I first met Marshall Frady in the Sinai desert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when we shared the back seat of a Russian-made Egyptian Army jeep. Four months later we met again in Mexico City, this time as partners. We had successfully pitched Playboy magazine a long interview with Fidel Castro, and the editors sent us to the Mexican capital to negotiate with the Cuban Embassy.
At 23 years old, a decade less than Marshall, I was very much the junior partner. I was just barely breaking into journalism. Marshall, however–born in Augusta, Georgia, and educated at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina–had already made his bones having turned out stirring, street-level chronicles of the civil rights movement for Newsweek and The Saturday Evening Post. His 1968 biography of George Wallace had been an instant classic. And a short, stormy stint as a staff writer at Harper’s Magazine had established Marshall as one of America’s most gifted and mesmerizing practitioners of literary journalism.
Clearly echoing the dramatic, emotive Sunday morning oratory that he was constantly exposed to as the son of a Southern preacher, Marshall’s writing rang with almost biblical authority, crackling with insight, sparkling with wit and often overwhelming the reader with the sheer depth of character he was able to evoke.
Planning to be in Mexico only three days, I brought along my wife. Indeed, Patricia–whom I had met in Chile the year before–had arrived in the United States on a fiancée visa a few weeks before. We were going to get married at some point. But an hour before boarding the plane to Mexico we signed the papers so she could re-enter the United States as a resident.
This stolen honeymoon à trois–my wife and I and Marshall in the room next door in the Hotel Geneve–stretched into an amazing fifty-seven days. By day we would sit waiting for the Cubans to give us the go-ahead to Havana. By night, the three of us would dine, drink, dance and drink some more–all on Playboy‘s generous tab. Marshall would regale us with his reporter’s war stories and we would sit gimlet-eyed (so to speak).
“Cooper,” Marshall announced one day (his Southern pronunciation making it sound more like “Cupper”), “time to get serious. Time to write some books.” Without my knowing it, Marshall had rented us two IBM Selectric typewriters. The plan, he also announced, was for him to write a proposal for his next book–a bio of Billy Graham. My task, he told me, was to write a proposal for a book about my experiences in Chile as translator to President Salvador Allende.
I had no idea how to proceed. But Marshall had his own special discipline. The afternoon the typewriters arrived he went to the pharmacy next door to the hotel and bought–as you could back then–a roll of amphetamine tablets. Then he bought a fifth of J&B and, at sunset, locked himself in his room.
The next morning when I fetched him for breakfast, I was stunned to see he had been up all night. The wrappers for the speed were empty. As was the bottle of scotch. Crumpled paper littered the room. “Look, I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” he said as he handed me a single piece of paper.
No more than ten single-spaced lines were on the page. But I don’t think I had ever read 150 more compelling words. I refuse to butcher his work by even attempting to quote them. But I simply couldn’t believe that anyone could take so long to so meticulously craft two paragraphs and that, in turn, so few words could say so much.
Under Marshall’s prodding I banged out a twenty-page book proposal. And then I sat transfixed when–for two entire days–Marshall went over each line with me, forcing me to rethink, re-edit and rewrite. I learned more in those forty-eight hours than I could have soaked up in four years of any writing program. And I had a lot to learn. (He correctly told my wife, in confidence, that while I showed promise, it would take me probably another ten years to find my journalistic voice).
We never made it to Cuba, by the way. Playboy ate the $17,000 expense bill without as much as a grumble. Marshall went on to write the Graham book and several others. He won an Emmy for his work at the now-defunct ABC News Closeup. His reports for The New Yorker in the early 1990s were downright startling (until he ran afoul of the Terrible Tina Brown). When, in 1993, I finished reading his account of Bill Clinton’s decision to execute a mentally retarded prisoner for political expediency, all I could do was close the magazine and cry. His biographies of Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. are master works. When Marshall Frady succumbed to cancer this week he was working on a definitive biography of Castro.
Marshall was simply was one of the greatest social justice journalists of the past fifty years. His passion was outmatched only by his awesome talent. Yet he never sought notoriety. Other than in his role as ABC correspondent and as a sometime commentator on Nightline, I don’t believe I ever saw him on television. He wanted no part of the televised shouting matches that today pass themselves off as public discourse.
I kept in touch with Marshall over the years, though not nearly as much as I should have. But I can honestly say that every time I sit down to write, I feel him looking over my shoulder and patiently pointing out a better way to say things. From those first days in Mexico, I knew I would never achieve the pitch-perfect lucidity that whistled through his work. But whatever I have modestly done–all that I have accomplished in thirty years as a journalist–I owe to those fifty-seven days with Marshall Frady.