Paris lost another favorite son this week with the death of legendary New York Times reporter, critic and eater – R.W. (Johnny) Apple Jr. at the age of 71. Todd Purdam’s nuanced obituary described him as “Dickensian….Churchillian….Falstaffian, but to me, more suitable descriptors are Rabelaisian and Gargantuan.
For Apple could never get enough; enough news, enough dirt, enough food. The man was not only full of life he was bigger than life for sure. It’s very hard to think of the New York Times, Paris or the food scene without him.
Apple started out as a small town political reporter (Albany NY), became a war correspondent (Viet Nam), then a sage analyst (garnering the Polk Award for his analytic article that foresaw the collapse of the War), and finally a legend. And all the while eating his way through Africa, Southeast Asia, London and of course, Paris.
Apple and I met as a result of our respective tours in Viet Nam and quickly agreed that one couldn’t truly live well without good food. So in 1968 we and Bonjour Paris art critic Deb Markow and spouses set off to explore this “nouvelle cuisine” thing at the source.
The defining Apple story for me (diversion: I believe it was Calvin Trillin, in his New Yorker article on Apple, who pointed out that anyone who even brushed shoulders with Johnny, had at least one “Apple story”) was of a weekend in Paris, which included trekking out to Asnieres to the then little-known Barriere de Clichy, where some young guy, Michel Guerard, was cooking up a storm. But that’s not the story.
The story is that after a huge dinner, I think at Vivarois, remember “nouvelle” then didn’t necessarily mean small portions, begun by and followed by some of best aperitifs and digestifs ever, we returned to the Right Bank and the Hotel Scandinavia, where he always stayed, and as he emerged from the cab, towards, if not after midnight, he said “Before going home, let’s grab a petite tranche de jambon and a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau at a little zinc I know nearby.” Pure Apple; this was the man who later became known as “three-lunch Apple.”
The bookend story to this, was that involving a trick played on Johnny by the then White House Director of the Press Pool for Bill Clinton, which I suspect he never fully forgave either of us for. This guy, who must have had mixed experiences with Apple, as did, I also surmise, all Government officials from General William Westmoreland to President George W. Bush, came up with this story to tell Apple after the Clinton official and I had dinner in Paris one night.
I was then working on researching and writing on the differences between the homeless in Europe and America. On his return to Washington, this puckish guy greeted Apple with the news that he’d run into his old friend Talbott (true), that I was on the streets (well, when walking to the restaurant maybe) and that I was researching homelessness (and here comes the stretch, I’ve surmised) first hand.
I knew not a thing about this. But I received a strange call from the then Chief of the Paris bureau of the NYT, whom I’d also known from the Viet Nam days, who asked the strangest questions about my “research,” my sanity, my health and my weight.
It was only when I got back to the US, six months later, that on a whim, I called Apple up to arrange a lunch date and miraculously he was free that day. I met him at the Times office where he (1) ushered me into his office immediately, (2) looked me over as a buyer would a prize heifer and (3) gave me a hug like I’d just returned from the dead.
Later, connecting the dots, I realized that my Press Pool friend had tricked Apple with his account, which prompted Johnny to get on the phone to his old buddy in Paris, who then checked me out, but that he still wanted to make sure himself – I’d like to say because he was concerned about my well-being but I suspect because he smelled the possibility of a good news story too.
The same age as Johnny, I’ve gone through life envying only one human being, and that’s Apple. To work full tilt at everything he did, to speak languages like he took 8 lessons in 8 different tongues every day, to eat and eat and eat without ever pausing, and to be constantly on the lookout for the best runny cheese, intense sauce or gutsy wine in any part of the world he was in; to know every Congressional district in America (and of course where to eat there; and if he didn’t think his info was up to date, a few phone calls to Pierre (Salinger) or Craig (Claiborne) would produce the results); to drag his beloved wife Betsey everywhere he ate and mention her in every food article he wrote; and to live well right up to the end (his article on eating in the Singapore was published only a few days before his death) - that’s not bad.
The old Readers Digest used to have a feature called “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met.” You’ve guessed the punch line.
So, so long Johnny, I’ll catch up with you soon for lunch. Be well and don’t slow down, wherever you go.
*Originally published in 2006.