R.W. Apple's wife prepares to auction the legendary reporter's wine collection

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010

"Oh my goodness, the guy lived so large," Betsey Apple is saying. She is in her kitchen in Georgetown, studying a photo of her late husband, the fabled New York Times political correspondent and food anthropologist known to readers as R.W. Apple Jr. and to just about everybody else as "Johnny."

The snapshot captures the journalist with the famously prodigious appetite and enviably enormous expense account in his element: at the end of yet another marathon meal at some fabulous Tuscan restaurant on a summer day several years back. He is wearing a sated, nearly saturated look. There are a staggering number of glasses on the table. "Notice there's no wine left in them," Betsey says.

Despite his most Dionysian efforts, Johnny Apple didn't actually drink the world dry. When he died of complications from thoracic cancer in 2006, at 71, he still had hundreds of unopened bottles of fine wine (some much finer than others) stored at his weekend retreat in Gettysburg, Pa., and his main residence, an old Georgetown house.

Betsey Apple is now preparing to sell those bottles, through an auction house or to an individual collector. No matter who winds up with the wine, the five-figure transaction will be freighted with nostalgia.

More than three years after Johnny Apple expensed his final movable feast, his favorite dinner date, Betsey Apple, 66, is still dealing with the remnants of her husband's extraordinary career and Falstaffian life, along with a vast emotional void.

"Some of the bottles take on a really particular sort of heart-tugging," she says with a proper Southern lilt. "But I'm trying to be a grown-up and move on. Inanimate objects should not take on such a strong life of their own. I have to deal with reality and not memories."

Some pricey vintages

And besides: "There's too much of it. And some of it is very fancy," including two bottles of 1945 Chateau Lafite, a rare Bordeaux that generally sells for $2,000 or more, and dozens of other bottles worth hundreds of dollars each. (And yes, Betsey says, they all belonged to her husband and not to his employer, an important distinction given that he was a legendary expense account artist who may or may not have buried a fur coat on one of his expense reports when he was posted in Moscow.)

"I can't sit down to drink bottles that cost enormous amounts of money without feeling very guilty," she says. "And I can use the money to put a new roof on the farm in Gettysburg and get some storm windows and sexy things like that."

Betsey has thought about putting their cottage in the English Midlands on the market, though, given the economy, she's much more likely to sell some of the collectibles her husband amassed in Gettysburg. "How many lemonade sets do you need?" she says. (How many do you have? "Probably five.") She hoots. "Johnny was a great enthusiast of many things -- Rookwood pottery, European metals, Arts and Crafts -- but it's just too, too much."

She's also preparing to offer his papers to Princeton, "even though he got kicked out not once, but twice!" for spending more time on the campus newspaper than on his studies. (He eventually graduated -- from Columbia.) And she's been donating chunks of his voluminous book collection -- cases of titles on politics and history, plus the cookbooks and wine books.

There's a book to sell, too: "Far Flung and Well Fed," a new collection of more than 50 of Apple's dispatches from the front lines of food. "It's odd to say Johnny's got a new book out, when he's been dead for three years," Betsey says. She sighs. "I'm out there flogging it, but promoting it without the big guy is a killer." Especially, she says, because "I'm sort of a private person. And Johnny was not."

Johnny Apple rather enjoyed being Johnny Apple, once noting that he had "very little desire to be bland and monochrome." A boisterous, blustery presence with an outsize ego that often grated on colleagues and competitors even as he charmed others, he was friends with architects and artists, philosophers and potentates, including Nelson Rockefeller, with whom he shared an interest in art, and Sen. John McCain, whom he met aboard the USS Forrestal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company