The Legendary Annals of Peter Kihss
By Robert D. McFadden
Pat Burns/The New York Times (1965)
A consummate performance by Peter Kihss who pounded out the story of the Great Northeast Blackout of November 10, 1965 lit only by candlelight and fierce determination. Depicted are, left to right, A.M. Rosenthal, Peter Kihss, baldish man seen leanig over desk to the left, Sheldon Binn, Arthur Gelb, glasses, hand lifted to head, Dick Witkin and Bayard Webster, in the third floor newsroom of The New York Times.
Courtesy of Robert D. McFadden
Peter Kihss, his gentle essence captured so magnificently by an unknown artist, is a legend to whom great journalists aspire.
By Robert D. McFadden
Here he comes: long-legged, gangly, sweeping into the newsroom in his rumpled old jacket, the awful necktie askew, smudged glasses all but falling off his nose. His shoulders are stooped, as if compensating for the too-tall frame and the big baldish head. His collar, as usual, is frayed. He looks more like an Old World clockmaker than one of America’s best reporters.
As he confers with editors in the flickering candlelight at the city desk, Peter Kihss flips open his notebook, filled with scribbles in the tiny, spidery hand of a Depression kid saving paper. He has an agreeable smile, despite the hopeless situation.
It is the night of Nov. 9, 1965, and the biggest power failure in history has plunged New York City and parts of nine states and two Canadian provinces – some 25 million people – into darkness. Chaos rules the streets. Thousands are trapped on subways. Across the Northeast, planes are circling in the dark, and engineers are struggling to figure out what went wrong and how to restore the dead power grid.
The blocklong newsroom of The New York Times, too, is a maelstrom of excitement and confusion. Banks of typewriters thunder away. Editors and reporters shout. Copyboys race up the aisles. The clocks are out, and the deadline looms. But in the golden glow of the candles, Peter is calm. He moves to his front-row desk, settles behind the typewriter and cradles a phone at his ear.
Then something magical happens. The kindly eyes turn serious. The gentle voice takes on authority. His hands move on the keyboard – big hands with long fingers as powerful and subtle as a telegrapher’s. He hunches over the steel desk to read his tiny cursive notes, and starts to write.
He types with astonishing speed and precision, the takes rolling out, graf by graf, the color and detail piling up, the story rising to life. By morning, a million readers of The Times will take their coffee with a dazzlingly comprehensive, analytic and dramatic account of the blackout, of what happened to the people as well as to the power grid. It is a typically distinguished Kihss performance.
Peter Kihss – the Latvian name is pronounced KEYS – died 23 years ago, at 72. To those too young to have known him, he may seem as distant as Ernie Pyle. But to those of us old enough to remember, he is as vivid in memory as if it were only yesterday that he swept in with his kind determined face to pound out the news, and to inspire us with his selflessness.
In a career that began in 1933 after his graduation from Columbia University, Peter worked for The Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York World-Telegram, The New York Herald Tribune and finally, for 30 years until his retirement in 1982, for The New York Times.
For nearly a half-century, he covered the news with a tenacity that awed competitors and colleagues. He often handled the big breaking stories – urban riots, plane crashes, blizzards, elections – but his daily bread-and-butter was the general-assignment: city and state government affairs, transportation, labor, education, utilities, crimes and fires, civil liberties fights, obituaries and myriad other subjects.
As a World-Telegram reporter, he once confronted Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia on the steps of City Hall, asking why he had helped a former official get back on the city payroll to qualify for a pension.
The mayor flew into a rage. “I’m going to throw you right down the steps,” he shouted, grabbing Peter’s arm.
“Mr. Mayor,” Peter roared back. “I don’t care what you say. Four hundred thousand readers of The World-Telegram want to know, and that’s why I’m asking!”
There was a sudden silence in the crowd, and Peter realized he had seized the stocky little mayor and lifted him into the air. “I put him down – gently – and went quietly into Room 9,” he recalled, referring to the City Hall press room. Mayor and reporter later laid the matter to rest.
In 1956, Peter found himself facing a hostile white crowd in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he had gone to cover Autherine Lucy’s enrollment as the first black in the 125-year history of the University of Alabama.
“Let’s kill her! Let’s kill her!” someone shouted.
Eggs were thrown, and some hit Ms. Lucy and Peter, who whirled to confront the mob.
“If anybody wants to start something,” he roared, “let’s go!”
(Ms Lucy was suspended after three days, ostensibly for her own safety, as mobs threatened wider violence. She was later expelled. But in 1992, Autherine Lucy Foster and her daughter, Grazia, received degrees together at the University of Alabama commencement, a story Peter would have loved to cover.)
He was an investigative reporter before anyone knew the term; a beacon of fairness and accuracy in an age when critics took the press to task for arrogance and carelessness; a tireless believer in legwork and cross-checking his countless sources, who trusted him because he tried never to misrepresent them.
He searched for human dramas behind ponderous welfare statistics and government reports. Many of his best articles focused on ordinary people –immigrants, the poor, victims snared in bureaucracies, the personalities behind the masks of politicians and celebrities. He wrote hundreds of articles a year, often two or three a day – 140 in his last year, when he was 70 and losing his eyesight.
And he was never too busy to share his notes in the street or to mentor a young reporter in the newsroom.
“Peter never shooed us away, even when he was on deadline – his calm under pressure was also legendary,” Sydney H. Schanberg wrote in a post-mortem column in The Times. “He kept files that could make the clippings morgue look puny. He could tell you who the city sanitation commissioner had been in 1949 and then provide you with his current telephone number. More often than not, an interview with Peter was the most valuable research a reporter could do on a story.”
Peter wasn’t angelic, as Schanberg noted. He had a temper, often arguing with editors who wanted to make changes in his stories that he felt distorted their meaning, and he sometimes threatened to quit. “His ethics were scrupulous to the point of being maddening,” Schanberg recalled. “He would argue that he should not be paid while on earned sick leave because he wasn’t producing anything.”
Stubbornly self-effacing, Peter called himself just a reporter. But as I wrote in his 1984 obituary: “He was, by nearly every standard of American journalism, an ideal reporter: thorough, fast, tenacious and objective, with an encyclopedic memory, voluminous contacts and the ability to write with speed, grace and a towering calm against a deadline.”
He was the recipient of many awards – from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Sigma Delta Chi journalism society, the New York Newspaper Guild, the New York Press Club and the Society of the Silurians. He was nominated four times for Pulizter Prizes, but never won that honor. His laurels, however, are only a small part of who he was and why we honor him.
The Society’s Peter Kihss Award cites his journalistic achievements, his willingness to mentor young reporters and his dedication to the enduring principles of fairness, accuracy and integrity. But the award also celebrates the humanity of a modest and deeply principled man.
On a bookshelf at home, I keep a small portrait of Peter. It’s not a work of art, just a line drawing of a gentle face that reaches out across the years. It’s a reminder of who he was and what he stood for, but also of who I am – who we all are, perhaps – and of our obligations to this hard business we’ve chosen.