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Jack Newfield’s Memorial

Friends and Politics

At veteran New York journalist (and Bed-Stuy native) Jack Newfield’s memorial service at Riverside Chapel in late December, there was certainly some political posturing. At a service for a famous muckraker and defender of the poor, it was odd that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council speaker Gifford Miller were up front with the family. Yet the diverse crowd attested to how important Newfield’s work was not only to the NYC progressive world, but to the very political establishment he often went after. While city officials got the sweet seats, perhaps hoping by association to deflect the ire of new Jack Newfields, a striking amalgam of people filled the back of the room. Rev. Al Sharpton and Republican congressman Peter King were there, as were various New Yorkers in yarmulkes and dashikis with ages ranging from teens to that of Bud Schulberg. And they all filled the chapel only two days after Newfield’s sudden passing.

On his dying bed, Newfield had the foresight to choose the program of speakers. As a result, the people crushed into the pews not only understood his work, but also saw the wide cross-section of friends and allies that Newfield garnered. While Bloomberg and mayoral hopeful Miller were not chosen to speak, mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer was. The current mayor must have been shifting in his seat a bit as Jimmy Breslin forcefully spoke of how sad it was that at the time of Jack’s death, we not only have two pro-war senators from New York, but also a mayor who avoids the war as much as possible. As Breslin spoke, I heard a woman behind me say “good for you. Someone’s got to say the truth.”

As producer of director Kevin Keating’s Giuliani Time, a feature documentary about New York City during the Giuliani years, I was at the memorial in part because Jack had supported our project. In his 2003 book the Full Rudy: The Man, the Myth, the Mania, he quoted interviews we had conducted, and he had also sat in the edit room a couple of times commenting on early cuts of the film.

As a result, I couldn’t help but think about how a memorial for the ex-mayor might look. An overflowing room, of course, but what would the reason be? There would be warring parties in the program, an audience vying for the dim glow of power that Rudy was so famous for sharing only with those who were loyal and unquestioning. There would be macho jokes about how he was a tough, confrontational guy. And people would be looking over their shoulders at how his mantle of power would be disassembled and dolled out, secretly thinking about how much of a prick he was.

The scene around Newfield had a feeling of something opposite to this fictional scenario. Jack loved to mix politics with friends, and I’m sure that this was sometimes a tough proposition. But from this couple of hours it was clear that he was a unique catalyst who, for better or worse, brought together politicos, scribes, jocks, cops, and artists. It was one of those rare memorials where the room was filled with a charge that represents the best of what is loosely called “progressive,” “liberal,” or “left.” Like many idealists in these categories, Newfield’s vision was based in hopefulness even when his brand of journalism forced him to often look into the eyes of the people suffering most in society. This came out in Newfield’s choice of music for the service. The event began with Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which was followed later by John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and finally by the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” as his coffin was carried out. Sure, this sounds hokey, but to me it represented something often lost today, a throwback to coming of age in the 1960s, when idealism was encouraged.

Newfield’s life in some ways represented a yearning for the singular, uncomplicated justice found in these songs. His career shows that one can hold that kind of youthful spark for change throughout life and not succumb to the ease of conservative cynicism. Regardless of all the contradictions he may have had in his work, Newfield was shown in this memorial to represent the best of New York City: progressive, inclusive, tough, full of friends and family and, most of all, a dreamer.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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