Abraham Michael Rosenthal had a youth that was almost Dickensian in its series of tragedies. Born in Canada, he was the son of a utopian socialist who changed his name from Shipiatski to Rosenthal on coming to America. The father became a house painter and died after falling from a scaffolding.

Thin, shy and bookish, young Abe also suffered from osteomyelitis, walking on crutches or with a cane as a teen-ager. The medical treatment he received initially made his condition worse, and he began to walk in a reasonably normal way only when one of his five older sisters persuaded the Mayo Clinic to take him as a charity case.

Rosenthal has recounted that his oldest sister died after she ran home from the subway stop on a cold winter night fleeing from a degenerate who exposed himself. Two other sisters died of cancer.

His favorite sister, Ruth, was an early hero. A member of the Young Communist League, she married another member of the league who fought in the Spanish Civil War. She died two weeks after the birth of her first child of complications unnoticed by her doctors while she had been at the hospital.

Rosenthal started working for The Times while he was still a student at City College in New York and joined the staff in 1944. He made his mark covering the early days of the United Nations, then went overseas, reporting from India, Poland, Switzerland and Tokyo. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his reporting from Poland.

In 1963, Rosenthal returned to New York to be metropolitan editor. He was appointed assistant managing editor in 1966, associate managing editor in 1968, managing editor in 1969 and executive editor in 1977.

As Rosenthal approaches retirement, he has also made a major change in his personal life. The father of three children, Rosenthal has separated from his wife of 36 years, Ann Marie. Living in an apartment in Manhattan, he is dating and has become a regular in New York's cultural and media social scene.

Friends say that recently Rosenthal has been traveling more, touring bureaus in the Middle East, Europe and Asia in the last year. One Times executive believes Rosenthal "is genuinely trying to back off a little bit to give his saplings a chance to grow" over the next 18 months.

His way of backing off may be simply to stay out of the building and even the country to let the next generation slip onto center stage.