On Murray Kempton (1917–1997)

For some years Murray Kempton lived, as I do, on West 67th Street in Manhattan and so he was not only a friend but a neighbor. Every day of his adult life Murray wrote, since he was a practicing journalist with nightly deadlines to be met. When he was not at his desk, he was sure to be talking in a rather stately but never dominating manner. I sometimes met him when he was going off to work in the morning. There at the curb I never heard him speak of the weather even though in New York there is likely to be too much or too little of whatever mean is thought desirable. Instead, without preface, he would begin: “I don’t know what to make of Philip Larkin’s unpleasant letters. All that stuff about wogs and blacks is just a pose, because clever people like to pretend to be worse than they are.” Or if he had his earphones on he might say: Perhaps there is something Nazi about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s singing, but anyway God bless her.

Part of Murray’s refinement was to be generous to the thieving and polite to the perfidious. In his loquacious individuality there was an absence of vehemence, all the more striking in a moralist, which he was, as well as being more or less a man of the left. In lacking the instinct or habit of vehemence of opinion he was free of the woeful predictability of ideologues of both the left and the right. The grudge, the storehouse of rancor, was not his style and perhaps in that way he was a little out-of-date in the present hyperbolic atmosphere. There he was in his Brooks Brothers suit, shirt, and tie, toting his pipe and briefcase, costumed for, perhaps, some minor but consoling corporate position. But solvency was hardly his fate since he was one who always managed to take on more obligation than income.

His prose style—there’s that, noticeable as his very curly hair. Of course, Murray lived among and worked with colleagues who also had a style, which in the zoo of the arts is a sort of protective coloring like the stripes of a zebra. A demotic, urban, rapid mode is a gift but also an accomplishment, personal and defining, street-smart and artful—Jimmy Breslin comes to mind. Murray also went down to the courthouse, knew the pols, and gave thought to the felons, although what he wrote about those encountered there perhaps they could not always parse. In his columns, his style was closer to the nineteenth-century English historians and essayists than to the moderate cadence of, for instance, Walter Lippmann. I once or twice talked with him about the possible influence on his manner of the great Macauley. His reply would go something like this: I would not deign to hang my ragged pantaloons on the swallowtail coat of a lord.

After much procrastination, or perhaps modest reluctance for whatever reason, he …

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