David W. Dunlap is a Metro reporter and writes the Building Blocks column. He has worked at The Times for 39 years.
Many of our colleagues are approaching the end of their Times careers this week in the latest of several rounds of buyouts and layoffs in Times history.
They may represent the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever left The New York Times in a single day — with the possible exception of when Carr Vattel Van Anda stepped away on Jan. 24, 1925.
If there were ever an indispensable Timesman, Van Anda would have been it; chosen as managing editor by Adolph Ochs in 1904 to lead the paper into the 20th century from its new home on Times Square. In partnership, the publisher and his editor forged the DNA that still shapes The Times: an emphasis on foreign news, an abiding interest in science and a willingness to throw almost unbounded resources at stories of great importance.
Van Anda was brilliant, decisive, indefatigable, coldly demanding and insatiably curious. He was also a gambler — although he didn’t see it that way — as he synthesized scraps of information on deadline to produce exclusives that were the envy of the world press.
Van Anda was in his office on April 14, 1912, as he was almost every night from 10 o’clock on to shepherd the paper personally through each edition. An Associated Press bulletin from Cape Race, Newfoundland, arrived at 1:20 a.m. “The White Star Line steamship Titanic called ‘CQD’ to the Marconi station here, and reported having struck an iceberg,” it said.
In “The Story of The New York Times, 1851-1951,” Meyer Berger described what happened next: “Cold reasoning told him she was gone. Paralyzing as the thought was, he acted on it.”
“Van Anda was not playing a mere newspaper hunch,” Berger wrote. “He never went on that alone. He was satisfied that there could be but one answer to the Titanic’s silence so soon after her SOS.”
“While editors on other morning sheets were figuring cautious heads about ‘rumors’ of harm to the Titanic, and hedging even on known facts, The Times news chief wrote a bold four-line three-column front page head: ‘New Liner Titanic Hits an Iceberg; Sinking by the Bow at Midnight; Women Put Off in Lifeboats; Last Wireless at 12:27 A.M. Blurred.’ ”
Yes, Van Anda even wrote his own headlines, often on the composing room floor.
The Times’s Titanic coverage would have secured any editor’s reputation, but the Van Anda legend was burnished to dazzling during the World War, when its correspondents seemed perpetually to have a one-day beat on their competitors.
Conspiring with the chief Paris correspondent, Wythe Williams, Van Anda deduced an impending change in the French high command in 1916. Their cryptic cables referred only to “Brooks’ man” — code for Gen. Philippe Pétain, who had recently been profiled in a Collier’s Weekly article by Alden Brooks. The French censors were clueless.
“Brooks’ man wants too much,” Williams cabled. “Think it best to consider his assistant.”
From such morsels, Van Anda constructed the exclusive story that Gen. Joseph Joffre would step down as French commander in chief on the Western Front and that his likely successor would be a subordinate to General Pétain, as Pétain himself had demanded too much power.
Van Anda’s deciphering abilities went much further. Versed in hieroglyphics, he convinced himself by examining a photograph that a stele ascribed to the pharaoh Horemheb was in fact produced by his predecessor Tutankhamen. “The evidences of Horemheb’s forgeries are all over it,” Van Anda wrote, and proceeded to deconstruct a couple of suspect cartouches.
No less adept in modern science as in ancient Egyptology, Van Anda challenged a transcription of a lecture by Albert Einstein at Princeton University in May 1921 about the theory of relativity. An abstract had been provided to The Times by Prof. E. A. Adams.
“The Times called me up before going to press and asked me whether there was not a mistake,” Dean Christian Gauss of Princeton wrote. “Adams looked up his notes and said: ‘No, that is what Einstein said.’ I told Adams that I took Mr. Van Anda very seriously. Adams worked at the matter a little, called me back and said: ‘I am going to call up Dr. Einstein. I think perhaps Van Anda is right.’
“When Einstein was consulted, he was very much surprised, looked up the matter himself and then said: ‘Yes, Mr. Van Anda is right. I made a slip in transcribing the equation on the board.’ ”
Van Anda stepped down in 1925 for what was to be a “long recuperative vacation” and ended up, effectively, as his retirement, although he did not relinquish the title of managing editor until 1932. He died in his Park Avenue apartment on Jan. 28, 1945, at the age of 80, only hours after learning of the death of his 58-year-old daughter, Blanche Van Anda.
Even Ochs said as much, Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones recounted in “The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times.” When the publisher’s pride was wounded by a Van Anda biography that seemed to overlook Ochs’s role, the publisher called his managing editor an “important cog in a big machine, but not the whole machine.”
No one is indispensable at The Times. Few are even remembered much longer than their last day. In the newspaper’s final years at 229 West 43rd Street, Van Anda’s office had become a canteen with a couple of temperamental vending machines, a photocopier that often broke down and a television that usually played to an empty room.
Source: The New York Times