ‘larger than life,'” Gibbs wrote. “He lived life large, buoyantly, flamboyantly, delightedly chasing the next big idea, spotting the next great talent, inviting us all to his table to listen and learn. He was preacher and teacher, mentor to generations of journalists and model to all of us as editors. We will miss him terribly.”
Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait, his former colleague at The Economist—where Elliott was Washington bureau chief before he edited Newsweek International, tried his hand as a dotcom entrepreneur, and joined Time as a senior writer in 2001, ending up as deputy managing editor—called him “one of the best journalists I have ever met,” adding: “He was a great mentor to many young journalists; he always had time and his door was seldom shut. He fought illness in the same way that he tackled life—with bravery, with humor and with his family and friends right behind him."
Meanwhile, Bill Gates tweeted: “Michael Elliott was a tremendous leader and an inspiration to many (including me).”
ONE campaign co-founder Bono, aka Paul Hewson, wrote how “Mike loved his life, lived it boldly and wanted the rest of the world to have that same experience of it. He was annoyed and sometimes angry at the waste of human potential. Above all else, he wanted his life to be useful. If you were around him, that’s what he demanded of you…[H]e was also great, great fun. In the world that ONE lives to change, that quality is one of the rarest and the one I personally will miss the most.”
And Elliott’s heartbroken wife of four decades, author and British public servant Emma Oxford, the mother of their two adult daughters, wrote that “his awareness that he might run out of time far too soon only deepened his appreciation of life, of his work for ONE, and his love of family and friends.”
Elliott grew up in post-World War II Liverpool, 221 miles on the motorway from London, but an even greater distance culturally and socially from the elite seat of British power and influence.
As he noted in his remarks Tuesday night, his parents never flew on an airplane, and both lived their lives within four miles of where they were born. Elliott told the crowd that of all the 25 jobs he’d had in life, his favorite job of all was working on a wrecking crew, “where I got to blow shit up.”
That, of course, was a bit of misdirection. The pleasures of menial labor could never satisfy such an ambitious spirit. Aside from his stellar career in print journalism and gigs as a presenter for British television documentaries, Elliott became a serious academic, winning not one but two degrees from Oxford University and receiving a tenured professorship at the London School of Economics before joining The Economist in 1984.
When he moved to the United States two years later to become the prestigious magazine’s Washington bureau chief and political editor—creating the influential “Lexington” column analyzing American politics—he fell in love with his adopted country and later became a U.S. citizen (even as he accepted an honorary knighthood, an O.B.E. for his service to journalism).
His affection for Britain’s rebellious former colonies permeates his book-length study of post-war America, The Day Before Yesterday.
“I think, as a Brit, he took to the U.S. and settled in the U.S. because the positive attitude appealed to him,” said Elliott’s former Economist colleague Sebastian Mallaby, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. (The very last entry on Elliott’s Twitter feed, on Wednesday, was a re-tweeting of Mallaby’s Washington Post column on how incoming prime minister Theresa May must deal with Brexit.)
“He was naturally more at home in America than in Britain," said Mallaby, "and he was American both in his optimism and general ebullience. The more cynical, downbeat, artificially self-effacing culture of Britain didn’t go over so well with him.”
India-born CNN host Fareed Zakaria, who held many of the same editorial positions as Elliott at both Newsweek and Time, said “Mike had the kind of affection for America that only an immigrant can have.”
Noting that Elliott in the 1990s turned down the offer of a senior policy job from then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and narrowly missed being elected editor-in-chief of The Economist, Zakaria added: “He was a little out of place in England. He didn’t come from the Etons of the world. He didn’t come from the sort of gilded world of public schools, and for somebody like that, there were always subtle barriers in a place like Britain. But America felt like an open book. It was a place where people would judge you for who you were, and not what kind of accent you had.”
Former Time managing editor Rick Stengel, currently Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, recalled his former deputy as a “boon companion” and “prodigious worker” who “could stay in that chair hour after hour writing and editing.”
Once, at 2 a.m. on a very late closing night when that issue of Time magazine was still not to bed, Stengel recalled wringing his hands ruefully and Elliott dismissing his angst, saying, “This is what we do.” Stengel said another of Elliott’s favorite catchphrases—rare in an enterprise where whining is de rigueur—was: “Mustn’t grumble.”
Top Time Inc. executive Norman Pearlstine pointed out that Elliott was probably unique in that he held senior editorial positions at all three of the planet’s leading English-language newsweeklies.
“He just had an extraordinary level of intellectual curiosity about just about everything, and he knew everybody,” Pearlstine said, noting that Elliott regularly hosted an annual dinner for journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“He wanted to run something rather than be a perpetual deputy,” Pearlstine added about Elliott’s decision five years ago to leave journalism for the nonprofit world as president and CEO of ONE.
“What was interesting to me is that he was good at it. You never know if somebody who has done one thing for such a long time can be that ambidextrous.”
Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who enlisted Elliott’s active involvement in advocating for people with intellectual disabilities, said he wasn’t surprised that Elliott was so successful at ONE (where Shriver’s older brother Bobby, a close friend of Bono’s, was present at the creation and serves on the board).
“He had tremendous leadership skills,” Tim Shriver said. “I think he became badly disillusioned with journalism. There was only so much you could do by telling stories. Telling a story about a problem is one thing, but actually doing something about it was another.”
Like other friends of Elliott, Shriver recalled that “he came to everything with a default smile on his face, and a kind of discombobulated but happy aspect, and a commitment to get things done…If you were at some social event in Washington, you could always find your way to Michael and have a fun conversation about whatever was going on. And he had a great sense of humor, and a belief that humor matters in life.”
Fareed Zakaria put it another way: “As in the novel Scaramouche, ‘He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that world was mad.’ ”
At his final oration Tuesday night, Elliott ended by reciting a passage from Derek Walcott’s poem Omeros about the role of the writer, giving voice to the struggles of ordinary people.
“It was a great performance and no one had any idea that this [Elliott’s death] was going to happen,” said Tom Freston, who recalled Elliott’s talking enthusiastically at lunch that day about his plans to refurbish the patio of the family’s English summer home in Devon. “It was epic.”
“It was vintage Mike, in a way,” Zakaria said. “You have to imagine that the writer and the storyteller in him would have appreciated the drama of that moment.”