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; C01

"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.

Legendary spending

He had Lauren Bacall over for dinner and was summoned to Barbra Streisand's hotel suite to chat and eat. Once, at a party in England, the Queen Mother asked Apple, her new acquaintance, if he'd be nice enough to instruct her butler how to make a proper martini. Ask about the Dale Chihuly piece in the living room, and Betsey tells about the time she, Johnny and some friends visited the artist's studio in Seattle. The story begins thus: "We were with Bob Mondavi and Julia Child . . . ."

Apple's penchant for epicurean excess and profligate spending became intertwined during his 43 years at the Times: Once, after a particularly expensive meal in London with Joseph Lelyveld, a colleague who would later become the paper's executive editor, Apple grabbed the dinner bill and said, "You'd better let me pay for that; they'll never believe it came from you."

This was back when newspaper companies weren't hemorrhaging money and shrinking their budgets and no one flinched if a star reporter insisted on four-star hotels and 10-course meals and guzzled fine wine as if it were iced tea. "No doubt that Apple spent more than other people and that he was indulged to a certain degree," Lelyveld says. "Johnny Apple would be impossible today, unfortunately."

But Apple, a one-man cost center at the Times, was "absolutely" worth the expense, Lelyveld adds. "Johnny was a phenomenon for decades, not just for spending, but for filing. His work was fabulous."

Apple covered the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, the revolutions in Iran and Nigeria, U.S. presidents and electoral politics before becoming the paper's globetrotting staff forager and writing about Texas grapefruits, Andean wine, Indian peppercorns and the Chesapeake Bay's soft-shell crabs. His epicurean interests were first stirred by a German grandmother who taught him to appreciate sweetbreads and to make noodles from scratch in Akron, Ohio, where he grew up.

Raymond Walter Apple met Betsey Pinckney Brown in 1968, at a Washington dinner party they attended with their respective spouses. Apple was just back from Vietnam and soon heading off to Africa. When he and his wife, Edith, eventually returned to Washington, they ran into Betsey and her attorney husband, Preston Brown, again. "We were all great friends," Betsey says. "And then two of us were better friends."

A D.C. scandal

In a New Yorker profile published several years ago, Johnny Apple told his friend Calvin Trillin: "Within a limited social circle in Washington, I think it would be fair to say that it was a brief but fairly vivid scandal." They waited eight years to wed, Betsey says now, "because I had two young children." (One of them, Catherine Collins, edited "Far Flung and Well Fed.") They married in London on July 14, 1982 -- "which I knew he wouldn't forget, because it was Bastille Day," Betsey says.

Johnny Apple was the son of a grocery-chain executive who pooh-poohed journalism as a career choice. Betsey grew up in Richmond, where her father was a physician, though her Southern roots go much deeper, back to South Carolina and the Rutledges and the Pinckneys. "My family represented the crown and literally turned coat," she says. Several of her ancestors signed the Constitution.

She worked for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace before becoming executive director of the Foreign Student Service Council. But beginning in the 1990s, she became best known as "my wife, Betsey," as Johnny described her in most of his food and travel dispatches.

"I do exist," she says. "I've met a lot of people over the years whose mouths have dropped, and they say -- I kid you not -- 'You're "my wife, Betsey!" ' I'm a star in my own soap opera or something."

The cameo credit never quite told the whole story, though, as she became her husband's co-planner on his extensive reporting trips, as well as his schedule minder, driver and calming counterbalance.

Mellowing influence

"She had a tremendous mellowing influence on him, especially in the last third of his career," says Vanity Fair national editor Todd Purdum, a former Timesman who worked under Apple in the Washington bureau and became close with the couple.

"He put a lot of demands on Betsey, it must be said, but she was the perfect partner for him. When he was stormy, she was calm. When he was rude, she was unfailingly polite. In the same way that Julia Child could not have been Julia Child without Paul, Johnny Apple could not have been Johnny Apple without Betsey."

Says Betsey: "Being with the big guy was unbelievably fun. But the person who always had the most fun was Johnny. He really lived large."

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