William Tuohy: US war correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in Vietnam
Saturday 16 January 2010
William Tuohy, a late-blooming American war correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize in Vietnam, then covered conflicts far and wide and in between enjoyed the good life in London, died on 31 December at the age of 83 after open heart surgery in Los Angeles.
His career coincided with the last great flowering of daily print journalism, especially foreign reporting, now increasingly sacrificed to keep skeletal newspapers alive in the electronic age.
The son of a Chicago judge, Tuohy joined the US Navy toward the end of the Second World War and then started out as a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. As night city editor, he worked alongside Pierre Salinger, who later became President John F Kennedy's press secretary. Tuohy migrated to Newsweek in New York in 1959, covering the 1964 American presidential election campaign and in 1965 he volunteered for the Saigon bureau, his first foreign assignment.
His combat reporting for Newsweek won a magazine prize and caught the fancy of the Los Angeles Times, long a lacklustre provincial newspaper abruptly shocked into going first class by the challenge of a West Coast edition of The New York Times. That edition folded in 1964 after two years, but by that time the Los Angeles Times was seriously covering California's cutting edge culture, as well as global news.
Tuohy was 40 when he was hired in 1966 in Saigon, joining a recently assembled stable of veteran correspondents at the newspaper. That reflected the Los Angeles Times' reliance on experience where its rivals often took a chance on younger reporters out to make their reputations in war zones. To the envy of the competition, Los Angeles Times reporters were encouraged to fly first class and to write at length, with stories starting on the front page and then often continuing inside for entire pages.
In 1969 Tuohy won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in Vietnam, exemplifying the storytelling gift he displayed throughout a 29-year career at the newspaper. The award citation read: "few correspondents have seen and written more about Vietnam than William Tuohy." He became part of the "moveable village" of American, British and European correspondents who over the next three decades covered major, mostly Third World, upheavals.
Tuohy moved from Vietnam to Beirut, covering Jordan's "Black September" crackdown in 1970 on the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Amman, for which he won an Overseas Press Club award. He later served as bureau chief in Rome, London, Bonn and again in London at the end of his career in the 1990s. In London he first lived on Easton Square, then in Knightsbridge. He was a frequent lunch guest at San Lorenzo on Beauchamp Place and enjoyed a night out at Annabel's. He was also an avid member of the Chelsea Arts Club and the Garrick.
As a journalist, Tuohy was blessed with good instincts. He was a quick study, capable of turning out highly readable copy within hours of landing in a country in crisis. He could dictate faultless copy without notes even after a late, very convivial evening. And he possessed that special journalist's gift: he was lucky.
As Rome bureau chief, at the outset of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he rushed to the airport and registered his suitcase on the plane for Beirut. But on a last minute hunch, he bought another ticket and boarded the flight to Tel Aviv, taking only a carry-on bag and his typewriter in the Gucci case he'd had custom made. He'd guessed right. Israel allowed correspondents far greater access than the Arabs, even in its most challenging war to date.
Despite a gimp leg from a train crash in 1947, Tuohy epitomised the dashing Hollywood version of a foreign correspondent. Unlike most of his colleagues, who dressed like slobs in the field, Tuohy looked how most people thought a foreign correspondent ought to look: he was tall, handsome and always impeccably attired. His shock of white hair earned him the nickname, the "Silver Stallion".
Tuohy also had a knack with the military of many nations. Ward Just, who covered the Vietnam War for The Washington Post before becoming a novelist, recalled that Tuohy "had the ability to put himself on a common footing with very senior military officers whose view of the press generally was suspicious – dangerous nihilists for whom the glass is eternally half empty. Bill inspired trust. 'Look,' he seemed to say, 'you and I, we've been around the block, we know the score. A fact given in confidence would be respected and while the fact might in due course find its way into print, its source would be nicely concealed.'
"It was not Bill Tuohy ingratiating himself with Colonel Squarejaw. It was Colonel Squarejaw ingratiating himself with Bill, finding at last a newspaper reporter who clearly understood how things worked."
Never was this gift more in evidence than when his Los Angeles colleague Joe Alex Morris Jr was killed covering the uprising that ensured the Islamic Revolution's takeover in Iran in February 1979. Tuohy was tasked with fetching his body. Tuohy and I, then a Washington Post correspondent, were aboard an executive jet chartered in Jordan which, after much anxious indecision by the Tehran control tower, became the first plane allowed to land at Tehran airport after the triumph of the revolution. My Islamic connections after a year covering Iran got the plane in, but it was Tuohy's authoritative manner which calmed the nervous Iranian soldiers surrounding the plane and allowed Morris's casket to be wedged into the jet for its lonely flight westward.
He wrote three books: Dangerous Company (1987), a memoir of his war correspondent days; The Bravest Man: The Story of Richard O'Kane and US Submariners in the Pacific War (2001); and America's Fighting Admirals: Winning the War at Sea in World War II (2007).
Tuohy is survived by Cyril, his son by his second wife, and by his third wife, the former Rose Marie Wheeler, now of Los Angeles.
William Tuohy, foreign correspondent: born Chicago 1 October 1926; married three times (one son); died Los Angeles 31 December 2009.
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