R.W. Apple; N.Y. Times Writer Covered War, Politics and Food

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006

R.W. Apple Jr., 71, a New York Times war correspondent who distinguished himself in Vietnam and became an influential political writer and roving epicure, died Oct. 4 at his apartment in Washington. He had thoracic cancer.

Over his 43-year career at the newspaper, Mr. Apple made prolific, aggressive and erudite coverage his signature. His rare twin journalistic talents were covering politics and food. He charted the fall of President Richard M. Nixon and reported on the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of Eastern Bloc governments. He also illuminated the differences between regional hot dog specialties and the worth of Vidalia onions for the expense-account set.

"From his sickbed he hammered out his last words to readers . . . negotiated details of the menu and music for his memorial service, followed the baseball playoffs and the latest congressional scandal with relish," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote in a memo to his staff. "He was himself to the last."

Mr. Apple set a spectacular pace for himself that endeared him to many of his paper's executives and editors but made him much envied and, at times, resented by peers. His brusque personality did not smooth matters.

Well-rounded in more ways than one, "Johnny" Apple was instantly recognizable for his girth as well as his knowledge of politics, sports, grand opera, fine wine and rich food. While traveling on assignment, where experience might tell some reporters to pack water or extra batteries, Mr. Apple never neglected to bring along a pepper mill.

A colleague once said Mr. Apple had "the best mind and the worst body in American journalism." Joining the Times in 1963, he became bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He filed articles that challenged the military brass's sunny assessment of the war's evolution. He said his favorite was an account in 1967 that reported a "stalemate" between American and Communist forces, writing "it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening."

Mr. Apple once said President Lyndon B. Johnson "went bananas" when the article "put the word 'stalemate' into the debate in this country." The commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, dismissed Mr. Apple, saying he "is probably bucking for a Pulitzer Prize."

Although that award eluded him, Mr. Apple received other prestigious honors for his Vietnam reportage, including the George Polk and the Overseas Press Club awards.

He went on to write about conflicts in Biafra and the Falkland Islands and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He also was a veteran of U.S. presidential campaigns and one of the first to recognize that the Iowa presidential caucus was a solid gauge of presidential potential. This caucus gave him early insight that Jimmy Carter, a little-known peanut farmer and Georgia governor, had a realistic chance to win the White House.

Within the Times, Mr. Apple was revered for his mastery of the "Q-head," the paper's name for the analytical sidebar to a major news event that adds historical context.

At 6 one night, he received an order from the foreign desk for a Q-head and was strongly urged to incorporate the phrase "Not since Versailles . . ." about the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Mr. Apple protested, saying his stepdaughter's wedding rehearsal dinner was to start in 90 minutes. He then filed his article in an hour.

"It was written in clear English," his friend Calvin Trillin wrote in a 2003 New Yorker magazine profile of Mr. Apple. "It had historical references to Salt II and the Panama Canal treaties and the tension between Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge during the formation of the League of Nations. It was one thousand one hundred and seventy-one words long. Eleven of those words were, like a tip of the hat to [the editor], 'Not since the Versailles Treaty was voted down in November 1919 . . .' "

Raymond Walter Apple Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1934, in Akron, Ohio. His father ran a statewide chain of grocery stores and never forgave his son for dedicating himself to another line of work. Until he died, his father would tell associates that his son was "in New York typing for a living."

First smitten with journalism as a teenager, Mr. Apple saw as his hero during high school James Reston, the Times' Washington columnist and Q-head pioneer.

Mr. Apple saw himself as a worldly Midwesterner who had entered journalism for the same reason many join the military or, in the romantic fashion of generations past, hop a freighter to the South Seas. "Travel," he once said, "was my ticket out of a hometown that I didn't very much like."

Expelled twice from Princeton University for shortchanging his studies in favor of the school paper, Mr. Apple graduated from Columbia University with a degree in history in 1961. He worked briefly at the Wall Street Journal, then at the Newport News Daily Press. He served in the Army, writing speeches for generals.

In 1961, he was hired by NBC News, eventually reporting on the civil rights movement for "The Huntley-Brinkley Report," where he won an Emmy.

Hired by the Times, he took to the job with such enthusiasm that he had 73 front page bylines in his first year. But he offended colleagues by saying he was being paid more than all but the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Homer Bigart.

Other anecdotes abounded about Mr. Apple's blowhard tendencies -- which continued to dog him as Washington bureau chief in the 1990s -- but Mr. Apple's abilities were beyond question.

Starting in 1976, Mr. Apple spent nearly a decade as London bureau chief. Beyond managing daily news flow, he began travel writing and restaurant reviews, which would consume the last part of his career. Many of his pieces appeared in his travel book "Apple's Europe, an Uncommon Guide" (1986).

As a food writer, Mr. Apple gorged on crab in Baltimore or slurped soup dumplings in Shanghai. From Thekkady, India, he once filed nearly 3,500 words about pepper, noting the payment in pepper made to Alaric the Visigoth for sparing Rome and the spice-trade fortune of Elihu Yale, for whom the university is named.

No matter the assignment, Mr. Apple was not in the habit of denying himself a sumptuous hotel stay or grand dinner, often on the dime of the Sulzberger family, which owns the Times.

After one feast in London with his managing editor, Mr. Apple saw the enormous tab and insisted on breaking protocol by picking up the bill. "You'd better let me get that," he said. "They'd never believe it coming from you."

His marriage to Edith Smith Apple, a former U.S. vice consul in Saigon, ended in divorce. In 1982, he married Betsy Pinckney Brown Apple of Washington, who survives him, along with two stepchildren, Catherine Brown Collins of Washington and John Brown of Alexandria, and a sister.

Mr. Apple once wrote in the Times, "I travel to eat," and foremost to learn about "the best local stuff -- the mangosteens in Southeast Asia and the baby soles in Belgium, the morels in upstate Michigan and the quail in Texas."

He added: "It doesn't matter from my point of view how haute the grub is if it's good. The chocolate cream pie in a cafe in Hampton, Va., when I was in the Army, and the fresh shrimp at the Elite in Montgomery, Ala., during the civil-rights movement, and the ugly little strawberries with the beautiful big flavor in Dalat in the Vietnamese Highlands all provided plenty of incentive for me to hit the road, Jack, even when duty did not call."

Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.

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