R.W. Apple, a Times Journalist in Full, Dies at 71


R. W. Apple Jr., who in more than 40 years as a correspondent and editor at The New York Times wrote about war and revolution, politics and government, food and drink, and the revenge of living well from more than 100 countries, died early this morning in Washington. He was 71. The cause was of complications of thoracic cancer.

With his Dickensian byline, Churchillian brio and Falstaffian appetites, Mr. Apple, who was known as Johnny, was a singular presence at The Times almost from the moment he joined the metropolitan staff in 1963. He remained a colorful figure as new generations of journalists around him grew more pallid, and his encyclopedic knowledge, grace of expression — and above all his expense account — were the envy of his competitors, imitators and peers.

Mr. Apple enjoyed a career like no other in the modern era of The Times. He was the paper’s bureau chief in Albany, Lagos, Nairobi, Saigon, Moscow, London and Washington. He covered 10 presidential elections and more than 20 national nominating conventions. He led The Times’s coverage of the Vietnam war for two and a half years in the 1960’s and of the Persian Gulf war a generation later and he chronicled the Iranian revolution in between.

As a political correspondent, Mr. Apple, beginning in 1972, paid attention to the Iowa precinct caucuses when they were still largely ignored by the national press. Four years later, he helped turn the caucuses into an important test of a candidate’s strength by being one of the first reporters to spot the potential appeal of a little-known former governor of Georgia namedJimmy Carter. In later years, he turned the same searching, child-like curiosity to writing about food, architecture and travel from around the nation and the globe.

For a generation, The Times turned to Mr. Apple to write front-page “News Analysis” articles, putting great events of the day into longer-term perspective. His best were 1,200-word tapestries of history, erudition and style; the worst were clear and concise, but reflected conventional wisdom that sometimes proved wrong.
To the end of his life, Mr. Apple kept a small black bag packed with essentials, including a personal pepper mill, ready to be whisked away on a moment’s notice for a big story, or for a little one that caught his fancy. Even when his knees began to wear out from years of carrying the surplus pounds that were a by-product of his adventures, Mr. Apple lost none of the “legs” that define the best reporters.
“Newspaper people love impossible dreams,” he once told Lear’s magazine. “I suppose we’re reckless sentimentalists. If we didn’t love impossible dreams, we would not still be working in an industry whose basic technology was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Mr. Apple was no manager, and he could be cruelly short-tempered with hotel clerks, copy editors and political aides. In his days as Washington Bureau chief, in the mid-1990’s, his editing might involve bursting out of his corner office to declare that one reporter had “misspelled fettucine Alfredo!” or that another had referred to Ann D. Jordan, the consultant, corporate director and wife of the Washington super-lawyerVernon E. Jordan, as a “socialite.”

But he was a natural role model, and his colleagues and competitors all watched what he asked, and what he wrote, and what and where and when he ate and drank, and they did their best to follow suit, albeit with much less apparent ease, capacity or zest. When, in an Indian restaurant in Uganda, he warned his dining companions, “No prawns at this altitude!,” they listened up.

“I used to say that Johnny grew into the person he was pretending to be when we were young,” Joseph Lelyveld, a contemporary who rose to become The Times’s executive editor, told the writer Calvin Trillin in a 2003 profile of Mr. Apple in The New Yorker. “Now I wonder whether he actually was that person then, and the rest of us didn’t know enough to realize it.”

Drama, and a lot of dash, followed Mr. Apple as night follows day. He was the pool reporter sent to the deck of the U.S.S. Forrestal in 1967 when a fiery accident nearly killed one of the ship’s pilots, Lieut. CommanderJohn S. McCain3d. From that incident he formed a lifelong friendship with the pilot, who went on to become a United States Senator.

It was Mr. Apple, or so the legend goes, who toldRobert F. Kennedyin 1968 that the Rev. Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.had been shot. It was Mr. Apple whose relentless questioning elicited from Ronald L. Ziegler,Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary, the admission that his previous explanations about the Watergate affair were “inoperative.”

Mr. Apple’s dinner guests — at his Georgetown house, his farm near Gettysburg, Pa., or his English cottage in the Cotswolds — were apt to include not only leading politicians but also prominent figures in architecture, cuisine and the arts. He thought nothing of beginning a sentence by saying, “The first time I made lunch forJulia Child... .”

Mr. Apple joined The Times as a brash and ambitious recruit from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. He quickly became one of the highest-paid reporters on the local staff. In his first year at the paper, his byline appeared 73 times on the front page. A citation for an early publisher’s award, an in-house prize, described his impact: “In the interests of efficiency, The New York Times recently equipped its main office with automatic elevators, a Centrex switchboard, a two-faced Universal Jump clock, a Goss press with magnetic amplifier drive, a jam-proof Jampool conveyor belt and a 185-pound, water-cooled, self-propelled, semi-automatic machine called R. W. Apple Jr.”

Mr. Apple was always the hero of his own life, especially in his younger days. His colleagues swapped so many outraged stories about his bumptious behavior that they eventually began charging each other for the privilege, with the proceeds going to a kitty for their bar tabs. In “The Boys on the Bus,” his 1973 book about the 1972 presidential campaign, Timothy Crouse painted a portrait of Mr. Apple that was at once flattering about his talents and unsparing about his flaws. “There was a reason why reporters told stories about Apple,” Mr. Crouse wrote. “They recognized many of their own traits in him, grotesquely magnified. The shock of recognition frightened them. Apple was like them, only more blatant. He openly displayed the faults they tried to hide: the insecurity, the ambitiousness, the name-dropping” and “the weakness for powerful men.” He added: “When they talked about him, they were really saying: ‘I hope it doesn’t show that much in me.’ ”

Raymond Walter Apple Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1934, in Akron, Ohio. His father, also known as Johnny — nicknamed for Johnny Appleseed — ran a chain of grocery stores that had been founded by the family of Mr. Apple’s mother, the former Julia Albrecht. The senior Apple had hoped his only son would take over the business, but an early encounter with The New York Times in the Akron public library gave Mr. Apple other ideas.

In the pages of The Times, Mr. Apple once told Current Biography, he found “wonderful, romantic” bylines like Osgood Carruthers and Drew Middleton, reporters writing from faraway places. “It seeped into my conciousness that these people were actually being paid to do this,” he said.

At Western Reserve Academy, a private prep school in Hudson, Ohio, Mr. Apple was sports editor of the student newspaper and editor in chief of the yearbook. He continued his journalistic training in college, on The Daily Princetonian atPrinceton. Twice expelled for neglecting his studies at Princeton, he eventually earned a B.A. in history magna cum laude fromColumbia University’s School of General Studies in 1961.

By then, he had already become a working journalist, first at The Wall Street Journal, then at The Newport News Daily Press, where he moonlighted while stationed at Fort Monroe, Va., during a two-year hitch as an Army speechwriter. In 1961, he was hired as a writer on the overnight shift at NBC News in New York. He eventually became a writer and correspondent for NBC’s nightly newcast “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” covering civil rights and other stories and winning an Emmy award in 1963.
But all that was pale prologue to his career at The Times, where he rose rapidly and never looked back. He soon became Albany bureau chief and covered Robert Kennedy’s 1964 Senate campaign in New York. By 1966 he was bureau chief in Saigon as the Vietnam war escalated. He mastered the art of hitching rides to battle zones on military transport and dictating his dispatches over balky field telephones, and he brought a keen truth-detector to the daily military briefings known as the Five O’Clock Follies.

In his 1991 memoir, “Deadline,” James B. Reston, the longtime Times columnist and editor, recalled that Mr. Apple “didn’t invent the war but taught a whole generation how to cover it.” In 1968, he won George Polk and Overseas Press Club awards for his coverage before plunging into the war-fueled turmoil of the 1968 presidential campaign at home.

Mr. Apple would cover other wars and conflicts with distinction and panache, but it was as a political reporter that he cemented his reputation. He was in constant touch with scores of county chairmen, governors and mayors when they still dominated politics and almost unrivaled at counting noses, canvassing convention delegates and predicting election results. “Nineteen seventy-six was a spectacular performance on his part by any measure, but particularly those of us at The Washington Post felt he was on his game and making it really hard for us in Iowa,” said David S. Broder, the longtime Post columnist and reporter. “And it wasn’t just what Johnny saw in Iowa and the Carter campaign, but that he had enough confidence in his own judgment to write it really hard when nobody else was doing it.”

Many of Mr. Apple’s friends believed he deserved print journalism’s highest prize, the Pulitzer, for his work that year; though nominated for it many times, it was one of the few honors that eluded him. All the same, the journalism magazine MORE pronounced Mr. Apple “America’s most powerful political reporter” in 1976, a distinction he accepted with some trepidation. “I am frightened by it,” he told the magazine, “or perhaps awed is a better word. And I am very reluctant to throw it around in the newspaper.” He added: “I’m very ambivalent about the power I have and the way it’s used. Yet I would be transparently un-candid if I didn’t say I do enjoy it enormously.”

At the end of the 1976 campaign, Mr. Apple was named London bureau chief, a job he held until 1985. In that post he covered not only British politics but the Falklands war, elections in France and Spain, the Iranian revolution and the attempted assassination ofPope John Paul II. He traveled widely throughout Europe, exploring and writing about his interests in food, wine and architecture and amassing a wine cellar whose contents would animate dinner parties 25 years later.

On his return to Washington, he produced “Apple’s Europe,” an elegant, idiosyncratic, critically praised book of travel and restaurant tips that would become the model for “Apple’s America,” a similar guide to American cities published in 2005.
Mr. Apple’s first marriage, to Edith Smith, a former vice-consul in Saigon, ended in divorce. In 1982, he married the former Betsey Pinckney Brown, and she became his traveling companion, driver and partner at table, often introduced in his first-person food and travel articles as “my wife Betsey.” She survives him, as do two step-children from her first marriage, Catherine Brown Collins of Washington and John Brown of Alexandria, Va., and a sister, Barbara Pittman of Rockford, Ill.

Mr. Apple continued to cover politics through the 2004 election, first as chief Washington correspondent, then as Washington bureau chief, later as chief correspondent of The Times and, beginning in 2002, as associate editor, a title that reflected his unique status at the paper. But more and more often, he wrote about the topics that really compelled him — bourbon and bacon, potatoes and tomatoes, langoustines and mangosteens, barbecue and Bouillabaisse, New Orleans and New Zealand.

For his 70th birthday, he gathered friends at the Paris bistro Chez L’Ami Louis, which he often described as his favorite restaurant, for heaping plates of foie gras, roast chicken, escargots, scallops and pommes Anna, washed down with gallons of burgundy and magnums of Calvados.

Mr. Trillin, who later wrote about the evening for Gourmet, quoted one guest who summed up Mr. Apple’s attitude toward the party, and toward the rich, long life and career that produced it: “It’s my understanding that Apple has simplified what could be a terribly difficult choice by telling them to bring everything.”