Richard Ben Cramer died Monday, and my world become a smaller, less interesting place.
I hadn’t spoken to Richard that much recently. The last time was many months ago when I was about to embark on my first feature article for The Atlantic. I had never written anything like this before, and Richard was the first and only person I called.
“What do you need me for, Eppy?” he asked. “You seem to doing just fine on your own.”
“Well,” I told him, “I don’t know if I need you, but I do know that I want you.”
Everyone who ever met Richard Cramer wanted him. To count Richard as a friend was, quite honestly, to feel better about yourself. He elevated you, made you happier (certainly made you laugh), made you feel like you belonged. I once told Tom Lennon, who mentored me when I was young and green and stupid with the overconfidence of youth, that Richard was the only person I ever met who could change a room by walking into it. But when I think back on the time I spent with Richard and Tom working on The Choice ’92 and then The Battle Over Citizen Kane, I don’t think I was being entirely honest. The truth is that Richard was the only person I ever met who changed me just by walking into the room.
I have spent much of the time since I heard of Richard’s passing reading online testimonials to his gifts as a reporter, and re-reading his words. Richard could write like no one I have ever known. We romanticize writers, but we don’t really value them—not when they’re alive, anyway. But not Richard. There are legions of journalists out there who read Richard’s portrait of Ted Williams for Esquire, or What it Takes (his tome on the 1988 presidential campaign that is to political reporting what Moby Dick is to literature) and decided that they needed to report. Richard may not have captured the public’s imagination like Hunter S. Thompson, or Norman Mailer, or Tom Wolfe, but he mattered just as much.
A year or so after Tom, Richard, and I had worked on The Choice for Frontline, Tom and I were struggling with a film about the Hurricane of 1938 for The American Experience. Richard was in town and I know Tom and I were hungry both for his company and for a respite from the film. Richard blew into the office, threw his feet up on the conference table where we were working—tasseled brown loafers, bright miss-matched socks—and proceeded to entertain. Tom, ever the taskmaster, finally noted that we had a film to make, a script to write, neither of which we were doing particularly well, and listening to Richard tell jokes and regale us with stories was all well and good, but we need to work. Richard leaned forward, and in a kind way that I only now realize was to give me some standing with the adults in the room said, “Let’s see what you got, Eppy.”
What we had was a not very evocative line about a church group from Westerly, Rhode Island, many of whom had died in the hurricane. Minister Tobin made the trip down to the Lowry cottage to share lunch with the Mother’s Club. The line sat just there, flat and uninspired. Richard smiled and said it was good. Then he went to the computer and wrote this:
These were the faithful women of his church.
“What do we know about these women?” he asked.
Over the next few days, with Richard now at our side, we compiled a portrait of the women of the Christ Church Mother’s Club. That one line changed our film—deepening it emotionally, making it more human. It taught me what good writing and good reporting can do.
Just the other day I finally finished the first part of my big article. As I shut my computer down for the night I thought to myself, I need to call Richard this week. I need him to read all this and tell me if I’m okay. Richard died before I made that call. Still, this morning when I sat down at my computer I could hear his raspy, warm, enthusiastic voice:
“Tell me what you got, Eppy.”