Samuel Freedman says that Jeff Schmalz was his rabbi, though Schmalz wasn’t ordained. He wasn’t even Jewish.
“It’s a term used in journalism for someone who is your mentor, who guides you and sees that your work is given the right exposure,” Freedman explained, addressing an audience at Words Bookstore in Maplewood on Feb. 3 to promote his new book about Schmalz, Dying Words.
The book is a colleague’s fond tribute not only to a great writer and editor, but one who blazed a trail for gay journalists at The New York Times and, by chronicling the illness that would kill him, put a human face on the scourge of the deadly AIDS epidemic.
Schmalz mentored Freedman when he was a cub reporter, newly hired by the Times in 1981. Schmalz, who was gay, also came out to Freedman, who isn’t. He pressed Freedman and other straight writers to cover issues related to HIV/AIDS and gay rights that he couldn’t handle as openly himself, for fear of falling victim to the homophobia then prevalent in the paper’s top leadership.
That surrogacy ended for Schmalz in December 1990 when he was “outed” by his own body. He had a seizure in the newsroom and was diagnosed with AIDS-related brain disease. With secrecy no longer an option, from then until he died three years later at the age of 39, Schmalz put himself on the line, doing everything he could to expand public awareness.
An article he wrote for the paper in 1992 — “A Reporter’s Testimony: Covering AIDS and Living It — drew hundreds of letters, some from homophobes, but many more from readers struggling with the disease, caring for ill loved ones, or thanking him for giving them an outlet for their emotions.
Less than 20 years later, in conversation with media-savvy friends, Freedman was appalled to realize that his “rabbi” was no longer a familiar name, and that his great writing had entirely faded from view. In an era when gay marriage has been legalized and the venerable Times carries wedding announcements for gay couples — the very equality Schmalz campaigned so hard to achieve — he saw this as a gross cultural omission.
A biography was one possibility. A friend suggested he do a film. Freedman, now an award-winning author, columnist, and journalism professor, said, “I felt very strongly that this was something that should be heard, that Jeff’s voice should be heard.”
Working with a fellow Schmalz fan, distinguished radio producer Kerry Donahue, Freedman compiled a collection of interviews about Schmalz, combined with recordings of interviews done with the man himself, and excerpts from his articles. The result is a radio documentary, which aired on PBS’s On the Media this past December, and the book, Dying Words.
Those featured include people like former President Bill Clinton, basketball great Magic Johnson (who also contracted AIDS), and AIDS activist Larry Kramer, as well as Times colleagues like Max Frankel, Joseph Lelyveld, and Anna Quindlen.
Freedman, who was raised in Highland Park and attended Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, writes a religion column for the Times and is the author of seven books, including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, which won the 2000 National Jewish Book Award for nonfiction.
Dying Words is dedicated “To the Mishpacha who remembered and who trusted.” As Jews, Freedman told NJ Jewish News, we “bear witness.”
“Jeff wasn’t Jewish, but doing this work is a Jewish act for me,” said Freedman. “Our hope is that Dying Words will restore Jeff’s name and work to the annals of LGBT history and journalistic history.”
(Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How It Transformed The New York Times, is available for order from press.journalism.cuny.edu.)