Washington Post journalist William Claiborne traveled the world to tell its stories

March 3, 2013

Shortly after 4 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1972, the telephone rang in William Claiborne’s home.

There was a crisis at the D.C. jail in Southeast Washington. Armed inmates had taken 11 guards hostage, and they eventually took D.C. Corrections Director Kenneth L. Hardy as an additional captive.

They were demanding freedom for themselves. And they also wanted Mr. Claiborne, a Washington Post reporter who had written about the city’s corrections system and the prison uprising at Attica, N.Y., as their go-between in negotiating with authorities.

Mr. Claiborne, who died March 1 at 77 at a hospital in Kew, Australia, was 36 at the time and hungry for a good story. In 10 minutes, a police scout car was waiting outside his home. Lights flashing, sirens sounding, it sped through darkened streets to the massive jail complex near RFK Stadium.

Through a peephole in a steel door, Mr. Claiborne saw a man holding “a snubnosed revolver to a guard’s head,” he wrote in the next day’s edition of The Post. “I was scared.”

For nine hours, Mr. Claiborne practiced his own brand of shuttle diplomacy, moving back and forth between the inmates and law enforcement authorities.

The standoff ended with the hostages being released unharmed in exchange for a promise of amnesty and an opportunity for the inmates to air their grievances before a judge.

In 1975, the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of nine prisoners on charges including attempted escape and armed kidnapping. The court found that a note offering amnesty signed by Hardy, the corrections official, was invalid because it was coerced under threat of violence.

For his stories about the jail, Mr. Claiborne made the shortlist for the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. The articles also made his reputation as a courageous journalist whose career would take him all over the world, covering everything from natural disasters to wars.

For 32 years, he was on the news staff of The Post but seldom reported from the nation’s capital. “Life in the home office,” he once wrote, “never suited me particularly well.”

He directed Post bureaus in Toronto, Johannesburg, New Delhi and Jerusalem and domestic ones in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. He joked of immersing himself so deeply in the Hollywood culture that he began pairing Armani jackets and Mickey Mouse T-shirts and signing off conversations with “Love ya, babe. Let’s do lunch sometime.”

The image was in stark contrast to Mr. Claiborne’s reputation as a journalistic emergency fireman, a rumpled veteran of conflict zones. While in New Delhi in the 1980s, he traveled often to Beirut to cover the civil war in Lebanon. While posted in Toronto in the early 1990s, he was sent to Somalia to cover fighting there. He also reported from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Mr. Claiborne was “resourceful in following leads wherever they took him,” colleague William Branigin wrote in a memorandum for this obituary.

In Lebanon in 1983, Branigin recalled, Mr. Claiborne interviewed a U.S. Marine whose unit was under fire from a Shiite Muslim militia post, then made his way across a no-man’s land to interview the Shiite Muslim militia leader. The result was a page-one story illustrating what Mr. Claiborne described as “Lebanon’s checkerboard of territorial sovereignty by gun.”

In 1985, hours after learning of the death of his 19-year-old daughter Sarah after a night of consuming alcohol and drugs at a party in New Delhi, Mr. Claiborne dictated a story by telephone from halfway around the world about a catastrophic cyclone and tidal wave in coastal Bangladesh.

“I can still remember the two of us crying on the phone,” recalled Michael Getler, a former Post editor who is now ombudsman of PBS. “He insisted on completing his story.”

William Livingston Claiborne was born Feb. 16, 1936, in New York City. In 1959, he graduated from what is now Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and spent his early journalism career at newspapers in Rochester, N.Y., and on Long Island.

He joined The Post in 1969 as a night city editor but soon threatened to quit unless he got a reporting job that would get him out of the office and preferably out of town. He joked that he essentially blackmailed his boss into a reporting slot by threatening to quit for a Ford Foundation fellowship.

Mr. Claiborne gained his moment in the public spotlight over the D.C. jail story and the resulting turmoil over a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.

In 1973, jurors for the annual journalism awards unanimously recommended that Mr. Claiborne win for best local spot news “for his enterprising, incisive and courageous reporting” that “represents the high ideals of the Pulitzer Prize.”

It was one of three Pulitzers recommended by the jurors for The Washington Post that year. But the Pulitzer advisory board, which outranks the Pulitzer jury, decided to give The Post an additional prize for its Watergate coverage. This would have meant four Pulitzers for The Post, which at the time was more than any newspaper had received in a single year.

The award to Mr. Claiborne and another recommended for The Post for international reporting were withdrawn. Because of the on-again-off-again status of his award, Mr. Claiborne joked that he would probably be better remembered for the prize he did not win than for the many others he did win.

After retiring from The Post in 2001, Mr. Claiborne settled in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife, the former Alma Morse, whom he married in 1961. Other survivors include a daughter, Lisa B. Claiborne of Melbourne; a sister; a half-brother; two half-sisters; and three granddaughters.

His death, from lung cancer, was confirmed by his wife.

To his many domestic and foreign assignments, Mr. Claiborne brought an old bugle, which was an occasional source of entertainment at late-night parties.

The bugle also was handy one night in the early 1980s when Mr. Claiborne was posted in India. He discovered that the night watchman he had hired to guard his home and office was sleeping on the job.

In the darkness Mr. Claiborne, bugle in hand, crept outside to a spot close to the dozing watchman. He raised the horn to his lips and blew reveille. Startled, the guard, an Indian army veteran, leapt to his feet, snapped a salute and shouted, “Duty, sir!”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.