Obituary: Murray Kempton

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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.