R. W. Apple

Veteran 'New York Times' reporter who never lost his interest in the minutiae of American society
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The Independent Online

Raymond Walter Apple, journalist: born Akron, Ohio 20 November 1934; married first Edith Smith (marriage dissolved), second 1982 Betsey Pinckney Brown; died Washington, DC 4 October 2006.

R.W. Apple was perhaps the most legendary American reporter of his generation, although he never won a Pulitzer Prize, had his own column or even wrote his memoirs. A vast, bumptious figure, his passions ranged from American politics, classical music, church architecture, baseball, food and wine. One colleague remarked that Apple had the best brain and the worst body in American journalism.

He worked for The New York Times from 1963 until his death, as the Lagos, Nairobi, Saigon, Moscow, London and Washington bureau chief, and then held the post of Associate Editor. "Johnny" Apple also covered 10 American presidential campaigns, plus the unrest in Iran and the first Gulf War. Despite reporting such important stories, he never lost his interest in the minutiae of American society.

In 1972 he sensed the importance of the obscure Iowa precinct caucuses in predicting the outcome of the American presidential campaign. On the strength of these observations, he was perhaps the first national reporter to predict the victory of an obscure peanut farmer from Georgia, Governor Jimmy Carter, in 1976. It was also his persistent questioning of Ronald Ziegler, President Richard Nixon's hapless press secretary, that prompted him to say that all previous untruths about Watergate were now "inoperative".

He evoked rage and envy amongst many of his early associates because of his arrogance, egomania and seemingly unlimited expense account, but no one doubted his brilliance at reportage on his own eclectic range of subjects. One of his colleagues remarked that his defining characteristics were those of a Labrador, with its inquisitive, enthusiastic approach to life, and that of the Cape Buffalo:

A Cape Buffalo is what a Cape Buffalo is. It eats what it wants to eat. It does whatever it wants to do without knowing how much other animals resent it.

This unquenchable appetite once led Apple to eat - not sample - 18 different dishes in a 16-hour stopover in Singapore to write a compelling article about street food. His professionalism was such that if he wrote about the definitive Baltimore crab cake, you could be certain that he had researched the subject exhaustively both in the library and in the field. Because of his gregarious personality and assiduous cultivation of contacts, he had known George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore from the time they both worked as drivers for their respective parent's Senate campaigns in 1970.

Although he was a mainstream liberal romantic, he also had a good professional relationship with Donald Rumsfeld, the acerbic US Secretary of Defense, which went back to the time they were both at Princeton University in the Fifties. In 1967, a pilot on an American aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin nearly burned to death. As a consequence of covering the story, Apple met and became a lifelong friend of Senator John McCain.

Raymond Walter Apple Jnr was born in 1934, in the small town of Akron, in the Midwest state of Ohio. His family were of German descent (originally called Apfel) but changed their surname due to the anti-German hysteria during the First World War. He was expelled twice from Princeton University and joined The New York Times in 1963 after a successful stint with NBC TV.

He quickly made a name for himself in state journalism before being sent to South Vietnam, where he became a thorn in the flesh of those American generals who wanted to believe that it was the press that lost the war rather than the Communists who won it. Apple was not averse to getting close to the action and in 1966 suffered the indignity of his belt being sliced in two by a .50 calibre machine gun bullet while he was lying flat on his stomach in a Vietnamese graveyard. President Lyndon Johnson was enraged at the impact of Apple's reports, especially when he concluded as early as 1967 that the Vietnam war had reached a stalemate.

It was during his long spell as London bureau chief (1976-85) that Apple started writing his lengthy articles on food and wine. The experience also made him a lifelong anglophile with numerous friends, such as the politician David Owen, the wine writer Jancis Robinson and the writer Margaret Drabble. He purchased a small cottage in the Cotswolds where he and his wife Betsey spent several weeks each summer until his death.

Some of his colleagues surmised that Apple realised in the early Seventies that, despite his ambition and talent, he would never make it to the editorship of The New York Times because of his personality. It was then he decided to pursue his many passions, especially his love of food and wine, knowing that the ultimate professional prize would always elude him. His weight soared to well over 20 stone and he once joked to a friend that his nether region was entirely composed of foie gras.

While in London, he formed the Zinfandel Club, which was an excuse to arrange elaborate dinners with the very best American wines, especially if a renowned American winemaker such as Robert Mondavi was passing through London. He also befriended Paul and Kay Henderson, the American founders of Gidleigh Park, the famous gastronomic hotel in Devon. He held his 50th birthday dinner there, complete with a large amount of Bordeaux from his birth year of 1934, which to his great relief was the only decent claret vintage in the Thirties. Later, he and Egon Ronay created the grandly named British Academy of Gastronomes, which was in fact merely a private dining club for a number of his similarly inclined friends.

Although he had a distinguished record in his next post, as Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, one of the most powerful posts in the US, he lost interest with the arrival of the new puritanical Republican Congressmen, who showed no interest in banter or convivial lunches. The other journalism which he excelled at was the pulling together of what was termed a Q-Head piece, which was 1,200 words of background on whatever the important topic of the day happened to be. By 1997, though, he was fed up with partisanship creeping into all aspects of Washington life and the replacing of debate with shrill declamations by the Christian right or other bigots.

After he resigned from the Washington position, he devoted himself to large pieces on all aspects of food and wine. Anyone interested in food would inevitably Google the destination in case Apple had written a lengthy account of a journey there. He was also exceedingly generous in imparting his information to any of his huge personal network who sought his advice. His 70th birthday was celebrated at L'Ami Louis, the Parisian bistro famed for its enormous portions and unrivalled wine list. The party was such an event that it was written up by Calvin Trillin for Gourmet magazine.

His very last piece was published posthumously in Thursday's New York Times. It was a round-up of his 10 favourite restaurants abroad that were worth boarding a plane to visit. He deliberately chose only one per country and by no means focused on the great and grand with one of the only two three-star Michelin restaurants being the sublime Arzak in San Sebastian. Otherwise, it is a list of glorious bistros, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese establishment in Sydney and Wiltons in London.

In one of his last acts, at the weekend he rounded off his list of the music and food to be served at his memorial service.

Bruce Palling

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