Obituary: Murray Kempton

New York is in mourning for Murray Kempton, the reporter on his bicycle, negotiating in his seventies the hazards of Manhattan's avenues, moving be- tween assignments as though they were his first and only and listening, always, to his classical compact discs that hung around his neck like some kind of tribal necklace, a sign that he was of a different caste. And what a caste it was. "The man has brought more honour to newspapers than anyone in my lifetime," said his fellow columnist Jimmy Breslin, who should know.

Kempton was H.L. Mencken, reborn. Different, apart. What he saw and what he reported, no one else saw and no else would have even spotted because they hadn't got his eye, though they struggled mightily. And that's the reason why most of us, most of the time, had to read his sentences over and over again. They might as well have been in Latin, or Greek, for all we could have written them, never mind the deciphering. But they glowed, that we knew. And they did sing.

During his 45 years as a journalist, Kempton worked for the New York Post, the New York Review of Books, the defunct World Telegram and Sun, as a radio commentator for CBS, and finally for Newsday since 1981. He wrote more than 10,000 columns. He was a liberal, but hated political labels and confounded those who tried to put them on him by having friends on all sides. Richard Nixon was among them, Bill Clinton was not.

No president, no mayor, no vicar, no Mafia boss, no puffed-up bureaucrat, pop-singer or delivery boy was quite the same after Murray Kempton had been in his neighbourhood taking in the vibes. They talked of his gift for irony, his passion for paradox, his incomparable knack for laying low the loftiest of men and women, nicely though. But in the end it was his honesty and his plain courage that shone through. He would have no truck with soppy sentiment, no time for pettifogging, no inch to spare for self- indulgence, or aggrandisement. He was of Scottish stock, originally, he used to remind me as though it was important, and it may have been. Although his ancestors, at least some of them, had been Catholic bishops. Well, why not?

Kempton was, partly, a man of the streets, which is the only thing to be in New York, not just because a bicycle affords an unusual view. Try any other route, among the many seductions offered every day, Trump Tower, the Plaza, Mortimer's, a lunch table at the Royalton with the champagne socialists, a cocktail at Pravda's with the bond-traders and the result, willy-nilly, is co-option. The chain gang. Kempton deftly avoided all this and won many prizes, including the most- coveted Pulitzer for his columns in Newsday. Anyone who wishes can read some of them in a fine compilation entitled Rebellions, Perversities and Main Events (1994), about which he said the editor was very good - "He picked them all, not me." In these pages you will find an endless parade of American life: Paul Robeson and Malcolm X, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. The book's cover has an artist's drawing, lifelike, of Kempton next to his famous bicycle, which is how I will always now remember him.

The other Kempton was the one I, a foreign correspondent in the US since the 1970s, knew better. In the United Nations, where I once had an office courtesy of a British journal, Kempton would arrive, bicycle clips and record player in hand, and sit on the edge of my desk and talk. God, could he talk. It was not that I was anxious to go anywhere, to escape. To what sanctuary could one possibly slither in the corridors of the UN? And never, anyway, when Kempton was there to expound and elucidate on this or that guerrilla faction, functioning sporadically somewhere, at a distance that seemed so far removed from the East River upon which we gazed as to be, well, nowhere. But Kempton always made it seem somewhere, by historical reference and anecdote, brilliant memory or even personal encounter.

There was the occasional out-of-town trip. One was a Reagan presidential excursion to Russia, a "summit" so-called, before the fall of the Evil Empire. In order to give the Gipper a decent night's sleep we had landed in Finland. Kempton was despondent on arrival. There was a brass band, a dais and some soldiers presenting their rifles to us in perfect harmony. But for one who had covered Charlie Parker's funeral I understood that this could not have been a big deal. Kempton was wearing a raincoat, which was unusual and a bad sign, a sort of a resignation to gloom in Scandinavia.

The next morning, at the nice hotel, we were having breakfast. "How do you like Finland, Murray?" we asked, those of us who had awakened. Reagan was still asleep. "I think," he began, "that Richard Perle is right . . ." (Richard Perle was an insufferable anti-Soviet courtier of Reagan's entourage who saw SS-20 missiles under every table napkin, even in Finland.) "I think, I mean I hope," said Kempton, "that Richard Perle is right. That every country, sooner or later, is subject to Finlandisation. I just hope they hurry it up." We all applauded because we all agreed, as we always did, or most of us.

Kempton once said, "There's no excuse for kicking somebody unless he's up." Murray Kempton used to kick people who were up all the time, and though he was half their weight and underpaid it was beautiful to watch. Quite beautiful.

Peter Pringle

James Murray Kempton, journalist: born Baltimore, Maryland 16 December 1917; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died New York 5 May 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Ashdown Group: HR Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen