McCandlish Phillips, Who Exposed a Jewish Klansman, Is Dead at 85
John Orris/The New York Times
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: April 9, 2013
McCandlish Phillips, a former reporter for The New York Times who wrote one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history — exposing the Orthodox Jewish background of a seniorKu Klux Klan official — before forsaking journalism to spread the Gospel, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Jaan Vaino, a friend.
Even in a newsroom that employed Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and Ada Louise Huxtable, Mr. Phillips, who was with The Times from 1952 to 1973, stood out.
He stood out as a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist — an all-too-rare marriage on newspapers then — and in his hands even a routine news article seldom failed to delight.
Consider Mr. Phillips’s 1961 account of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, an annual millstone for the city’s general-assignment reporters:
“The sun was high to their backs and the wind was fast in their faces and 100,000 sons and daughters of Ireland, and those who would hold with them, matched strides with their shadows for 52 blocks. It seemed they marched from Midtown to exhaustion.”
In his 2003 memoir, “City Room,” Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The Times, called Mr. Phillips “the most original stylist I’d ever edited.”
Mr. Phillips stood out in other ways. About 6 feet 5 inches tall and not much more than 160 pounds, he was often described as a latter-day Ichabod Crane — “the man of the awkward gait and the graceful phrase,” his editors called him.
An evangelical Christian, he kept a Bible on his desk and led prayer meetings for like-minded colleagues (there were none when he joined the paper, he noted ruefully) in a conference room off the newsroom.
He refrained from smoking, drinking, cursing and gambling, each of which had been refined to a high, exuberant art in the Times newsroom — the last of these to such a degree that at midcentury the newspaper employed two bookmakers-in-residence, nominally on the payroll as news clerks.
Mr. Phillips’s most renowned article appeared on Page 1 on Sunday, Oct. 31, 1965, under the headline “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin.” It was a rigorously reported profile of Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon of the New York State Ku Klux Klan, a chief organizer of the national Klan and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party.
Mr. Burros, the article went on to document, was also a Jew — a former Hebrew school student who had been bar mitzvahed at 13.
The article remains a case study in a reporter’s perseverance in the face of intimidation. It is also a case study in the severe, unintended consequences that the airing of fiercely guarded truths can have for the guardian: despite threatening to kill Mr. Phillips if the article went to press, Mr. Burros, in the end, killed only himself.
John McCandlish Phillips Jr. was born in Glen Cove, N.Y., on Long Island, on Dec. 4, 1927. His father was a traveling salesman, and young Johnny, as he was known, would attend 13 grammar schools across New York, Ohio and Massachusetts.
After graduating from Brookline High School, near Boston, he forwent college for reporting and editing jobs on small New England papers. From 1950 to 1952 Mr. Phillips served with the Army at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, and it was there, he said, that he attended the church service at which he was born again.
Mr. Phillips joined The Times as a copy boy in November 1952, later working as a clerk on the city desk and in the Washington bureau. In 1955, he was made a cub reporter and consigned to prove his mettle in the paper’s Brooklyn office, then a dank, decrepit outfit near Police Department headquarters in the borough’s nether regions.
His account of life there, written for Times Talk, the newspaper’s house organ (“It is impossible to tell a plainclothes detective from a mugger here. You just have to wait to see what they do”), so delighted the newspaper’s management that his sentence was commuted to service in the main newsroom.
In October 1965, The Times received a tip about Mr. Burros’s Jewish upbringing. Assigned to pursue it, Mr. Phillips, aided by newsroom colleagues, spent days reconstructing his life, scouring school, military, employment and police records; amassing photographs; and interviewing neighbors and associates.
The one thing they lacked was an interview with Mr. Burros: efforts to reach him had been unsuccessful. Finally, on a return visit to South Ozone Park, the Queens neighborhood in which Mr. Burros lived, Mr. Phillips glimpsed him on the street — “a round, short, sallow young man who looked a little like a small heap of misery,” he would later write in Times Talk.
He approached Mr. Burros, and they went into a luncheonette. The conversation, which ranged over Mr. Burros’s brilliant scholastic record — he had an I.Q. of 154 — and his rise to power in the Klan, was cordial.
Then, nearly 20 minutes into the interview, Mr. Phillips raised the subject of Mr. Burros’s Jewishness.
“If you publish that, I’ll come and get you and I’ll kill you,” Mr. Burros said. “I don’t care what happens to me. I’ll be ruined. This is all I’ve got to live for.”
By the time the two men parted, Mr. Phillips later wrote, Mr. Burros had threatened his life half a dozen times.
Mr. Phillips returned to the newsroom, and The Times arranged for round-the-clock bodyguards. He wrote his article, detailing Mr. Burros’s religious upbringing, his early fascination with far-right ideologies and his advocacy of genocide for Jews and blacks. On the day the article was published, Mr. Burros committed suicide.
The article cemented Mr. Phillips’s reputation as one of the city’s most esteemed reporters. He spent his remaining years at The Times primarily in the paper’s Metropolitan section, where his portfolio included the About New York column.
Mr. Phillips became known in particular for his coverage of the city’s vaunted, vanishing institutions, as in this 1969 article about the closing of the original Lindy’s delicatessen, which began:
“What kind of a day is today? It’s the kind of a day that if you wanted a slice of cheesecake at Lindy’s, you couldn’t get it.”
Near the end of the article, he wrote, with plain-spoken, impeccable logic:
“The locusts stripped the place of menus and ashtrays and other mementos. There were conflicting claimants to possession of the last bagel. As a souvenir, a bagel is not much good. It is perishable and it also lacks proof. Anyone can hold up a bagel and say, ‘This is the last bagel from Lindy’s.’ ”
Mr. Phillips resigned from The Times in late 1973 for a life in religion.
In 1962, he had helped found the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a Pentecostal congregation in Manhattan. Its tenets, as Ken Auletta wrote in a 1997 New Yorker profile of Mr. Phillips, include the belief that “pornography, drugs, abortion and any form of fornication (including premarital sex and homosexuality) are sins.”
In the early 1970s, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship made headlines after the kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of several of its congregants by their families. The families maintained that the group had trained the congregants to repudiate them.
After leaving The Times, Mr. Phillips lived, in Mr. Auletta’s account, a contented if threadbare existence, preaching the Gospel on the Columbia University campus, near his home, and managing the fellowship’s affairs. The fellowship, which has long since ceased to incur unfavorable notice, is still extant, based in Upper Manhattan.
Mr. Phillips, who never married, is survived by a sister, Janet DeClemente.
He published several books, including “City Notebook” (1974), a collection of his articles from The Times, and “What Every Christian Should Know About the Supernatural” (1988).
Over the years, Mr. Phillips was asked whether he felt responsible for Mr. Burros’s suicide. He felt “a vague sense of sadness,” he said, but no guilt.
His stance — the view from the prospect where his faith and his journalism converged — was encapsulated in a remark he made to Mr. Gelb.
On the afternoon of Oct. 31, 1965, Mr. Gelb phoned Mr. Phillips to tell him, very gently, that Mr. Burros had shot himself.
“What I think we’ve seen here, Arthur,” Mr. Phillips replied, “is the God of Israel acting in judgment.”