By Pueng Vongs | March 31st, 2010
A Life Well Lived
Robin D. Stone, the widow of Gerald M. Boyd, discusses Boyd’s memoir, “My Times In Black and White”
By Bonnie Newman Davis
I recently caught up with a very dear colleague, Robin D. Stone, to discuss a new book penned by her late husband, Gerald M. Boyd. The book, “My Times In Black and White,” carries the subtitle: “Race and Power at the New York Times.”
Most journalists are familiar with Boyd, the first black managing editor of the Times, who was forced to resign his prized position in 2003 after it was learned that a young black reporter, Jayson Blair, plagiarized a series of articles that were published in the Times. The tragic (there’s really no better word to describe it) fallout from Blair’s stream of lies and deception is where Boyd’s book begins. He methodically chronicles the atmosphere of the storied New York newsroom in Blair’s aftermath.
“Then along came serial plagiarist Jayson Blair. And suddenly, in the credibility crisis that forever will be know as the Blair Affair, the prospect of my running the Times newsroom was gone. I realized: I am not invincible. I could be replaced. And from my lofty perch I had to watch, day by torturous day, as calamity unfolded with a surprising fury.”
Boyd describes how he came to write his book after leaving the Times, and what follows is a painful journey to another era when a young boy known mostly by his middle name, Michael, lost his mother when he was 3 years old, was abandoned by his father eight years later, and endured a poverty-stricken childhood so severe that he was forced to wear cardboard in his worn-out shoes.
While Boyd would eventually enjoy a lifestyle far removed from the one endured while growing in St. Louis, the world he’d so carefully crafted collapsed not only when the Blair debacle occurred, but again when Boyd was diagnosed with lung cancer which claimed his life in 2006 at age 56.
Some 400-pages long, “In Black and White” contains an afterward by Stone, a former New York Times editor whom Boyd lured from The Boston Globe in 1990. During our 30-minute telephone conversation, Stone explained why the book is important not just for journalists, but also for those seeking insight about management, corporate culture and personal growth.
“Even though in the end it is very difficult — the protagonist dies — he touched a generation of journalists and has this lasting legacy,” Stone says. “It’s a story about hope, tenacity and living your dream. That’s what makes you turn the page.
Following is a Q&A with Stone about the book.
Davis: Gerald’s book was released earlier this year. What has been the reception to it so far?
Stone: “I’m glad that the mainstream organizations are recognizing the book. While I certainly appreciate reviews by black publications, too, my sense is that some mainstream media were hesitant to write about it at first because it’s about the New York Times and it’s about race. But once an article about the book ran in The New York Times and the Times sort of acknowledged it, it became (more) well received in book circles. It’s important that “My Times” be widely embraced because it’s not just a story about a black journalist, it’s an American story about a black man who was a journalist.”
Davis: How did the book come to be?
Stone: Gerald wrote two drafts. The first was over 800 pages. In response to some who read it, he wrote a second version that was about 250-odd pages. He took ill as he was finishing it. When he passed, it took me some time to open the manuscripts. Once I did, I saw what he’d done and I felt the second draft was too truncated, so I married the two versions. I also interviewed people who knew him growing up to fill in the blanks.
Davis: There are many descriptions of your husband. How would you describe him?
Stone: Oh, my goodness. Gerald has been described in the media as gruff; a brusque managing editor of The New York Times. That is not the picture I have of him. He was a decent, loving and caring man. He had a big heart and was humble although some would not describe him as that. He never forgot his background — growing up in poverty. His background is what led to the Times’ “Children in the Shadows” series.
He was a three-dimensional person and complicated. He was humble but also proud. He should have been proud. Some see that as arrogance. He was also very generous, and as a manager he would give of his time and valued his staff. When he left the Times, and we were walking down the street, he became concerned because he forgot to say goodbye to the cafeteria workers.
Davis: How did you manage to get through such a trying period? What enabled you to complete the book?
Stone: I don’t know how I did it. God was on my side, surrounding me with good friends and family. One day I said, ‘I have got to do this.’”
Davis: You compare the book to a movie. Why?
Stone: If you follow the whole arc of his story, it’s so rich and full and represents the arc of a successful life. It’s about race, but there are other issues. He came to his job as a Midwesterner who grew up poor, had a Jewish mentor as a young man, and he brought all of these perspectives to his role (as managing editor). At the end, he was very much in a place of peace.
Davis: Together, you and Gerald have a son, Zachary. How is he doing?
Stone: Zach, he’s 13. He’s managing. Sometimes it’s a struggle without his Dad. In the book is a picture of Gerald in high school. Zach looks exactly like him.
Bonnie Newman Davis is an associate professor of journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia