Remembering Tony Lukas, teller of true stories

By Christopher B. Daly 

As a service to my readers, I am posting this brief life of Tony Lukas, author of “Common Ground” and many other fine works of narrative non-fiction. I wrote this for American National Biography Online, a marvelous authoritative resource for information about prominent Americans.

Tony Lukas

Tony Lukas

Lukas, J. Anthony (25 Apr. 1933-5 June 1997), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was born Jay Anthony Lukas in New York City to Edwin Jay Lukas, a prominent civil rights lawyer, and Elizabeth Schamberg, an actress. After his mother committed suicide, young Tony was sent to the Putney School, a progressive boarding school in southwestern Vermont. In 1951 he entered Harvard College, where he promptly joined the staff of the independent student-run newspaper the Harvard Crimson. One of his classmates and a fellow editor of the paper was David Halberstam. Lukas graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1955 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and pursued graduate studies at the Free University of Berlin. From 1956 to 1958 he served in the U.S. Army, stationed in Japan, where he wrote for the Voice of the United Nations Command.In 1959 he got a job at the Baltimore Sun covering the police beat for $105 a week. He quickly made his mark and took on a variety of assignments. Seeking a foreign assignment that the Sun could not provide, he joined the New York Times in 1962. He was once again on the same staff as Halberstam, and the two ambitious rivals crisscrossed the globe on assignment. Lukas served in the paper’s metro, Washington, and UN bureaus before going abroad and filing dispatches from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and elsewhere. Eventually he joined the staff of the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Lukas won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1968 in the category of Local Investigative Specialized Reporting for a feature story he wrote for the Times about the life and murder of Linda Fitzpatrick, an affluent young woman caught up in the drug culture of New York City. Feeling out of touch with the youth of his own country after many years abroad, Lukas delved more deeply into Fitzpatrick’s story and widened the scope of his reporting to include a number of other young Americans. He later told their stories in a multiple biography titled Don’t Shoot–We Are Your Children! (1971).

During the same period, Lukas spent a year back in Cambridge as a Nieman fellow at Harvard. Returning to the Times, Lukas became a roving national correspondent based in Chicago. There, he plunged into covering the trial of the “Chicago Eight” (later reduced to the “Chicago Seven”)–political radicals accused of conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Making regular trips to the U.S. district court in Chicago, Lukas covered the trial from the fall of 1969 through the winter of 1970. During their five-month trial, the defendants cursed loudly and often in the courtroom. Since the Times style rules forbade the use of obscenities, Lukas littered his trial stories with the phrase “barnyard epithet” instead. That reporting resulted in The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1970).

In the early 1970s Lukas dove into freelance assignments for major magazines, including the Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, Esquire, Harper’s, the Nation, and the New Republic. In 1971 he became a cofounder of MOREmagazine, which engaged in a critical examination of journalistic methods and ideals. The magazine, which was widely read by journalists, lasted seven years. Lukas also helped found the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provided free legal counsel for journalists, along with other services to the profession.

His next major project was an examination of the Watergate scandal. In April 1973 the New York Times Magazineasked Lukas to look into the abuses of power committed by President Richard Nixon. That assignment grew into the book Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976). Consumed by the story and determined to write a coherent narrative of the notoriously opaque Watergate saga, Lukas produced a nearly six-hundred-page book that cemented his reputation as a deep researcher.

For several years Lukas held a series of positions that allowed him to continue to research and write books. In 1976-1977 he was a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The next year he was an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Public Communications. During 1977-1978 he took part in the Study Group on Urban School Desegregation sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge. He credited the group, especially the education scholar Diane Ravitch, with deepening his understanding of issues of equity in education. In 1978-1979 he had a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1979-1980 he was an adjunct lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In 1982 he married Linda Healey, an editor at Pantheon Books.

Starting around 1978, Lukas began the research for a book about Boston’s response to court-ordered school desegregation, usually known as “the busing crisis.” The result was his masterpiece, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985). Blending history, journalism, and sociology, Lukas created a braided narrative of three Boston families–one Yankee, one Irish, and one African American–to illuminate the forces that led to the federal court order to desegregate Boston public schools and the aftershocks of that ruling. Common Ground was hailed as a major work for its treatment of race and class in modern America, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1986 as well as the National Book Award and many other prizes.

Around this time Lukas began to suffer from depression. Still he continued to work. Lukas came out of the experience of writing the Boston book with a greater awareness of the role of class in American life. That interest drew him to a time in American history, the early twentieth century, when class warfare seemed plausible and perhaps imminent. The result was his final book, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. A sprawling work of history and reportage, Big Trouble tells the story of the miners’ struggles in the West and the mysterious assassination of a former governor of Idaho.

On 5 June 1997, while he was in the late stages of completing Big Trouble, Lukas committed suicide in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At the time of his death, he was president of the Authors Guild. Published posthumously, Big Trouble was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1998. After his death, the J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Awards were established in his honor. The prizes, awarded annually and co-administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, recognized excellence in nonfiction that addressed a political or social concern.

Tall, rumpled, and sad-eyed, J. Anthony Lukas was a tenacious reporter and researcher, known for conducting extensive interviews and accumulating mountains of facts. He was a reporter’s reporter, famous for his epic research. Throughout his career, Lukas elevated the standards of American journalism, both in his work with professional organizations and in his masterful demonstrations of narrative nonfiction.


BibliographyLukas’s papers–including manuscripts, letters, and subject files–were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison. His reporting can be found in the online archives of the Harvard Crimson, the New York Times, and the many magazines he wrote for. Lukas was the subject of many interviews and profiles, notably a sketch by John McPhee in the New Yorker, 30 June 1975, and an alumni note in Harvard Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1997, which includes a fond reminiscence by David Halberstam. A detailed assessment of Common Ground appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jan. 2014. Lukas’s brother, Christopher, addressed his family’s history of suicide in his book Blue Genes (2008). Obituaries appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, 7 June 1997, and a tribute appeared in the Baltimore Sun, 9 June 1997. Also helpful is a remembrance by the Washington Post book editor Jonathan Yardley in the Post on 9 June 1997.

Christopher B. Daly


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Citation:
Christopher B. Daly. “Lukas, J. Anthony“;
http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03920.html;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date: Mon Apr 27 2015 13:01:26 GMT-0400 (EDT)
Copyright © 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy.

1 Comment

Filed under Journalism, journalism history

One response to “Remembering Tony Lukas, teller of true stories

  1. David

    EXCELLENT minibio. The themes he explored brilliantly in Common Ground are still vibrant today and in Big Trouble, he was candid enough to scrutinize a member of the left’s pantheon as candidly as he scrutinized Nixon.

    His suicide, like those of David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams, is a vivid reminder of how little society focuses on mental illness, other than to express shock whenever a celebrity or young person commits suicide. In a better world, a team of investigative reporters would honor his memory by exploring why insurance plans offer better coverage for the heartbreak of psoriasis than the heartbreak of depression and why most reputable psychologists and psychiatrists refuse to join insurance networks, which would allow far more people dealing with depression to obtain treatment.

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