23 January, 2009
James Murray Kempton was an influential American journalist.
Kempton worked as a copyboy for H. L. Mencken at the Baltimore Evening Sun. He was educated at Johns Hopkins, where he was editor-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter. After his graduation in 1939, he worked for a short time as a labor organizer, then joined the staff of the New York Post, earning a reputation for a quietly elegant prose style that featured long but rhythmic sentences, a flair for irony, and gentle, almost scholarly sarcasm.
He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, returning to the New York Post in 1949 as labor editor and later as a columnist. He also wrote for the NYC-based World-Telegram and Sun and a short-lived successor, the World Journal Tribune, a merger between the Telegram, the New York Herald-Tribune, and the Journal-American.
During the 1960s he edited The New Republic. By 1981, he became a columnist for Newsday, the Long Island-based daily. Additionally, Kempton was also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, Esquire magazine, CBS's Spectrum radio opinion series, and National Review, the conservative magazine with whose editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., Kempton had enjoyed a longtime friendship that grew from their ideological rivalry.
Known as a modest, courtly man who was generous with fellow journalists and friends, even Kempton wasn't without his eccentricities. He never learned to drive, and could often be spotted riding a bicycle in New York City wearing a three-piece suit. He was shown that way in television spots promoting Newsday's New York edition, in which Kempton brought his bicycle to a stop at an intersection and deadpanned, "I guess I've been around so long that people think they have to like me."
Kempton's bicycling was also depicted in a cartoon showing him standing next to his three-speed bicycle that accompanied first a 1993 profile in The New Yorker and, then, the jacket of what proved his final book, an anthology known as Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events. Kempton dedicated the book to Buckley, whom he once admitted had nagged him for years to assemble the collection: "For William F. Buckley, Jr., genius at friendships that surpass all understanding."
An indefatiguable journalist who filed four columns a week for most of his career, Kempton won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1985. Ten years later, he received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award as well as an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College.
Kempton, who was ill with pancreatic cancer, died of a heart attack in his home in 1997, two years after the death of his wife. He was 79 years old. "It was easy to think of Murray as indestructible," wrote Newsday Sunday Currents editor Chris Lehmann. "Although he was at an age when many people settle into dotage, he could, and did, run circles around us all. After New York Newsday folded in 1995 and op-ed space shrank in the Long Island mother edition of the paper, Murray complained regularly about only being able to file his column two times a week instead of four." Buckley---in his own near-memoir, Miles Gone By---has recalled Kempton, even at the depth of his illness, planned to write an autobiography and had completed a first chapter, quoting Kempton as saying, "I think I can get it done in eight or nine months."