Pulitzer Prize winner Halberstam killed in car crash

Updated: April 24, 2007, 9:35 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

SAN FRANCISCO -- David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who chronicled the Vietnam War generation, civil rights and the world of sports, was killed in a car crash Monday, his wife and local authorities said. He was 73.

Halberstam, who lived in New York and Nantucket, Mass., was a passenger in a car that was broadsided by another vehicle in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco, San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault said. He said the cause of death had not been determined but appeared to be internal injuries.

"David Halberstam cared about what mattered the most: people ... I will remember him as a generous colleague and caring friend whose spirit lifted the room."
-- John A. Walsh, ESPN Executive Editor

The accident occurred around 10:30 a.m., and Halberstam was declared dead at the scene, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

The driver of the car carrying Halberstam and the person driving the car that crashed into his were injured, but not seriously.

After years of daily journalism, Halberstam turned his attention to America's fascination with sports later in his career.

His classic baseball book, "Summer of '49," was published in 1989 and chronicled the famed pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees. The 1999 book "Playing for Keeps" looked at the Michael Jordan phenomenon. His most recent work, 2005's "The Education of a Coach," provides an inside look into Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Halberstam took his perspective to the Internet in recent years, contributing to ESPN.com's Page 2 from 2001-02.

"David Halberstam cared about what mattered the most: people," said John A. Walsh, ESPN's Executive Vice President and Executive Editor. "He was forever sharing his experiences and directing young journalists.

"The truth? He was in awe over journalists who were moral, ethical and worked the beat in pursuit of what was really happening.

"And relationships -- in every conversation we had over the last 10 years, he brought me up to date with his daughter and his wife. I will remember him as a generous colleague and caring friend whose spirit lifted the room."

The prolific writer always seemed to have a project going, having just finished a book on the Korean War.

"There's a great quote by Julius Erving that went, 'Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them,' " Halberstam said in a March interview with NY1 News.

Halberstam perservered, writing 21 books in his career, despite personal tragedy. In 1980, Halberstam's brother Michael, a cardiologist, was killed by an escaped convict in a robbery.

"There's nothing you can do," Halberstam said in the NY1 interview. "You have to get on, and you have to get on with life, and get on with the living."

On Monday, Halberstam was being driven by a graduate journalism student from the University of California, Berkeley, which had hosted a speech by the author Saturday night about the craft of journalism and what it means to turn reporting into a work of history.

His wife, Jean Halberstam, said she would remember him most for his "unending, bottomless generosity to young journalists."

"For someone who obviously was so competitive with himself, the generosity with other writers was incredible," she said by telephone from their New York home.

Jean Halberstam said her husband was being driven to an interview he had scheduled with Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Halberstam was working on a new book, "The Game," about the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, often called the greatest game ever played, she said.

Books by Halberstam
• The Noblest Roman (1961)
• The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy era (1965)
• One Very Hot Day (1967)
• The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy (1969)
• Ho (1971)
• The Best and the Brightest (1972)
• The Powers That Be (1979)
• The Breaks of the Game (1981)
• The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal (1985)
• The Reckoning (1986)
• Summer of '49 (1989)
• The Next Century (1991)
• The Fifties (1993)
• October 1964 (1994)
• The Children (1999)
• Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (1999)
• War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (2001)
• Firehouse (2002)
• The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship (2003)
• Bill Belichick: The Education of a Coach (2005)
• The Coldest Winter (due in fall 2007)

Halberstam was born April 10, 1934, in New York City to a surgeon father and teacher mother. His father was in the military, and Halberstam moved around the country during his childhood, spending time in Texas, Minnesota and Connecticut.

Halberstam attended Harvard University, where he was managing editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper.

After graduating in 1955, he launched his career at the Daily Times Leader, a small paper in West Point, Miss. He went on to The Tennessean, in Nashville, where he covered the civil rights struggle, and then The New York Times, which sent him to Vietnam in 1962 to cover the growing crisis there.

In 1964, Halberstam and Malcolm W. Browne, of the AP, won Pulitzers for their coverage of the war and the overthrow of the Saigon regime.

Halberstam's reporting from Vietnam was a major irritant to the Kennedy Administration, which had tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Times to transfer him from the war zone.

He later said he initially supported the U.S. action there but became disillusioned. That was apparent in Halberstam's 1972 best-seller, "The Best and the Brightest," a critical account of U.S. involvement in the region.

In an interview earlier this month with The Associated Press, Halberstam recalled the zeal with which he and his colleagues covered Vietnam.

"Maybe we were 28, 29, 26 and we had a great story, which we knew and we had a lock on the truth because we had such great sources. When for a variety of reasons -- a flawed, deeply flawed policy -- the government starts lying, that is when independent journalism really matters," he said.

Such reporting, he said, is a key component of democracy.

"The idea that somewhere before it is a big story that there is some young person ... putting themselves on the line morally, ethically, journalistically, that is a great thing," Halberstam said. "I mean, that is what a free society is about."

He quit daily journalism in 1967 and wrote 21 books covering such topics as Vietnam, civil rights, the auto industry and sports. His 2002 best-seller, "War in a Time of Peace," was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.

Speaking to a journalism conference last year in Tennessee, he said government criticism of news reporters in Iraq reminded him of the way he was treated while covering the war in Vietnam.

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game," he said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around, and they've used up their credibility."

As word of Halberstam's death spread through the news industry, tributes and remembrances poured in.

"He was a brilliant journalist who set the standard during the war in Vietnam for courageous and accurate reporting," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a Vietnam veteran who knew Halberstam from Nantucket, where both had vacation homes. "He was wonderful company, and I always learned something when I talked with him. I'm very sad to hear we've lost him."

George Esper spent 10 years in Vietnam with the AP and was Saigon bureau chief when the city fell.

"The thing about David Halberstam was that he stayed the course and he kept the faith in the belief in the people's right to know," Esper said "In the end, and I think we can all be very proud of this, he was proven right. The bottom line was that David was more honest with the American public than their own government."

Neil Sheehan, former Saigon bureau chief for United Press International, said he had lost his best friend, a man of enormous physical and mental energy who had "profound moral and physical courage."

"We were in Vietnam at a time when we were being denounced by those on high," Sheehan said. "There was tremendous pressure. David never buckled under it at all. He was capable of standing up to it. You could not intimidate David."

Sheehan recalled how Halberstam once called a general at home to get permission to fly to the site of a U.S. defeat. At a briefing the next day, a brigadier general scolded "pitiful, lowly young reporters" for having the temerity to call a general at home.

"General, you do not understand," Halberstam responded, according to Sheehan. "We are not corporals. We do not work for you. ... We will call a commanding general any time at home we need to get our job done."

The general was flabbergasted, Sheehan said.

Author Gay Talese, who was at the Halberstams' home Monday night, said he had known Halberstam since the early 1960s, was best man at his wedding and shared Thanksgiving dinner in Paris last year.

"He was a dear friend," Talese said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.