Sylvan Fox, 79, a journalist whose beats ranged from Vietnam, to the Kennedy assassination, to a memorable plane crash, and who won a Pulitzer Prize as a newspaper rewrite man, died Saturday, Dec. 22, 2007, of complications from pneumonia.
Fox won his Pulitzer Prize for being part of a team covering an airplane crash on Long Island, New York, in which all 95 passengers were killed. Fox was in the office of the now-defunct World-Telegram & Sun newspaper fielding all the field reporters’ calls and then turning out a complete story 30 minutes after the crash. He kept rewriting the article and turned in a 3,000-word piece within 90 minutes of the event.
He later took his wife out to dinner, she told Long Island’s Newsday, where Fox worked before his retirement.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘If I ever am going to win a Pulitzer Prize, it would be for what I did today,'” she said.
(In My Heart editor’s note: This incident tells us a few things. First, as a journalist, I can admire the speed with which Fox turned out his prose. Remember – this was in the days of manual typewriters, where editing and rewriting were slower than in today’s computerized world. Plus, despite what must have been a crazy few hours, as the paper kept “replating” the front page with updated details, Fox was able to leave the story and his office after his final deadline. In today’s world, the reporter would likely be up all night updating the paper’s website, writing a blog entry, filing an audio report and then being shipped off to TV talk shows to hype the story.)
But the plane crash was neither the first nor the last story in Fox’s career.
Fox grew up in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and graduated from Tilden H.S. in 1945. He spent four years at the Juilliard School of Music, but left without a degree. He met his future wife, Gloria Endleman, also a piano student, at Juilliard. They married when he was 20 and she was 17.
Fox worked as a reporter at several newspapers in upstate New York after receiving a Master’s in music composition. His first newspaper job convinced him journalism was his calling.
“He found it absolutely what he wanted to do and he was very successful at it right from the beginning,” Gloria Fox told Newsday.
While at the World-Telegram, Fox wrote one of the first books questioning the findings of the Warren Commission inquest into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The book, “The Unanswered Questions About President Kennedy’s Assassination,” is long out of print, but is frequently cited in Kennedy assassination literature.
James Tracy Crown, author of “The Kennedy Literature: A Bibliographical Essay on John F. Kennedy,” wrote:
“The question about the official version of the Dallas slaying raised by Fox’s widely distributed paperback seem to have spurred a number of other skeptics to continue their research. Fox’s critique may have been the result of his job as city editor of the late New York World-Telegram & Sun, a paper where the deep press room doubts about the government version of Dallas kept popping into print much more frequently than in other papers.”
Fox left the struggling World-Telegram in 1966, which folded soon afterward, for a post as New York Police deputy commissioner for press relations, but returned to journalism a year later and began a six-year stint as a reporter and editor at the New York Times that included a tour as Saigon bureau chief in the waning days of the Vietnam War.
While he was in Vietnam, Fox wrote exposes of the South Vietnam’s brutal use of so-called “tiger cages” to house anti-government prisoners.
One website’s review of the tiger cage scandal focused on Fox’s reporting:
A firsthand account of the treatment given prisoners under the Saigon regime that appeared in the New York Times March 2, issue details the conditions and methods of torture used. The information comes from four former prisoners and was secured in an interview conducted by Sylvan Fox. The prisoners have been held in the infamous Con Son Island prison. They were released from that prison on February 16.
The former prisoners, fearing for their lives, refused to have their names published. A 23-year-old Buddhist activist told Fox that he was “beaten and tortured off and on for a whole year” at the national police headquarters in Saigon after his arrest in December, 1967. He described being beaten with a stick “until I vomited blood or until the blood came out of my eyes or ears.” His jailers manacled prisoners’ hands behind their backs and then hung them from the ceilings by the handcuffs until they became unconscious.
The ex-prisoner described the notorious “tiger cages” as small, concrete trenches with bars on top. In these cells, as many as seven prisoners would be squeezed into a space five feet wide, six feet long and six feet deep.
Fox left the Times after his Vietnam assignment, which his wife said was a “very stressful time” for Newsday on Long Island, first as an editor supervising local coverage and then as editorial page editor until his retirement in 1988.
Jim Klurfeld, who took over the job when Fox retired, remembered him as a “consummate journalist,” Newsday reported.
“He was right to the point, a brilliant mind,” Klurfeld said. “Sylvan was a great intellectual. There was no topic he didn’t seem to know something about.”
Howard Schneider, former editor of Newsday, remembered Fox as a tough editor who took pride in the newspaper.
“He could be imposing, even a stern figure, but he had a wry sense of humor,” said Schneider, who was the Queens editor under Fox. “Whenever he was exasperated with my performance, he would say I was the son he wished he never had.”
Besides his wife, Fox is survived by a daughter, Erica.