A Fond Farewell
The world lost a great writer on Monday, January 7, with the death of Richard Ben Cramer from lung cancer at the age of 62. Tributes poured in from all sides; Twitter lit up with accolades from famous journalists; his books zoomed to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney asked reporters to pause and remember “the greatest political journalist, ever,” while Vice-President Joe Biden called him “an unmatched talent.”
But the sense of loss – and of appreciation – feels more intimate here in the Washington College and Chestertown community.
A resident of Chestertown for two decades, Richard moved to the Eastern Shore while finishing his monumental work of presidential campaign reportage, What It Takes: The Way to the White House (1992) and just before starting his New York Times-bestselling biography Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (2000). In Chestertown, he also wrote How Israel Lost: The Four Questions (2004).
In other words, one of journalism’s most brilliant chroniclers of politics, professional sports, and international affairs chose to live in a place that most people inside the Beltway had never heard of; that had no major-league team within 50 miles; and where there were no inbound or outbound flights except for the occasional crop duster. But this may have been a secret to his success: by standing a little bit outside the world, he saw the world more clearly.
Richard’s greatest gifts as a writer were also his great gifts as a friend: a curious mind and a sympathetic heart. These same qualities made him a selfless mentor to Washington College students and a generous host to visiting writers and scholars. He was especially close to the college’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, particularly after Joan Smith, whom he would marry on Valentine’s Day 2012, began working here in 2007 as the George Washington Book Prize coordinator. Richard rarely turned down an invitation to sit on a panel, to visit a class, or to meet an aspiring student journalist.
His fans from afar – especially the young Washington journalists who idolized him – sometimes burnished Richard’s mystique by portraying him as a J.D. Salinger-like recluse here in this strange corner of the far-off Eastern Shore. It’s true that Richard never used email (let alone tweeted) and that his cellphone number (and even the very fact of this device’s existence) was a secret as closely held as a nuclear launch code. But the first time we met, Richard said, “If you ever wanna see me, just come over. I never go anywhere, and I never lock the door.” That door, I would soon discover, was open to many other neighbors and friends, from Chestertown and beyond.
In his crumbling 18th-century manse on Quaker Neck Road – a house that somehow managed to be both magnificent and cozy, like Richard himself – dinner conversation flowed (along with the bourbon and port), political secrets were confided, old Jewish jokes were told and retold. With Richard, you never knew quite who was coming to dinner. One evening a year ago, as we were wrapping up a meal after an event on campus, the governor of Maryland came strolling casually into the room – he’d been giving a speech or cutting a ribbon somewhere on the lower Eastern Shore and decided impulsively to swing by Chestertown for a few beers with Richard. For the next couple of hours, students, faculty, and other guests listened raptly as the two old friends traded stories (strictly off the record) about outsize characters they’d known in Baltimore politics, did spot-on imitations of some national leaders, and offered canny predictions on the upcoming presidential race.
We asked some of those who knew Richard well to share a few thoughts, which can be found below, along with a video of an event that he did for the Starr Center last fall and links to just a few of the many tributes that appeared with the news of his passing.
– Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director, C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College
Remembering Richard Ben Cramer
Further brief recollections from members of the College and town community are welcome, and will be posted as we receive them, as space allows (send to firstname.lastname@example.org). An occasion to remember and celebrate Richard is being planned; details will be announced soon.
“There was no great trick to Richard’s genius, no complex method for others to copy. His gift as a writer was that he truly listened and truly cared. He was genuine and gracious and had no meanness in him, and that’s why the people he wrote about trusted him with their stories and innermost thoughts. If there’s a lesson in Richard’s breathtaking body of work, it’s that no tool in any journalist’s satchel can approach the simple power of sincerity and compassion. We’ll miss him terribly.”
– Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and participant in Washington College’s “Anatomy of an Election” series, 2012
“Richard was blessed with an intuitive understanding of character – what makes a person who he or she is. And he paid it back by finding the words to share it with the rest of us. There was no earthly reward in him being so generous to a young and aspiring writer like me – and that says it all about his character. He was my friend and will remain my hero.”
– Jack Bohrer ’06, political journalist and Starr Center student associate, 2005-7
“I would run into Richard at night as he walked his dog and we would talk under the streetlight about Tom Wolfe, Israel and the New York Yankees. I met with him three weeks ago seeking advice about a current project. As always, he was gracious, fiercely accurate and insightful with his suggestions and doubts, but most of all encouraging, always encouraging, even about seemingly impossible writing tasks that he considered just ‘going to work’ and that I considered as difficult as building a pyramid. He would say, ‘Ya just gotta do it.’ We’ll miss him in Chestertown.”
– James Dissette ’71, alumnus, writer and book designer
“The bells toll for us. The loss of Richard Ben Cramer’s light and laughter makes Chestertown, despite a sunny day, a dimmer place.
“The Web is filled with appreciations of him — the political observer, the foreign correspondent, the baseball writer without peer. He deserves that. What the tributes don’t touch, however, is how he was here in his adopted hometown: a really good guy, a seriously funny guy.
“For someone who achieved iconic status to other journalists and political junkies of every sort, he was, as well, a private man. The anti-celebrity celebrity. Aside from moderating the occasional panel and mentoring Washington College students at his home and on campus, if you wanted to see Richard you had to be looking. His idea of dining out was a table for two in the back room at Proc’s. His most usual appearances in town were walking his dog Alex in the evening quiet through Wilmer Park and up High Street along largely empty sidewalks. His pleasures included single-barrel bourbon, stinky cigars and cracking up friends and himself with droll observations that always came from a beaming face as he appreciated his thought before he could utter it.
“Here’s one, pronounced of a chronically misbehaving canine: ‘Ah, a Substandard Poodle.’
“With tears in your eyes he makes you smile. Funny, how it hurts.”
– John Lang, journalist and former director of the Washington College journalism program
“I’ll always remember Richard and Joan having us over and being hosted with just as much generosity and attention as they granted their far more interesting dinner guests. Those were great experiences for a relatively unworldly 22 year-old from the Eastern Shore. Speaking of unworldly, at a dinner at the Cramer estate in December 2007 Richard was kind enough to cobble together some candles and do an impromptu Hanukkah lighting ceremony—something I had never witnessed before. And to boot, Richard even let me do some deer hunting on his property as well. For all of his fame and access to powerful people, I was and continue to be charmed by his love for a simple lifestyle and simple pleasures.”
- Brandon Righi ’07
“Richard was unfailingly generous with his remarkable insight and wit, as willing to go the extra mile for a group of students as he was for his more well-known friends. Despite the fact that he was usually the best-informed person in the room, he was always interested in hearing from others, and brought out the best in those around him.”
- Jill Ogline Titus, Starr Center associate director, 2007-12
“Spending an evening with Richard got you adrenaline with a bourbon chaser – a jolting and intoxicating time, everything served straight. He had the most soothing voice and the sharpest mind. I met him near the start of my Starr Center fellowship, an anxious time in my book project, and Richard offered soothing courage and sharp advice. And he became a friend. To lose him so soon is devastating.”
– Henry Wiencek, historian and visiting fellow at the Starr Center
“Like I’m sure a lot of people, I so enjoyed Richard’s company that I feel cheated by fate that my hopes have been dashed of sometime seeing him again to enjoy his rare wit and insight and good spirits and great stories. Although I only saw him on about four occasions, two of them brief, over about ten days, he made an extraordinary impression of wisdom wrapped in decency and a keen sense of the delightful absurdity of the world. That world seems greatly diminished today, which seems odd to say, given how little time I spent with him, but it speaks to his presence and the pleasure it gave in even small doses.”
– Alan Taylor, Pulitzer-winning historian and 2012 Starr Center Frederick Douglass Visiting Fellow
“Richard Ben Cramer was, if not quite the father, then one of many benevolent uncles to the C.V. Starr Center. And he was the uncle with a mischievous look in his eye, the one who seemed to enjoy the kids more than the grown-ups at family events. By coincidence, I had been assigned to review his DiMaggio book for the New York Observer exactly as I was moving to Chestertown in 2000. Book reviews can famously separate people; in this case it did the opposite. I loved the book, and as a result, I had a good friend in Chestertown before I even moved here. I would drift over to his 18th-century plantation for wonderful bull sessions and meals, as we talked about history, politics, baseball, children and the arcana of Chestertown. He had it just right – skeptical of the pieties, and tolerant of the foibles. His location just outside of the town and college orbit seemed to suit him well; he was a Delphic oracle to be consulted on an occasional basis, not someone to immerse himself in town or gown matters. He played the part of plantation owner masterfully, barking out instructions to non-existent retainers, and wandering from the great house to the stables in back, where he seemed to have a writing studio or two. Appropriately, this Chesapeake lord was trailed by tobacco smoke wherever he went, in tribute to the great primal crop that brought us all here. After I moved in 2006, I saw him less often, to my regret, but it was always a source of solace to know that a beloved uncle was there, close by the Starr Center, keeping alive the spirit of rigorous, unblinking study of the United States. That spirit still lives, but it is diminished.”
– Ted Widmer, Starr Center director, 2000-2006
“My husband, Henry Wiencek, was the first Patrick Henry fellow and we met Richard and his wife-to-be, Joan, the first night we arrived on the Eastern Shore. It doesn’t get any better than that. Such stories Richard unspooled with that great growl of a voice. His brilliance as a writer and thinker was matched only by his generosity. And the love he and Joanie shared was palpable. It was heaven being in their presence.”
– Donna Lucey, historian
Richard Ben Cramer came to Gunston for the annual “In Celebration of Books” creative writing day while I was a student there, and I signed up for his workshop. A few minutes into his lecture, he and Christie Grabis (then the assistant head of the school) got into a huge fight about how he was giving us hard and fast rules for journalistic writing. She didn’t like his advice, and he was so offended that he stormed out of the classroom. Talk about uncomfortable. (We didn’t realize yet that it was staged.) A few minutes later, he came back in and told us, “Okay. Now write about that.” Eventually, a few people volunteered to read their pieces aloud. Richard offered his critiques for each one, finally asking if anyone had used dialogue. I had, so I nervously raised my hand (the guy was intimidating!) and read mine. After I was done, he looked at me and said, “Ah. You may have the misfortune of being a writer.” We never really spoke in the years that followed, outside of occasionally holding the door open for each other at Procolino’s, but that sentence stuck with me. It was clever, wonderful, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
- Karly Kolaja ’11, College Relations Coordinator, Washington College