Poet of the Newsroom

A journalist with the unteachable gift of making you read on

Allen: David Carr
Carr collapsed and died in the newsroom of The New York Times in 2015. "He wrote with the hard facticity of an AA meeting." (Jill Rooney Carr)

Final Draft: The Collected Work of David Carr, edited by Jill Rooney Carr; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pp., $28

Nearly a century ago, Stanley Walker, city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, was a living legend of journalism, a hard-eyed Texan who wrote about the speakeasies and ruckus of New York City. He foretold the future of other living legends in his beloved newspaper business, which is to say the prizes you get and the prices you pay for spending a gritty life in a gritty newsroom.

To wit: in the 1920s, Walker wrote,

What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. … He can go for nights on end without sleep. … Men admire him; women adore him. … He hates lies, meanness and sham but keeps his temper. … When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.

A few generations later, the legend in question would be the gritty David Carr, author of this posthumous collection of journalism, Final Draft, assembled by his widow, Jill Rooney Carr. It is his second book.

His first book was Night of the Gun, a memoir of his grievous and impassioned addictions to cocaine, crack cocaine, and alcohol, with side orders of speed, LSD, psilocybin, marijuana, et alia, along with stints in a lot of rehabs, the birth of children, and the death of relationships while he hacked his way through Minneapolis weeklies and business journals.

Carr became renowned for his acute perceptions. His energy was visible, the sort of subliminal tremor you sometimes see in ex-addicts.

Carr shared Walker’s style of finger-in-the-chest newspaper writing. One suspects lessons were learned from Raymond Chandler—he describes TV pundit Ann Coulter as “a blonde who knows her way around a black cocktail dress.”

He wrote with the hard facticity of an AA meeting. He had the unteachable gift of making you read on and on about his misadventures as he slouched toward The New York Times to be born.

Gritty as hell, Carr wouldn’t seem to be the Times type, but the Times had accepted that someone had to write about topics like media and celebrities and Zeitgeist. Carr was just the man. He became renowned for his acute perceptions, his feel for New York, and his television guest appearances—he barked away in a hoarse Midwest accent that flattened all the vowels. His energy was visible, the sort of subliminal tremor you sometimes sense in ex-addicts.

In 2015, at 58, Carr collapsed in the newsroom of the Times and died after a life of disfiguring cancer, bad women, worse addictions, and relapses into all of them.

As for Walker, he went back to Texas, announced he had a fatal illness in 1962, and killed himself with a shotgun. As he predicted, no one remembers him, the point being that living is the only kind of legend that newspaper people tend to be. There were exceptions, like the early practitioners of the New Journalism—Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson—but Carr was late for that party.

Print journalism was just starting to lose its mojo in 1989, the date of the first piece in Final Draft, a freelance story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Already, at 33, this intense, charming kid from the Minneapolis suburbs had a whole lifetime as a druggy behind him.

It begins: “I often hear the sounds of sirens at the rehab center where I live …”

At the beginning, there are accounts of rehabbers on a fishing trip and an airline captain who went to jail for flying drunk.

He covers the tribulations of single fathers, a gay Republican, Minneapolis’s bad boy Tom Arnold—one-time husband of Roseanne Barr. There’s an indicted senator, a gambling addict married to a sheriff, and the cancer Carr discovered in his neck. He wrote a lot about AIDS.

Then he left Minneapolis to edit the Washington City Paper, a survivor of the age of alternative journalism. Carr saw quickly that the media was a world in itself in Washington, with the Post, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and the Times being a sort of reality bubble that dinner-party Washington lived inside.

He was fascinated by The New Republic, a tiny policy magazine that once had a genius for creating stars in the Washington media firmament. How important they seemed, especially when they went wrong, as in the compulsive plagiarism of Ruth Shalit, the later sexual misconduct of Leon Wieseltier, the lawsuits of Sidney Blumenthal, and the outrageous fabrications of Stephen Glass, who held on to his stardom long enough to be the subject of a movie in 2003.

Attacking the Post was part of Carr’s job description, of course, but no one there minded very much. (Disclosure: I worked there.)

He spends four pages faulting a story about a seven-year-old girl who said she’d driven her father to the hospital. The girl became a momentary celebrity but she was fibbing, as the Post soon revealed.

There were the mandatory shots at a Post writer named Sally Quinn, who once had the ability to embarrass the Post but was safely married to the executive editor.

In 2002 Carr was recruited by the Times to cover the magazine business. He soon expanded his purview.

He made a stab at profiles—Neil Young, Julian Assange—but they’re more about facts than human beings. Carr does not forgive Jayson Blair, but he sympathizes conspicuously with him, Blair being the Times reporter who covered the Washington sniper from his New York apartment, making up the details as needed. He and Carr had a common history in cocaine.

Carr’s profile of actor Robert Downey Jr. should be a comfortable fit, with his time in jail for drugs and guns, but again it’s just the facts, ma’am. His postmortem on Philip Seymour Hoffman is best when he discusses the universal truths of chemical dependency—what William Burroughs called “the algebra of need.”

It’s a good clip file. Carr fights his way into Manhattan after the al-Qaeda planes destroy the World Trade Center. He takes his family to a cabin in the Adirondacks. He chronicles the squalid decline of the Chicago Tribune.

He is everything that Stanley Walker foresaw. The problem with this new collection is that it’s yesterday’s news, a set of clippings, a souvenir from another world. To be remembered for more than several days, Carr will have to let the memoir do the job.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Henry Allen won the Pulitzer Prize for his criticism in The Washington Post. A Marine veteran of Vietnam, he is the author of Where We Lived: Essays on Places.


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