Tad Szulc

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Tadeusz Witold Szulc, journalist and writer: born Warsaw 25 July 1926; married 1948 Marianne Carr (one son, one daughter); died Washington, DC 21 May 2001.

A veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Tad Szulc had his fair share of scoops and scrapes. He was the first to report the imminent assault on Cuba by anti-Castro Cubans in April 1961 – to the public fury of President John F. Kennedy – that came to reality 10 days later in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, although the paper censored references to CIA support and details of the planned invasion.

On a hunch he returned to Prague – where he was bureau chief – from a family holiday in the United States in August 1968, just five days before the Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring. "I would have hated myself for ever had I been on Cape Cod at that time," he later declared. He was expelled four months after the invasion for showing too much interest in "secret military questions".

Szulc's wide contacts, foreign background and work on Cuba led him to be listed in CIA documents as "under suspicion as a hostile foreign agent". Born into a Polish Jewish middle-class family, Szulc was educated at the Swiss boarding school Le Rosey "through foresight on the part of my parents", as he later declared. He remained at the school when his parents left Poland for Brazil in the mid-1930s, ahead of the Nazi Holocaust that would have wiped out the family had they remained. Szulc lived for a year in France before rejoining his family in 1941. He studied at the University of Brazil from 1943 to 1945. There he learnt both Portuguese and Spanish.

After university Szulc joined the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro. Sponsored by relatives, he went to the United States in 1947. He covered the United Nations in New York for United Press International from 1949 until 1953 before joining The New York Times. He served in South-East Asia, Latin America, Portugal, Spain, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Washington, where he made his home. He left the paper in 1972 to go freelance.

Of his 20 books, Fidel: a critical portrait (1986), based on his personal knowledge of the Cuban leader, aroused the most interest. Introduced to Castro in 1959 by a New York Times board member, the three sat down for an "all-night session", as Szulc later recalled. "We sat all night in the kitchen – Fidel's favourite place to meet with people – of the Havana Hilton. Then the three of us went to the First People's Beach and sat until 4am drinking Cokes in the sand." The two met many times in 1984 and 1985 as Szulc wrote the book.

The first full-length biography, it revealed that Castro had received CIA funding to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. Although a balanced portrait, it was noticeably more detailed about Castro's earlier career than about his years in power after 1959.

Many of Szulc's other books also covered Latin American affairs, but later in life he began to return to his Polish and Jewish roots. In The Secret Alliance (1991), he wrote of the many overt and covert schemes to extract Jews from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and bring them to Israel. The book was completed just after the dramatic airlift of Ethiopia's Falashas to Israel in May 1991, in exchange for cash raised by American Jews. "It is unclear who got their hands on the $35m in New York," he wrote, noting that "it worked out to $2,427 per Falasha, roughly what Nicolae Ceausescu charged in Romania for an exit permit for a Jew".

Although the book was based on wide interviews and documents from Jewish agencies in the United States and Israel, as well as the Mossad, the lack of detailed source notes makes it difficult to assess the value of all the information.

Perhaps Szulc's most enduring book is Pope John Paul II (1995), the first of the "big four" English-language papal biographies and the one which draws most heavily on John Paul's Polish roots. Told by the Pope in 1993 that a biography must be more than "dates, facts and quotations" and must convey "the person's heart, soul, thoughts", Szulc developed an empathy with his subject.

As well as numerous interviews with the Pope's friends and acquaintances, Szulc also gained access to documents from the Polish secret police files on the Pope and the Soviet Politburo.

For his last book he returned to the genre of the novel, using what he had learnt in writing his biography of John Paul for the thriller To Kill the Pope (2000).

Outgoing, energetic and chain-smoking, Szulc remained an old-fashioned journalist, turning out a constant stream of books and articles on his manual, portable typewriter. He rejected the suggestion he had any special gifts as an investigative reporter. "If a reporter doesn't investigate, he isn't a reporter."

Felix Corley