At one time, a whole generation of Times reporters wished they could write like McCandlish Phillips. Then he left them all for God.
By: Ken Auletta
LAST April 12th, a crowd filled the First Church, in Wenham, Massachusetts, for the funeral of Nathaniel C. Nash, the Frankfurt bureau chief of the New York Times. Nash, a much admired reporter, had been among the thirty-five passengers and crew killed when the airplane carrying Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown crashed into a Croatian mountain. Seated among the journalist’s friends and family were some two dozen newspaper employees, including the Times’ publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.
There were three speakers at the service, including the rector of the First Church and the pastor of a neighboring church. The principal speaker was John McCandlish Phillips, Jr., and he caused a stir. Phillips, who is six feet six but weighs only a hundred and sixty-one pounds, loomed over Nash’s coffin. Wearing a baggy gray striped suit jacket and black pants, and with his long, thin neck sticking like a pole through a too large collar hoop, the sixty-eight-year-old Phillips looked like an overdressed vagrant. When he reached the pulpit, he began to weep. When he spoke, he cited Scripture, scolding those who had sinned and assuring the bereaved that Nash awaited them “in a better place.” Nathaniel, he said, “was lovely in life here, a friend of friends, and I expect to see him later there.”
Phillips spoke at the behest of the Nash family, who wanted people to understand how devoted Nathaniel had been to Phillips’s Pentecostal church group, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship. Nash had joined the group as a Harvard freshman, and after he graduated, in 1973, Phillips helped recruit him to the Times as a copyboy. In those days, McCandlish Phillips, as his byline read, was a star reporter at the Times, and was the newspaperman whom Nash most admired. And Nash was not the only one who felt that way. Among the outstanding journalists who worked in the newsroom in those days—Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Gloria Emerson, J. Anthony Lukas, Richard Reeves—Phillips was widely thought to be the most gifted writer.
Many of those who crowded the spare New England church in Wenham did not know about Nash’s spiritual side. “Nash was close to his God,” Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., says. “You could have a beer with Nash and not know that.” Nor did many at the church know that during the years Nathaniel Nash lived in New York, in the seventies and early eighties, he and Phillips and two dozen or so others met on Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings to pray and to share their faith that salvation comes only to those who are “born again” as believers in Jesus Christ. Each spring and fall, Fellowship church members trolled the Columbia University campus, reciting Scripture and dispensing literature. Nash played the guitar and Phillips slapped his thigh as the group sang hymns.
SULZBERGER, like many others at Nash’s funeral, had never met McCandlish Phillips before. Others at the Times had known Phillips—in the newsroom he was called John—but had not seen him for decades, although they vividly remembered stories he had written. Gay Talese, who left the paper in 1965 and became a best-selling author, says, “He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural. There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”
Colleagues on the Times knew Phillips as an uncommonly polite and generous man who never drank, smoked, cursed, or played cards. He kept a Bible on his desk, and once a week, surrounded by a handful of Times employees, he conducted Bible readings in the back of the third-floor newsroom. To competitors like Pete Hamill, then a columnist for the Post and now the editor-in-chief of the Daily News, he was “a gentle character” who “seemed miscast as a newsman” among the sharks from what were until the early nineteen-sixties seven competing daily newspapers. Or so it appeared, until Hamill read Phillips’s copy. He recalls, “He used the senses. He looked. He listened. He smelled. He touched. There was a texture to his writing that was sensual.” Phillips’s stories often focused on forgotten people: the homeless for whom the Port Authority Bus Terminal became a place not just to keep warm but to socialize; the typesetter who saved a literary treasure from oblivion. Phillips reported fires and murders, he covered Albany and the United Nations, but he was best known as a stylish feature writer. When editors wanted someone to bring a fresh and humorous eye to Abraham Lass, a remarkable Brooklyn high-school principal who was also an accomplished ragtime piano player, or to chronicle the last piece of cheesecake sold at Lindy’s, Phillips was their man. He could write about Wisconsin that the state “bobs on a sea of curdled milk,” or describe a jazz group in which “one player in this noisome pestilence looked something like a blond werewolf, with a veil of hair growing across his face.”
It was a brilliant career, but in 1973, after twenty-one years at the Times, Phillips startled his colleagues by announcing that he was quitting. He was forty-six. He fell out of touch with his former co-workers, though they would occasionally hear that he had been spotted in Morningside Heights, trying to convert Columbia students. When Phillips left the Times, he had had a full head of dark hair, cut short around the temples. At Nash’s funeral, former colleages were startled by the change in his appearance. His ears stood out starkly beneath strands of gray hair at his temples. His complexion was sallow. He looked like an apparition.
What remained unchanged was the ready smile, the somewhat gawky manner, the sweetness. And, for the contingent from theTimes, memories of a legendary journalist more interested in the truth and texture of a story than in scoring a scoop. And a question: Why did a man with so much talent walk away from it?
JOHN MCCANDLISH PHILLIPS graduated from high school in 1947 and went to work at a weekly newspaper in Brookline, Massachusetts. There a colleague introduced him to the Baptist Church, which affected him deeply. But the transforming experience of his life came in Baltimore in 1952, five weeks before he was to be discharged from the Army. He had continued to attend Baptist services, and at a service one night, while the congregation was praying, a lay minister bellowed, “Are you willing to go anywhere in the world and do anything Christ asks of you? If you are, stand up!” Phillips did not stand up. “But every word of that went right into me,” he recalls.
Four weeks later, those words were still with him. Restlessly, Master Sergeant Phillips rose before the 6 A.M. reveille and walked to the small chapel on the Army base. “The morning was a low blue,” he told me. “It was quiet. I sensed the presence of God with me and I went into that chapel and said yes to God on the basis of that challenge. I told Him I’d go anywhere in the world and do anything He wanted me to do.” Phillips expected that he would become either a preacher or a missionary.
First, though, he took the train home to Boston to stay with his father, who was sick. He boarded the train in Baltimore, and as it approached Penn Station God spoke to him. “Get off the train” is the command he remembers. “I didn’t understand it. I simply got off the train.” He found a cheap hotel near Times Square, and the next morning he bought copies of the Herald Tribune and the Times. On a Times classified page he spotted an ad for an editorial trainee. He fell to his knees beside the bed and prayed for guidance. Again, he heard the voice of God, telling him, he remembers, that he “had a mission to go to the New York Times and get a job.”
What did he hear when God spoke? “You don’t hear through your outer ear,” he explained. “You hear through your inner ear. You are conscious of being talked to, but you don’t hear the words.”
Wearing his Army uniform, Phillips left his dingy hotel room and walked to the Times, where the personnel office was crowded with applicants for the editorial-trainee job. Phillips was in the habit of saying “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and this made a favorable impression, as did his assurance that he could live on twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents a week.
And he did, finding a room at the Y.M.C.A. on West Twenty-third Street off Seventh Avenue, for ten dollars and fifty cents a week, and eating supper at the nearby Automat, where for forty-five cents he could get a plate of three hot vegetables, mashed potatoes, a dish of prunes, and a roll with butter. Most weeks, he managed to save two dollars to send to his mother, and each week he put fifty cents or so in the collection plate of the Baptist church.
His job was not glamorous. The city room, on the third floor, stretched for an entire block, from Forty-third Street to Forty-fourth Street, and was filled with the sound of telephones, pounding Royal and Underwood typewriters, creaking swivel chairs, blaring microphone summonses for reporters to appear at an editor’s desk, shouts of “Copy!” and “Boy!”
There was a lot of gambling in the newsroom. Arthur Gelb, who joined the paper as a copyboy in 1944, rose to managing editor, and is today president of the New York Times Company Foundation, recalls that gambling was once so prevalent that the managing editor, Edwin Leland James, “hired two bookies as copyboys. James bet. We all bet on the horses. They paid off with rolls of cash.” McCandlish Phillips lugged his Bible everywhere, but he did not try to impose his values on others. He was awed by the newsroom and the eminences who inhabited it—Meyer (Mike) Berger, who wrote the “About New York” column; Peter Kihss, who kept (and generously shared) meticulous files on every subject he ever reported on; Homer Bigart, who, like the TV detective Columbo, was not afraid to ask the childlike question that unlocked the story. It was a room filled with eccentrics, and the copyboy who read a Bible at his desk, addressed editors as “Sir,” and resembled Ichabod Crane fit right in. When someone called out “Copy!” Phillips was hard to miss, loping like a giraffe across the room.
Early in 1955, Phillips was promoted to reporter and assigned to the “shack” that the Times maintained across from Brooklyn police headquarters. He worked as a legman and learned the tricks of reporting—in particular, the art of the interview. At one press conference, reporters were shouting rude questions at a museum director. As Phillips recalls it, “I just sidled over to the director and asked him a series of quiet questions, gentleman to gentleman, which he answered readily. I never veered from that in all my reporting experience. It seemed comfortable and decent. And it was by far the most effective way to interview.”
What made the newsroom take notice of him was not a story for the paper but a satire he wrote that treated life in the Brooklyn shack as if it were a foreign posting. Published in the August, 1955, edition of Times Talk, the newspaper’s house organ, it contained such observations as “Policemen are remarkable linguists. They do their calls in hundreds of languages, none of which owe any debt to English.” And this:
Two weeks ago, a man of about 55 who looked as though he had been made out of scrap iron and old revolver handles dropped in to explain that he had just been sprung from the Tombs; that some old friends had taken the trouble to beat him up his first night out and that he wasn’t afraid of nobody, especially cops. He wanted to know why the newspapers suppressed all sorts of important things, like prison conditions and graft among politicians.
“It’s a plot,” I told him. “But what can I do? I’m just one of the little ones.” This cheered him and he left without striking me.
Arthur Gelb remembers the satire—and the new byline, which was then John M. Phillips—vividly. “We all said, ‘Who is John Phillips? Who wrote this wonderful piece?’ I can’t think of any other case where a star was born in the newsroom and overnight everyone in the newsroom knew who he was.” Phillips was soon promoted to a desk in the newsroom’s next-to-last row.
PROFESSIONALLY, Phillips began to soar; his personal life was not so smooth. His father, a sales representative, who had separated from his mother when their son was three, died in 1958. Now his mother—with whom he’d moved so often that he switched grammar schools thirteen times before the age of twelve—was penniless. He invited her to live with him in an apartment he had rented in Brooklyn. This provoked tension between them, and it exploded in an ugly way in 1959. Gay Talese recalled the evening: he was working on the night rewrite desk when an editor exclaimed, “Jesus, I just heard from the city desk that there’s some problem with John. The cops are over there. John’s been breaking plates, and his mother called the cops.”
The argument was over his mother’s unwillingness to take off her spike heels, which were gouging holes in a new floor. Phillips remembers that they had words and he smashed his fist through a window. He said he never physically threatened his mother, but she summoned the police. “I was taken to Kings County Hospital, and I was essentially held there for six or seven days,” he recalled. He was subjected to psychiatric examination. After that, his mother moved to an apartment in Queens. And although they were still on speaking terms and got together with Phillips’s younger sister on holidays, they remained somewhat distant for the rest of her life. (She died in 1991.)
Around the newsroom, Phillips kept pretty much to himself. Sometimes he had dinner at the home of Gay Talese and his wife, Nan, or went across the street to Gough’s to eat with colleagues. But he never went drinking with the boys. Nicholas Pileggi, who was a police reporter for the Associated Press in the fifties and sixties, remembered that when the police raided a porn parlor they would confiscate movies. Then the cops and the brass from the old Police Headquarters, at 240 Centre Street, would join reporters at theTimes’ office across the street, set up an 8-mm. projector, and hang a sheet backed by a blanket over the window to serve as a screen. Every time they did this, Phillips would step outside and take a walk around the block. Pileggi, who says he played poker instead, recalls, “These guys were so retarded. They once forgot the blanket and projected right through the bedsheet. So the outside of Police Headquarters had a movie of Lucky Pierre in his socks chasing this lady around the bed!”
Phillips rarely dated. Since 1950, he says, he has dated only one woman, a former Associated Press reporter. He stopped seeing her when the Scriptures instructed him that one cannot “yoke” a believer and a nonbeliever. “I am not susceptible to loneliness because I am not alone,” he says.
PERHAPS the most influential person in McCandlish Phillips’s life was a woman he met in 1961, in Miami. He was there on an assignment to search for secret United States government bases where exiled Cubans were training to invade their homeland. Once, on a night off, he got lost and came across a small Spanish mission, where he sat and listened to the service, which was in Spanish. An older woman who spoke English came over and helped him translate. This was Hannah Lowe, who was then sixty-six years old. Her husband, Thomas Lowe, had formed Pentecostal congregations in Baltimore in the late nineteen-twenties, and had then gone as a missionary to South America, where he died in 1941. She had continued his work, and had spent much of her life since as a missionary in Colombia and in Israel.
A year later, Phillips again met Mrs. Lowe by chance when she visited New York to preach. Phillips was awed by her devotion. She returned to South America, and they met the next year at a Christian businessmen’s breakfast in New York. He persuaded her to stay. Over the next several years, they would pray together, and they organized a church, called the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, recruiting members, spreading the gospel that there was, in his words, “a priesthood of all believers.” This church believes that pornography, drugs, abortion, and any form of fornication (including premarital sex and homosexuality) are sins—although, unlike the religious right, it does not champion government intervention to regulate behavior.
In 1963, Mrs. Lowe and another woman moved to a third-floor apartment at 116th Street and Broadway; the following year, Phillips moved to a two-room apartment on the seventh floor of the same building, where he still lives. Often they dined together at the New Asia Restaurant, near 112th Street and Broadway. After dinner, he went home and sometimes read books; most often, he read Scripture and prayed.
In the morning, a prayer group convened for an hour at seven-thirty. After that, Phillips entered the secular world at the Times. He was enraptured by his job. In 1963, when A. M. Rosenthal was summoned from Tokyo and put in charge of the city desk, with Arthur Gelb as his deputy, Phillips and Talese and others were excited. Rosenthal was known to want better writing in the paper. While he was still in Tokyo, he had already decided that Talese and Phillips were the two writers he admired most. Of Phillips, Rosenthal recalls, “He was an original. He had a very telling eye. He had a quiet merriment. His writing wasn’t heavy.”
Phillips’s most celebrated story was written in 1965, when Rosenthal and Gelb assigned him to investigate the life of Daniel Burros, who, at twenty-eight, had become the leader of the state Ku Klux Klan. Rosenthal had received a tip that Burros, who had also been a ranking official in the American Nazi Party, was Jewish. For five days, with help from a team of reporters, Phillips dug.
When he had the facts, he got up early one day and took the subway to Ozone Park, Queens, hoping to stop Burros as he left his apartment. He intercepted him outside a barbershop, and they walked to a luncheonette and found a booth. Burros ordered a Coke, Phillips had scrambled eggs. They talked about the Klan, about how Burros had come to embrace Nazism, about his service in the Army and the pictures in his wallet. Then Phillips revealed that he knew Burros had been reared in a Jewish home. Burros demanded angrily, “Are you going to print that?”
Phillips said that it was not within his power to make that decision, but the fact that Burros’s parents were married in a Jewish ceremony was a matter of public record.
Burros put his hand inside his coat and told Phillips that he had a vial of acid in his pocket, and that he would kill him in the luncheonette. Phillips nervously glanced down at the knife and fork near Burros’s fingertips, then calmly put a dollar down on the table, and rose to leave. Burros followed him outside. As Rosenthal and Gelb later wrote, in “One More Victim: The Life and Death of an American-Jewish Nazi,” Phillips “had the story in his notebook” but decided to stay and try to convert this man who seemed so full of hate. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” Phillips told Burros. “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
“You’re trying to con me,” Burros snapped. They walked for a while, and before they parted they shook hands. Phillips went back to the office, and all day Burros kept calling, one moment pleading, the next threatening. A security guard hovered while Phillips wrote his story. That night, two detectives drove Phillips home. Gelb and Rosenthal held the story, hoping to confirm that Burros had been bar mitzvahed; when they did, Phillips wrote an insert, and the story was published. When Daniel Burros saw the story, on the front page of the Times, he shot himself to death.
These events became a sensation, the more so when the usually tender Phillips seemed to exhibit no guilt at the news that Burros had committed suicide. Rosenthal remembers the conversation this way: “He said, and this was the first time his religion entered into his work, ‘It was the will of God’—it gives me shivers to say it!—‘and you were the instrument of God!’ ”
It was common at the time for publishers to turn out quickie paperback books on big news stories, and New American Library wanted to do one on Burros. Hollywood studios expressed interest in a movie. Rosenthal and Gelb invited Phillips to lunch. Phillips brought along Hannah Lowe and his Bible. The two editors outlined the book proposal and discussed movie rights. Phillips, the editors remember, opened the Bible and, in a booming voice, read passages aloud. The crowded restaurant fell silent. Embarrassed, Rosenthal and Gelb slid down in their seats. Phillips, citing Scripture—“Touch not the spoil”—declined the book offer, having decided that he could not enrich himself from a tragedy.
MARVIN SIEGEL, who joined the Times as an editor in 1966 and who lives in Phillips’s building but rarely sees him, recalled that assigning Phillips to a story was like having money in the bank. “As a combination writer-reporter, I don’t think anyone topped him,” Siegel said recently. He did not besiege editors with story ideas, as, for example, Gay Talese did, but he could be depended upon to produce at least three beautifully crafted stories a week.
As the sixties wore on, and as hair lengthened in the newsroom, Phillips seemed an increasingly anomalous figure. “He was definitely regarded as somewhat strange,” said a former colleague who had been on assignments overseas and barely knew him. “He was widely said to be a religious fanatic of some sort.” This reporter admired Phillips’s prose, and the fact that he kept his religion strictly segregated from his work. This separation, however, was becoming harder to maintain.
A sense of mission was building within Phillips. It expressed itself in a book he wrote in 1970, “The Bible, the Supernatural, and the Jews.” Its thesis was that the Devil plotted to get people interested in the supernatural in order to lead them down the “path of spiritual ruination.” He denounced the forces of “evil” that encouraged drug use and promiscuity, and warned that these forces were “multiplying and spreading.” The book coincided with a new chapter in Phillips’s life. He wanted to do something else. He didn’t want to move to the Washington bureau or become a foreign correspondent. He aspired to write essays, book reviews, maybe a sports column. Although the Times bent the rules for him—granting him a leave to finish the book, for example—he was discontented.
Phillips was obsessed with a story that no one else seemed to take seriously: the life and art of a man named Otto Griebling, a circus clown Phillips had first seen in 1952, when he was in the Army in Baltimore. Phillips believed that Griebling was a great artist, and for years he was haunted by the idea that Griebling, although he’d worked at his trade for more than half a century, had gained neither fame nor reward. Whenever the circus came to town, Phillips would pester his editors to assign a story about Otto the Clown. (“Griebling’s clown,” he wrote, in a 1974 collection of essays, “was harassed and futile, truly pathetic, yet he was also limitlessly patient and persistent and devoted. The things that menaced him were entirely unseen; they were private torments locked within some chamber of his consciousness and showing only on his face. For a circus clown to seek his effects in implied psychology rather than in plain and overt acts; for him to rely on a suggestion of an inward state rather than an outward showing of things, is virtually a defiance of the form.”)
Phillips was particularly incensed in 1972 and 1973 by public accusations by parents that their college-age children were being brainwashed by elders of the New Testament Missionary Fellowship. His church, he believed, was founded on democratic principles. Phillips pleaded with editors to assign stories about what he condemned as a new wave of McCarthyism, this one aimed at born-again Christians. He was bothered by the Times’ seeming indifference. In turn, some editors believed that a change had come over Phillips. “He began to filter things through a religious prism,” Marvin Siegel says. Editors became nervous as, increasingly, he prayed for guidance while he was working on stories.
Phillips was also tired—emotionally spent by the toll that being an empathetic reporter can take. “If what you are covering is ‘moving’ and you are not moved by it, you will not move anyone with it,” he says. In December of 1973, after twenty-one years at the Times, John Phillips told his editors that he was resigning his job, which then paid twenty-six thousand five hundred dollars a year.
It was not especially unusual for gifted or ambitious writers to exit the Times. David Halberstam, who left in 1967, said recently, “The rest of us sat around and talked about what we wanted to do. He never did.” When colleagues in the newsroom learned that Phillips was quitting, they assumed that he wanted to pursue a religious life. This belief was reinforced when Phillips virtually disappeared. God, it was often said around the Times, had spoken to Long John.
Phillips himself says that it was not that simple. He says that he was looking for a bigger stage and felt that the institution could not bend enough to accommodate its writers. “I wanted to go higher and have more scope,” Phillips said he told Rosenthal. But former associates, including Rosenthal, don’t believe that he walked away out of mere ambition. “Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Gay Talese said. “He is not interested in demeaning or finding flaws. He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer! Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”
Before Phillips left the Times, he worked out a freelance arrangement that permitted him to write occasionally. He was contacted about writing for a morning television show, and doing feature stories for a local TV station, but such jobs held no allure. He thought of writing for magazines, of becoming an editor, but he was painfully shy. He had no network of friends and was not a generator of story ideas. He waited for the phone to ring with assignments. It didn’t.
In the next eight years, McCandlish Phillips’s byline occasionally appeared in the Times. His 1974 collection—“City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York”—was not even reviewed by the Times. His income, which he neatly itemized on a reporter’s pad, fell to ten thousand three hundred and eighty-three dollars in 1976. He stopped writing for theTimes, he said, because the paper wanted features that took the better part of a week and paid him too little for the effort. For the past fifteen years or so, Phillips has written occasional pieces for church journals. With the exception of Nathaniel Nash, he lost touch with former co-workers. Hannah Lowe, with whom he founded his church, moved to Jerusalem, where she died of a stroke in 1983, at the age of eighty-seven.
TODAY, Phillips works out of an office in a narrow bedroom that he rents in a friend’s tenth-floor apartment on 116th Street. He sits at a Formica-topped metal folding table. The walls are bare of any adornments except a clock and a calendar; to his left rests a Bible and a small radio tuned to classical music; to his right stands a metal locker. Behind him, on another folding table, is a telephone, a typewriter, a computer that he doesn’t use much, and stacks of church literature. A window caked with soot faces north.
Phillips spends part of his time as general manager of Thomas E. Lowe, Ltd., a small religious publishing house that he founded with Hannah Lowe. It buys remaindered religious books and reprints a handful of others, and sells them to Christian bookstores. Phillips estimates that he spends about a quarter of his time managing the firm, and in 1996 his gross pay for this was two thousand two hundred and fifty-six dollars.
The bulk of his time is devoted to the Fellowship church, of which he is an elder and administrator. The church, which relies on contributions from its members, has an income of about seventy thousand dollars a year, and pays Phillips twenty thousand dollars. With Social Security, interest on a savings account, and small stock dividends, his total income in 1995 was just under thirty thousand dollars. He helps prepare for twice-weekly prayer meetings, speaks at about a third of these, does photocopying and other errands, handles correspondence, serves as one of six trustees, and is generally available to listen. “John is like an older brother,” explains Jaan Vaino, a CBS News financial executive. Jaan and Sharon Vaino’s apartment, on 110th Street, is one of two sites for church gatherings. (The other is in a house the church owns in Yonkers.)
On a recent Tuesday, the group met, as it does every other Tuesday evening, in the Vainos’ cramped living room. Nineteen members were present, including an N.Y.U. student and eight recent Columbia and Yale graduates, and ten other men and women who would not have looked out of place on Wall Street—except for Phillips, who wore an open, oversized red vest and a muddy yellow shirt with a red tie pinching his collar. For two hours, group members offered spontaneous prayers, sang favorite hymns, recited from the Scriptures, and invoked Jesus’s good deeds. Vaino played an electronic keyboard; a professor in environmental medicine from N.Y.U. Medical Center, Roy Shore, played a clarinet; and a pin-striped executive with the Bank of New York, Philip Chamberlain, took Nathaniel Nash’s place on strings, with a Colombian instrument called a tiple. There were muted cries of “Praise the Lord!” and arms stretched at times to Heaven, much as in a Baptist service. As he once climbed into the lives of people he wrote about, Phillips now showers empathy on the brethren of his church. “John is very tried in God. There is this holiness in him,” remarked Helen Sun, a 1995 Yale graduate who works at CBS.
It was a relaxed evening; those present were not unlike Christmas carollers who unwind through song. Holly Vitale, who is a credit manager for a midtown company, said that she looks forward to these meetings as “an oasis, a family gathering.” What helps to bind them together, members say, is John McCandlish Phillips.
It was that feeling—a belief in Phillips’s largeness of spirit—that led the Nash family to call on him when the journalist was killed in Croatia. Nathaniel Cushing Nash says Phillips was “a great inspiration” as well as a “mentor” to his son. At the funeral in Wenham, Phillips was often the stern preacher, proclaiming that Satan was near. But when he spoke of his friend he became empathetic and highly personal. “He was a spacious man,” Phillips said. “He carried a kind of innocence that had no tincture of naïveté in it. There was nothing narrow or confined—or confining—about Nathaniel.”
Originally published in The New Yorker, January 6,1997