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Journalist Gloria Emerson Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page B06

Gloria Emerson, 75, one of the small band of female journalists who covered the Vietnam War and whose subsequent books continued to document the turmoil and tragedy of war, died in an apparent suicide Aug. 3 at her apartment in New York.

Ms. Emerson had Parkinson's disease, friends said, and left notes in her Manhattan home indicating that she took her life. The New York medical examiner said yesterday the cause of death had not yet been determined.

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She came late to the Vietnam War, working there from 1970 to 1972. Her articles in the New York Times showed the human cost of war in excruciating detail and won a George Polk Award for excellence in foreign reporting, but ultimately they seemed too measured and too short-lived for her. Ms. Emerson turned to magazine writing, and then to books. Her nonfiction account about Vietnam and America's reaction to it, "Winners and Losers" (1976), won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1978.

"If I hadn't married," Jackie Kennedy Onassis once said, "I might have had a life very much like Gloria Emerson's."

Ms. Emerson wrote with passion about people caught up in the machinery of war, most often in Vietnam, but also in Biafra, Belfast and Gaza. She never got over Vietnam, and she was determined that the reading public would not forget, either.

"I didn't write to be famous; I wrote to keep a record," she told The Washington Post in 1991. She was among those who blew the whistle on false body counts, on the practice of bestowing medals on high-ranking officers who never saw combat, and on the ease with which troops bought heroin and other drugs.

"I could not abide [high U.S. military officials]. I saw them as very dangerous, treacherous people who would lie at the drop of a hat. And they weren't so crazy to see me, either. They didn't like women floating around. They were collaborators in the fraud, the military," she told a PBS documentary in 2003. "There were one or two officers who might have been marvelous, but it was not my good luck to know them."

She was an "obscurely famous" writer, the Post story said, a character in novelist Ward Just's short story "Journalism" whose torrid love affairs were legendary but who barely spoke of her two former husbands.

She gave homeless veterans money and smuggled antibiotics into Vietnam for children, sending them through airline pilots. "She was very oriented to individuals," said a longtime friend, Dick Hughes. "She always had something she finagled to help out."

Ms. Emerson was a native of Manhattan, from a blueblood family that lost its fortune, a thin, six-foot-tall woman who spoke in precise tones but who was, in her own words: "Bossy. Ill-tempered. Ferocious. Put all of that down. Do you have it?"

She freelanced in Saigon in 1956 and remembered it later as a city of trees, boulevards and flowers, full of gaiety. Fifteen years later, she said, it was "malignant, cruel, crowded, costly and furtive, but never gay."

Her 1957 employment application to the New York Times said she was a widow and her married name was Znamiecki, and that was all that friends knew of her first husband.

At the Times, Ms. Emerson worked on the women's news section, where "a dazzling array of talent was kept six floors away from the news department," said a former colleague, copy editor Betsy Wade. Ms. Emerson, although grateful for the job, loathed writing about shoes and clothes.

She left in 1960 to marry Charles A. Brofferio and live in Brussels. They divorced in 1961. The Times rehired her in 1964 for its Paris bureau, specifically to cover the haute couture collections twice a year. There she met Vietnamese political exiles, learned about their conflicts and differing loyalties, and "often sought solace in Vietnamese restaurants in Paris over countless bowls of noodle soup," she wrote in her own obituary.


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