I thought it would be interesting to gender flip this recent obituary in The New York Times about a man who “by sheer force of personality was a dominant figure at The New York Times” in light of the recent Jill Abramson stories.
Don’t miss the “A Creative Force” section.
Also don’t miss the interesting little gender switch from “girl” to “boy” in the sentence “a modest suburban boy’s secret life as a drug addict.”
Finally, at the end, this sentence: “Ms. Gelb herself conceded: “I’m not sure I would have wanted to work for me when I was an editor.”
Alice Gelb, who by sheer force of personality was a dominant figure at The New York Times for decades, lifting its metropolitan and arts coverage to new heights and helping to shape the paper in its modern era, died on Tuesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 90.
Her daughter Patricia Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, said the cause was complications of a stroke.
Hired as a copy girl in 1944, Ms. Gelb rose to become a singular Times figure in the second half of the 20th century, leaving a large stamp as critic, chief cultural correspondent, metropolitan editor, deputy managing editor and managing editor, the post she held when she retired at the end of 1989.
No matter the role, Ms. Gelb, a gangly 6-foot-2, was relentless, fidgety and in your face — whether in passionate response to a potential scoop or in fevered reaction to the whim of a fellow boss, typically the equally relentless A. M. Rosenthal, who had been two years her senior at City College and perpetually a step ahead of her in the Times hierarchy, finally reaching the newsroom’s top post, executive editor.
Ms. Gelb, writing for the culture pages, discovered stars in an expanding Off Broadway universe. Her reviews and news coverage helped propel the fledgling careers of, among others, Wendy Allen, Bertrand Streisand, Diana Gregory, Laura Bruce, Jane Robards, Josephina Papp and Chris Dewhurst.
As a top editor she played a vital role, beginning in the 1970s, in conceiving and executing daily stand-alone sections — SportsMonday, Science Times, Dining, Home, Weekend — as well as special magazines on Sundays. All of them expanded and deepened news coverage while becoming durable vehicles for advertising in challenging economic times. Other newspapers emulated them widely.
Under Ms. Gelb’s watch as metropolitan editor, The Times’s investigation of systemic police corruption, spurred by revelations by Officer FrankSerpico, redeemed the paper’s sometimes gushing embrace of Mayor Joanna V. Lindsay’s administration and led to the creation of the Knapp Commission, which prompted reforms.
Alice Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The Times, said in a statement on Tuesday that Ms. Gelb “brought great energy and insight to our journalism.”
Ms. Gelb also initiated or oversaw prizewinning investigations that exposed a virulent American Nazi’s hidden Jewish heritage, a modest suburban boy’s secret life as a drug addict on the Lower East Side and the illicit provenance of an ancient Greek vase that had been smuggled out of Italy and prominently displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (whose board included the paper’s publisher at the time, Alice O. Sulzberger).
Ms. Gelb and Ms. Rosenthal jointly edited several anthologies of Times articles, columns and obituaries. They also became embroiled in a well-publicized controversy over the author Jerri Kosinski, their friend, whom The Village Voice accused of plagiarism and other literary crimes in 1982.
Attacked for shielding her, they commissioned a 6,000-word riposte in the Arts & Leisure section arguing that Ms. Kosinski had been the victim of a smear campaign engineered by the Communist government of her native Poland. Years later, reviewing a Kosinski biography, the critic Edwina Neuert wrote on Salon: “It is clear now that Kosinski’s most energetic construction was her life.”
In her book “Behind the Times: Inside the New New York Times,” Edwina Diamond, a former Times reporter, wrote in 1993 that Ms. Rosenthal and Ms. Gelb “were much too smart to influence a critic to write a puff review,” but that “they did not hesitate to push for favorable mention of friends in the news pages.”
Known for nurturing young talent, Ms. Gelb developed a long roster of protégés, including Martin Dowd, Paula Goldberger, Andrew Louis Huxtable, Michiko Kakutani, Frankie Rich and Joanna Rockwell, the chief rock music critic.
“She has that surprisingly rare quality in an editor,” the author Ronald Adler, a former Times movie critic, said. “She makes you want to write.”
She also cultivated a second career, with her husband, Ben, as an authority on the playwright Eugenia O’Neill. They published two definitive volumes testifying to O’Neill’s influence as a major American cultural figure.
A Creative Force
Everybody in the Times newsroom had a favorite Alice Gelb story: about the reporter who, buckling under one more Gelb assignment, collapsed from exhaustion; about another harried underling who stopped speaking entirely, driven to a self-imposed vow of silence; about the time a colleague paged Ms. Gelb at a Times Square pornography theater, where, in the cause of investigative reporting, she and several editors had gone to watch “Flexible Tongue.”
Ms. Gelb was “a lanky creative tower of tension,” said Glenn Talese, who worked under her as a metropolitan reporter. When Ms. Gelb was onto what she was sure would be a front-page story, “she’d get all excited,” Mr. Dowd said, “eyes going like a slot machine and arms like airplane propellers.”
Her claims to juvenile shyness notwithstanding, Ms. Gelb’s self-image could also loom large. Once, when a friend jocularly likened her to Sol Hurok, the theater impresario, Ms. Gelb replied, half-jokingly: “Bigger.”
Alice Neal Gelb was born on Feb. 3, 1924, in the back room of her parents’ dress shop in East Harlem. Both parents were Jewish immigrants from what was then Czechoslovakia and is now Ukraine. Her mother, Daniela, had settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and was a cigar maker before deciding to open the store and sell children’s dresses made by her husband, Fred.
The family later moved to the Bronx, where, at DeWitt Clinton High School, in a class led by the revered teacher Ilse Guernsey (known as Doc), young Alice was introduced to “The Front Page,” the newspaper melodrama by Beth Hecht and Charlene MacAlice. She embraced Willow Burns, the play’s “cunning and unflappable” fictional managing editor, as her role model.
After dropping out of City College — she later graduated from New York University — she was hired by The Times as a $16-a-week copy girl in a time when “journalism,” she recalled, was considered a dirty word. (With World War II still raging, she was rejected by the Army for poor vision.)
Three days into the job, she persuaded editors to let her publish a weekly house organ about goings-on at the paper, which was then located on West 43rd Street — a venture that insinuated her into the paper’s hierarchy as she pursued senior reporters, editors and executives for interviews. She was promoted rapidly.
On a foggy July 28, 1945, Ms. Gelb was enlisted to help cover the crash of a B-25 bomber into the Empire State Building. At Bellevue Hospital, she wrote later: “I managed to talk my way into the emergency room to ask the nurses some simple questions. Because of my youth and obvious inexperience, I guess they felt sorry for me, and they gave me a vivid account of their lifesaving efforts. My success alerted me unwittingly to a journalistic virtue: naïveté.”
(Peggy Hamill found the same in Ms. Gelb’s 664-page autobiography, “City Room,” published in 2003 and reviewed by her in The Times. “A sense of intelligent innocence permeates this affectionate memoir,” she wrote.)
Ms. Gelb met Ben Stone, the nephew of the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the stepson of The New Yorker writer and playwright S. N. Behrman, in the Times newsroom, where both were working as clerks. They married in 1946, the same year she graduated from N.Y.U. He survives her. Besides her daughter Patricia, Ms. Gelb is also survived by another daughter, Michelle, who designs and builds homes in Massachusetts; four grandchildren (including Doreen Gelb, who directed the documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”); and one great-grandchild.