Frank Wolfe/LBJ Library, via Reuters

Helen Thomas, a White House correspondent, questioned President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office in 1968. More Photos »


Published: July 20, 2013

  • WASHINGTON — Helen Thomas, whose keen curiosity, unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy made her a trailblazing White House correspondent in a press corps dominated by men and who was later regarded as the dean of the White House briefing room, died on Saturday at her home in Washington. She was 92.

Her death was announced by the Gridiron Club, one of Washington’s leading news societies. Ms. Thomas was a past president of the organization.

Ms. Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for United Press International and, later, Hearst Newspapers. To her colleagues, she was the unofficial but undisputed head of the press corps, her status ratified by her signature line at the end of every White House news conference: “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Her blunt questions and sharp tone made her a familiar personality not only in the parochial world inside the Washington Beltway but also to television audiences across the country.

“Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama said in a statement on Saturday. “She never failed to keep presidents — myself included — on their toes.”

Presidents grew to respect, even to like, Ms. Thomas for her forthrightness and stamina, which sustained her well after the age at which most people had settled into retirement. President Bill Clinton gave her a cake on Aug. 4, 1997, her 77th birthday. Twelve years later, President Obama gave her cupcakes for her 89th. At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr. Obama called on her, saying: “Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.”

But 16 months later, Ms. Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.

In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced “mutual respect and tolerance.”

“May that day come soon,” she said.

Ms. Thomas’s career bridged two eras, beginning during World War II when people got their news mostly from radio, newspapers and movie newsreels, and extending into the era of 24-hour information on cable television and the Internet. She resigned from U.P.I. on May 16, 2000, a day after it was taken over by an organization with links to the Unification Church.

Weeks later, Ms. Thomas was hired by Hearst to write a twice-weekly column on national issues. She spent the last 10 years of her working life there.

When Ms. Thomas took a job as a radio writer for United Press in 1943 (15 years before it merged with the International News Service to become U.P.I.), most female journalists wrote about social events and homemaking. The journalists who covered war, crime and politics, and congratulated one another over drinks at the press club were typically men.

She worked her way into full-time reporting and by the mid-1950s was covering federal agencies. She covered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, and when he won she became the first woman assigned to the White House full time by a news service.

Ms. Thomas was also the first woman to be elected an officer of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the first to serve as its president. In 1975, she became the first woman elected to the Gridiron Club, which for 90 years had been a men-only bastion of Washington journalists.

Ms. Thomas was known for her dawn-to-dark work hours, and she won her share of exclusives and near-exclusives. She was the only female print journalist to accompany President Richard M. Nixon on his breakthrough trip to China in 1972.

“Helen was a better reporter than she was a writer — but in her prime had more than her share of scoops the rest of us would try to match,” Mark Knoller, the longtime CBS News White House reporter, wrote in a Twitter message on Saturday morning.

And, he added, “Pity the poor WH press aide who would try to tell Helen, ‘You can’t stand there.’ ”

In the Watergate era, she was a favorite late-night confidante of Martha Mitchell, the wife of John N. Mitchell, Mr. Nixon’s attorney general and campaign official. Mrs. Mitchell told Ms. Thomas that responsibility for the “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the cover-up that followed it had gone far above the midlevel officials who were implicated early on.

Helen Thomas Grills the Presidents

People with a vested interest in discrediting Mrs. Mitchell hinted that she was emotionally unstable and that she drank too much. But volatile or not, she was right. Ms. Thomas called Mrs. Mitchell, who died in 1976, “one of the first victims, and perhaps the only heroine, of the Watergate tidal wave.”

On April 22, 1981, three weeks after the attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life, Ms. Thomas and a reporter for The Associated Press interviewed the president, who told them of the “paralyzing pain” he had felt when a bullet went into his chest and of the panic that had overcome him when he could not breathe.

In 1971, Ms. Thomas married Douglas Cornell, a widower, who was about to retire as a White House reporter for The A.P. and was 14 years her senior. He died in 1982.

Ms. Thomas wrote half a dozen books. Her first, “Dateline: White House,” was published by Macmillan in 1975. Four others were published by Scribner: “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times,” in 2000; “Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom From the Front Row at the White House,” in 2003; “Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public,” in 2006; and “Listen Up, Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do,” written with Craig Crawford, in 2009. With the illustrator Chip Bok, she also wrote a children’s book, “The Great White House Breakout,” about a little boy whose mother is president.

Helen Thomas was born in Winchester, Ky., on Aug. 4, 1920, and grew up in Detroit, one of 10 children of George and Mary Thomas. Her father, who could not read or write, encouraged his children to go to college.

In 1942, when Ms. Thomas graduated from what is now Wayne State University in Detroit with a major in English, the country was at war. She went to Washington to look for a job.

She found one, as a waitress. But she did not last long. “I didn’t smile enough,” she recalled years later.

The Washington Daily News soon hired her in a clerical job; soon after that, she began her career with the United Press news service.

“Where’d this girl come from?’” she asked of herself in an appearance before a women’s group in 1999. “I love my work, and I think that I was so lucky to pick a profession where it’s a joy to go to work every day.”

Before she left U.P.I. in May 2000, the news service had been shrinking its payroll and closing bureaus for years, a decline that led to its takeover by News World Communications, the organization founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church. It also publishes The Washington Times, a favorite of conservative readers in Washington.

“I do not intend to stay,” she said on departing. “United Press International is a great news agency. It has made a remarkable mark in the annals of American journalism and has left a superb legacy for future journalists. I wish the new owners all the best, great stories and happy landings.”

Ms. Thomas bitterly opposed the war in Iraq and made no effort to appear neutral at White House news conferences, where some of her questions bordered on the prosecutorial. In “Watchdogs of Democracy?,” she wrote that most White House and Pentagon reporters had been too willing to accept the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war.

In an interview with The New York Times in May 2006, Ms. Thomas was characteristically uncompromising and unapologetic.

“How would you define the difference between a probing question and a rude one?” she was asked.

“I don’t think there are any rude questions,” she said.

Mark Landler contributed reporting.





Published: July 20, 2013

  • Ashton Springer, who parlayed a professional life as an owner of a laundry into a career as the first high-profile black producer on Broadway, drawing theatergoers black and white to shows like “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Eubie!” and Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes,” died on Monday in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was 82.

Chris Sheridan

Myra and Ashton Springer at their home in 1978. His first Broadway production was “No Place to Be Somebody.”

The revue “Bubbling Brown Sugar” starred, from left, Lonnie McNeil, Carolyn Byrd, Newton Winters and Alton Lathrop.

The cause was pneumonia, his son Caz said.

A producer or co-producer of nearly a dozen Broadway shows in the 1970s and early ’80s, Mr. Springer was considered the first black producer to wield real power on the Great White Way. He is credited not only with helping to bring theater by and about African-Americans to wider public consciousness, but also with helping to bring late-20th-century African-American audiences to Broadway.

In 1979, The Washington Post called him “the hottest black producer out there.”

Mr. Springer’s first Broadway production, “No Place to Be Somebody,” centered on the lives of black denizens of a rough-and-tumble New York saloon, a milieu rarely explored by mainstream theater of the period. The play, by an unknown black writer named Charles Gordone, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1970.

Writing in The New York Times, Walter Kerr described Mr. Gordone, who would become the first African-American dramatist to win the Pulitzer, as “the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee.”

Mr. Springer went on to produce two hit musical revues, “Bubbling Brown Sugar” (1976) and “Eubie!” (1978).

“Bubbling Brown Sugar,” which ran for 766 performances, celebrated the songs of black titans like Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and W. C. Handy.

“Eubie!” focused on Blake’s work. Featuring the spectacular tap dancing of the brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines, it played 439 performances.

Mr. Springer was the executive producer of “A Lesson From Aloes,” Mr. Fugard’s critically acclaimed drama about racial tensions in South Africa. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1980 and ran for 96 performances, starred James Earl Jones, Maria Tucci and Harris Yulin.

Ashton Springer Jr. was born in Manhattan to parents who had come from the West Indies. As a student at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, where the family moved when he was a boy, he helped produce local concerts featuring the likes of Miles Davis.

Mr. Springer attended Ohio State University before becoming a social worker in the Bronx. In the 1950s, he and his wife, Myra, opened a coin-operated laundry in the Jackson Heights section of Queens.

Through a friend of a friend, Mr. Springer met to N. Richard Nash, a playwright known for the 1954 drama “The Rainmaker.” Seeking a nontheatrical side business, Mr. Nash became an investor in the laundry. He gave Mr. Springer a room in his office in Manhattan’s theater district.

Captivated, Mr. Springer became Mr. Nash’s assistant on the 1960 musical comedy “Wildcat,” starring Lucille Ball, for which Mr. Nash was a producer and the author of the book.

In the mid-’60s, Jeanne Warner, a college classmate of Mr. Springer’s who was married to Mr. Gordone, gave him a copy of “No Place to Be Somebody.” Mr. Springer spent years trying to raise the money to produce it but was told repeatedly that audiences would care nothing for a gritty drama about black people.

He eventually persuaded Joseph Papp to stage it at the Public Theater, where it opened to admiring notices in 1969. It went on to play briefly at the ANTA Playhouse as part of a festival of Off Broadway plays, winning the Pulitzer shortly afterward.

In 1971, Mr. Springer and Ms. Warner brought the play to the Morosco Theater on Broadway, where it ran for 39 performances.

Mr. Springer’s other Broadway credits include “Cold Storage” (1977), a play about cancer patients starring Martin Balsam and Len Cariou, and an all-black revival of “Guys and Dolls” (1976), starring Robert Guillaume and Norma Donaldson.

In 1982, after an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office, a State Supreme Court judge ordered Mr. Springer to “make an offer of full restitution” of more than $120,000 to 33 investors in “Eubie!” whose money had not been returned.

“The bottom line is that the show never grossed enough money to pay back anyway,” Mr. Springer told The Times that year.

In an e-mail message on Friday, Julianne Boyd, who conceived and directed “Eubie!,” said that Mr. Springer was never able to repay investors in that show.

The episode marked the end of Mr. Springer’s Broadway career. He was later a producer of Off Broadway shows, including the musical “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.,” about the black vaudeville circuit.

Mr. Springer’s marriage to Myra Burns ended in divorce; she died in 2005. Besides his son Caz, his survivors include another son, Mark, and a sister, Caludia Holston.

Today, although black directors, actors and playwrights are more visible on Broadway than in years past, they remain scarce among the ranks of its producers.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1979, Mr. Springer voiced the hope that one day Broadway would be home to theater that transcended racial lines.

“Not black theater,” he explained. “Not white theater. Just theater.”





Published: July 17, 2013

  • Laurie Frink, an accomplished trumpeter who became a brass instructor of widespread influence and high regard, died on Saturday at her home in Manhattan. She was 61.

Alan Nahigian

Laurie Frink in May.

The cause was cancer of the bile duct, said the classical violist Lois Martin, her partner of 25 years.

Ms. Frink built her trumpet career as a section player, starting when few women were accepted in those ranks. She worked extensively on Broadway and with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the Mel Lewis Orchestra and Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, often playing lead.

“She was one of the most accurate trumpet players I’ve ever heard,” John McNeil, who recalled playing in trumpet sections alongside Ms. Frink some 40 years ago, said in an interview.

Ms. Frink and Mr. McNeil wrote a book together, “Flexus: Trumpet Calisthenics for the Modern Improvisor,” which has become an essential resource for many trumpeters since its publication a decade ago. The book’s exercises and études came from Ms. Frink’s reservoir of strategies for addressing physical issues on the horn, especially where a player’s embouchure, or formation of lips and facial muscles, was concerned.

“She would take each player and find out what was causing the problem — and then do it to herself, so she could figure out a solution,” said the celebrated trumpeter Dave Douglas, who sought out Ms. Frink when he ran into embouchure problems in the early 1990s. Meeting with her, Mr. Douglas recalled, “was like a combination of therapy, gym instruction and music lesson.”

A warm but private person with a sharp wit, Ms. Frink earned the protective loyalty of her students. Some of the brass players she counseled — trombonists and others as well as trumpeters — were, like Mr. Douglas and Mr. McNeil, working professionals seeking to discreetly avert career-ending difficulties.

But as a faculty member at several leading jazz conservatories, she also mentored many trumpeters at a more formative stage, including Ambrose Akinmusire and Nadje Noordhuis, who have since gained prominence in jazz circles. “I always encourage my students to be the square peg,” Ms. Frink said in 2011. “Sometimes it’s difficult for them, so I try to nurture that. They call me trumpet mother.”

Laurie Ann Frink was born on Aug. 8, 1951, in Pender, Neb., a small town now claimed by the Omaha Indian Reservation, to James and Carol Frink. Her father was a candy salesman. In addition to Ms. Martin, she is survived by her brother, James.

Ms. Frink studied with Dennis Schneider, the principal trumpeter with the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra, at the University of Nebraska. After moving to New York in her early 20s, she met Carmine Caruso, a brass guru who devised an adaptable set of calisthenic exercises for trumpet.

Ms. Frink became Mr. Caruso’s protégée, and for more than a dozen years his romantic partner. He died in 1987. Her own style of instruction was an extension of the Caruso method.

Ms. Frink never stopped playing at a high level. She appears on every album by the Maria Schneider Orchestra, including two that won Grammy Awards. “When I wrote these subtle inner parts, I would always give them to her,” Ms. Schneider said. “I knew she was the person who would really spin the heart into the line.”

Ms. Frink also worked in recent years with other critically acclaimed big bands, including the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society and Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project. Her recorded work will endure, but for many of her former students her instruction is her chief legacy. “In a way it’s a very living art form,” Mr. Douglas said. “There are people all over town, and all over the world, doing what she told them to do.”

He said he practiced a routine of hers on Sunday morning after hearing the news of her death.




Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Jim Buck, near Central Park in 1964, is considered the first professional dog walker in New York City. He ran a business in which he and two dozen assistants walked more than 150 dogs a day.


Published: July 12, 2013

  • There are eight million occupational stories in New York City, and none cries Gotham louder than that of the professional surrogate — the shrewd city dweller who spies a void that other New Yorkers are too hurried, harried or hard-pressed to fill and rushes enterprisingly in.

Over time, the city has spawned professional car-movers and professional line-standers, but its most visible — and audible — paid surrogates are indisputably its professional dog walkers.

By all accounts, Jim Buck was the first of them.

Mr. Buck, who died on July 4 at 81, is widely described as the first person to professionalize dog walking in New York City and, by extension, in the United States.

Starting in the early 1960s, Mr. Buck, the scion of a patrician Upper East Side family, rose each morning at dawn to walk passels of clients’ dogs, eventually presiding over a business in which he and two dozen assistants walked more than 150 dogs a day.

When he began that business, Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, it was the only one of its kind in New York. Today, the city has scores of professional dog walkers.

During the 40 years Mr. Buck ran his school, he was an eminently recognizable figure: an elegantly turned out, borzoi-thin man of 145 pounds, he commanded the leashes of a half-dozen or more dogs at a time — a good 500 pounds of dog in all — which fanned out before him like the spokes of a wheel.

He walked in sun; he walked in rain. In wintertime, his charges might be clad in small sweaters bearing the logos of the European resorts where their masters skied.

Jim Buck’s School for Dogs was equal parts exclusive preparatory academy, exercise class and reform school. In a 1964 profile of Mr. Buck in The New York Times, Gay Talese described him, plying his trade, as looking “like Charlton Heston in the chariot-racing scene in ‘Ben-Hur.’ ”

But with hindsight, it is more apt to liken Mr. Buck to Lee Marvin in the 1967 film “The Dirty Dozen.”

Mr. Buck’s clients were refined. Their dogs were less so.

The clients, mostly Upper East Siders, included some of the city’s most prominent names in the arts, government, finance and industry. (Continuing the tradition of walker-client confidentiality to which Mr. Buck long hewed, his family declined to name them. It did confirm Mr. Buck’s death, at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan, apparently of complications of emphysema and cancer.)

The dogs included the intractable, the obstinate and the profoundly pampered.

One, an otterhound known to Mr. Buck’s staff as Oliver the Awful, was used for some years to audition prospective employees.

“Oliver knows when he’s testing someone new, and he can be counted on to leap into the first phone booth along the way and slam the door and wedge himself against it,” Mr. Buck told The New Yorker in 1965. “Brute force is of no avail; the only way to get him out is to remain poised and quietly talk him out.”

James Augustine Farrell Buck was born in Manhattan on Nov. 28, 1931. His family, socially prominent, had prospered in steel and shipping. As a youth, Jim showed dogs; he also trained horses at the Connecticut country homes of his uncles.

Footloose, determined and eager to flout convention, Mr. Buck bypassed college.

But by the early ’60s he was leading the sort of gray-flannel life of which he despaired, chafing in New York as a salesman for an electronics concern.

Mr. Buck knew dogs — as a young man, he bred Great Danes. He also knew New Yorkers. Before long, a void was filled.

By 1964, The Times reported, he was making $500 a week, more than his electronics job paid.

His cobbler enjoyed a regular cut: Mr. Buck wore through the soles of his shoes every two weeks.

Mr. Buck’s marriage to Ann Sage ended in divorce. A resident of Manhattan, he is survived by three sons, Jonathan, Christopher and Graham; two sisters, Mother Debra Joseph, a Benedictine nun, and Connie Buck; and a brother, Richard.

Jim Buck’s School for Dogs is gone now, closed a decade ago when Mr. Buck retired. But its legacy endures: some of the city’s professional dog walkers are his former employees.

As the city changes, so too does their work. There are no more telephone booths for latter-day Olivers to barricade themselves in. Few cobblers remain.

And in years to come, in perhaps the keenest loss of all, there may well be no more newsprint. A 20th-century artifact increasingly deemed redundant in the electronic age, it remains, for New York’s dog walkers, a vital, and indispensable, means of upholding the law.


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