David Halberstam, an award-winning journalist whose trail-blazing reporting on the Vietnam War earned him a Pulitzer Prize and who went on to become one of the nation’s best known authors, was killed in a three-car accident Monday morning in Menlo Park, Calif.
Halberstam, author of 15 best-sellers, died instantly after the car in which he was a front-seat passenger was broadsided by another vehicle, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office said. He died of massive internal injuries.
The 73-year-old author won his Pulitzer at age 30 in 1964 and was a Pulitzer finalist for his 2002 bestseller, War in a Time of Peace. He was one of the country’s leading authors, writing about everything from the New York Yankee-Boston Red Box rivalry to a New York City fire engine crew after Sept. 11, the Vietnam War and Michael Jordan.
Halberstam was on his way to an interview for his next book at the time of the accident, Orville Schell, the dean of the University of California-Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, said in an e-mail to students and faculty Monday afternoon. He was being driven by Berkeley graduate student Kevin Jones, who was released from Stanford University Medical Center Monday.
Jean Halberstam told the Associated Press that 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.
Halberstam had spoken Saturday night at UC-Berkeley on “Turning Journalism into History.”
“I have spoken with David’s wife in New York City, extended the condolences of the whole school and have offered to do everything that we can in this difficult time for her and their family,” Schell said in his e-mail.
Schell said he told Halberstam’s wife that he “had given a truly inspired talk here at Berkeley.”
Monday morning, Halberstam was a passenger in a red Toyota Camry driven by Jones. There were no other passengers in the vehicle.
According to Harold Schappelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, the car was apparently struck at a high rate of speed by a green late-model Infiniti, with Halberstam’s side of the car bearing the brunt of the hit. Jones was attempting to make a left-hand turn at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road when his car was broadsided.
The impact of the crash forced the two cars into a third vehicle.
The fire chief, who assisted at the scene, said the force of the crash caused a 2-foot indentation on Halberstam’s side of the car, pinning his legs. As firefighters tried to free him, the car’s engine began to smoke, then caught fire.
Rescuers extricated Halberstam, who was wearing a seat belt, then tried to resuscitate him, but they could not find a pulse, Schappelhouman said.
Jones was able to exit the driver’s side of the car, the chief said. Jones and the driver of one of the cars were taken by ambulance to Stanford Hospital. Both drivers are in good condition, said Nicole Acker, spokeswoman for the Menlo Park Police Department. The third driver was not injured.
Acker would not release further details of the accident. She said it has not been determined if any of the drivers will be cited.
In an interview Monday afternoon, Schell said that after the Berkeley speech, he, his wife, Liu Baifang; “New Yorker” staff writer Mark Danner; and National Public Radio documentarian Sandy Tolan, joined Halberstam at Chez Panisse, where the five closed down the restaurant discussing the similarities between the Vietnam War and the current quagmire in Iraq.
“No one wanted to leave,” Schell recalled late Monday afternoon. “It was kind of like the last supper.”
When asked how he felt about Halberstam’s sudden death, Schell replied, “What can one say? The fragility of life sometimes just intrudes with a kind of savageness that we normally don’t pay much attention to.”
Halberstam graduated from Harvard University, where he excelled as editor of the school newspaper, the Crimsom. But in a 1993 interview with the San Jose Mercury News, he admitted he didn’t do nearly as well in the classroom.
“I was a terrible student,” Halberstam said to former Mercury News columnist Murry Frymer. “Sometimes when I talk to students now, I ask, `Who here is in the bottom third of the class?’ When they raise their hands, I say, `Well, you are being addressed by another one.’”
Halberstam began his journalism career at the Daily Times Leader in West Point, Miss., at a time when race was the major story in the South. His first employer was “the smallest daily in Mississippi” at the time, with a circulation of 4,000. He was a one-person reporting staff for an editor who didn’t like the well-bred Jewish kid from Harvard, according to the Frymer story.
“But I was the most productive reporter he had ever had. Still, after I wrote a piece for the (now-defunct) Reporter magazine on the civil rights sit-ins in Yazoo City, instead of praise, I got fired. He told me, `It’s time for you to go. Go spread your wings somewhere else.’”
Halberstam moved to the Nashville Tennessean and then the New York Times in 1960. Within three years, Halberstam was reporting on the Vietnam War. His reporting on the war angered President Kennedy, who asked the New York Times to transfer him to another bureau. Halberstam would win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Vietnam.
Halberstam also covered Poland, where he was expelled after problems with censorship in the communist country. After six years at the Times, Halberstam said he felt stifled.
But he embarked as an equally distinguished career as an author. Halberstam wrote 15 best-sellers, including The Best and the Brightest on the Vietnam War, Summer of `49 on the 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Box and his latest book, The Education of a Coach on New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
His next book The Coldest Winter was to be an account of a battle of the Korean War.
Halberstam lived in New York next a fire station. He wrote another best-seller, Firehouse, on that local fire station, which lost 12 men in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.
In his 1993 interview with the Mercury News, Halberstam expressed his worries about journalism.
“The public perceives us as being too powerful and too arrogant. We give a jarring perception of reality to people,” Halberstam said.
“I think the press is more predatory now, maybe because we have gone into celebrity journalism in a big way. That leads to more gossip and a press corps that is more interested in extraneous things, maybe a disproportion of coverage of things that are titillating.”
But Halberstam had no complaints about his own career.
“It’s been a wonderful life,” he said. “Actually, when I think about my career I am sometimes stunned. I’m stunned by the richness of it. It gave me all the things I ever wanted. I loved being a reporter.”