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James Murray Kempton (December 16, 1917 – May 5, 1997) was an influential American journalist. He won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1985 and won the 1974 U.S. National Book Award in category Contemporary Affairs for The Briar Patch: The People of the State of New York versus Lumumba Shakur, et al. (Its 1997 reprint was subtitled The Trial of the Panther 21.)
Kempton was born in Baltimore on December 16, 1917. His mother was Sally Ambler and his father was James Branson Kempton, a stock broker. Kempton's father died of influenza shortly after his birth, leaving the family in financial straits.
Kempton worked as a copyboy for H. L. Mencken at the Baltimore Evening Sun. He entered Johns Hopkins in 1935, where he was editor-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter. After his graduation in 1939, he worked for a short time as a labor organizer, then joined the staff of the New York Post, earning a reputation for a quietly elegant prose style that featured long but rhythmic sentences, a flair for irony, and gentle, almost scholarly sarcasm.
He served in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and was stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines. He rejoined New York Post in 1949 as labor editor and later as a columnist. He also wrote for the NYC-based World-Telegram and Sun and a short-lived successor, the World Journal Tribune, a merger between the Telegram, the New York Herald-Tribune, and the New York Journal American.
During the 1960s he edited The New Republic. He returned to the New York Post yet again in 1977 after it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. In 1981, he became a columnist for Newsday, the Long Island-based daily. Additionally, Kempton was also a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, Esquire magazine, CBS's Spectrum radio opinion series, and National Review, the conservative magazine with whose editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., Kempton had enjoyed a longtime friendship that grew from their ideological rivalry.
Known as a modest, courtly man who was generous with fellow journalists and friends, Kempton wasn't without his eccentricities. He never learned to drive, and could often be spotted riding a bicycle in New York City wearing a three-piece suit. He was shown that way in television spots promoting Newsday's New York edition, in which Kempton brought his bicycle to a stop at an intersection and deadpanned, "I guess I've been around so long that people think they have to like me."
Kempton's bicycling was also depicted in a cartoon showing him standing next to his three-speed bicycle that accompanied first a 1993 profile in The New Yorker and, then, the jacket of what proved his final book, an anthology known as Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events. Kempton dedicated the book to Buckley, whom he once admitted had nagged him for years to assemble the collection: "For William F. Buckley, Jr., genius at friendships that surpass all understanding."
An indefatigable journalist who filed four columns a week for most of his career, Kempton won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1985 while at Newsday. Ten years later, he received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award as well as an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College. He was known for his rococo style, so much so that in his collection Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe wrote that "Kempton used so many elegant British double and triple negatives, half the time you couldn’t figure out what he was saying."
Kempton, who was ill with pancreatic cancer, died of a heart attack in 1997, two years after the death of his second wife. He was 79 years old. "It was easy to think of Murray as indestructible," wrote Newsday Sunday Currents editor Chris Lehmann. "Although he was at an age when many people settle into dotage, he could, and did, run circles around us all. After New York Newsday folded in 1995 and op-ed space shrank in the Long Island mother edition of the paper, Murray complained regularly about only being able to file his column two times a week instead of four." Buckley---in his own near-memoir, Miles Gone By---has recalled Kempton, even at the depth of his illness, planned to write an autobiography and had completed a first chapter, quoting Kempton as saying, "I think I can get it done in eight or nine months."
Lehmann also recalled Kempton, a devout Episcopalian, ending nearly all conversations with people with, "God bless you, my friend."
"Murray, bicycling around New York in his pinstripes with some classical music singing along in his earphones, was not up to Mencken's savage snooty despair," critic Alfred Kazin has written of Kempton. "Murray always knew, as a true journalist, what was going on around him, and that it was all manner of life in the great terrible city, not human existence in general, that stimulated exhilaration as well as horror at so much violence, greed and dishonesty."
Buckley wrote that "[h]e was the most thoughtful and amusing and resourceful journalist in town . . . He was a great artist, and a great friend."
Kempton's books include
- Socialism now! : democracy's only defense (1941)
- Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955, repr. 1998, repr. 2004)
- America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950-1962 (1963)
- The Briar Patch: The People of the State of New York versus Lumumba Shakur, et al. (1973); Repr. as: The Briar Patch: The Trial of the Panther 21, Da Capo Press (1997) — 1974 National Book Award, Contemporary Affairs
- Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (1994)
In 2004, New York Review Books Classics reprinted Part of Our Time. The book includes portraits of Paul Robeson, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, the Hollywood Ten, Elizabeth Bentley, Mary Heaton Vorse, and the labor leaders Walter Reuther and Joseph Curran.