Richard Kluger ’56 is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a two-time National Book Award finalist and has previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and Forbes Magazine.
But one memory he especially treasures from his time as a journalist is a letter sent to him by Albert Einstein while Kluger was a sophomore reporter for The Daily Princetonian. He would go on to become the Chairman of the newspaper, a position roughly equivalent to the current position of Editor-in-Chief.
Kluger had sent a letter to Einstein asking him why scientists during the 1950s were invoking the Fifth Amendment in response to inquiries about their alleged communist ties.
“Dear Mr. Kluger,
This answer to your letter of September 16th is not for publication for I have already expressed my opinion publicly.
As long as a person has not violated the “social contract” nobody has a right to inquire about his or her personal convictions. If this principle is not strictly followed free intellectual development is not possible and a state of uneasiness and hypocrisy unavoidable. You can observe this easily in our country at the present time.
“I was just trying to bait him, to see if he would sit down and talk to me,” Kluger said in an interview. “He responded the next day — it was like he had nothing else to do. [The letter] does say a couple of things of some importance, which is why I think it’s a viable document … It does disclose what the libertarian response was to McCarthyism.”
Although he never did get to speak to Einstein, Kluger did speak to Princeton’s second most famous resident: J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was director for the Institute of Advanced Study at the time and had recently lost his security clearance due to alleged contacts in the Communist Party whom he had met through his wife.
“[Oppenheimer] lived a pretty secluded life,” Kluger said. “He didn’t want to talk, of course, about [losing his clearance], but he did talk about predicted peaceful uses of nuclear power, and other stuff … I was delighted to get the interview.”
The golden age
Kluger was Chairman of the ‘Prince’ from 1955 to 1956. He joined the newspaper during the fall semester of his freshman year.
Kluger said that his tenure at the ‘Prince’ was a golden age, when writing talent was abundant and writers were dedicated. Among other staff writers at the time were future New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. ’57, whom Kluger described as the “best U.S. newspaperman never to win a Pulitzer,” and Robert A. Caro ’57, whose biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson have earned him two Pulitzer Prizes.
Apple became Chairman of the ‘Prince’ while Caro became the managing editor.
“They were each extraordinarily talented,” Kluger said, noting that Apple’s strengths lay in investigating and breaking stories, while Caro could write longer, analytical pieces, indicative of his current biographical work. “I think they fed off each other; they enjoyed the competition.”
Kluger said that Paul V. Firstenberg ’55, who served as Chairman the year before, was a major influence at the ‘Prince.’ Firstenberg, a Wilson School concentrator, had led the ‘Prince’ to cover world affairs from a local angle by interviewing University professors. An example of this method of covering world affairs was the coverage of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which Kluger would later write about in his book, “Simple Justice.”
“Even though we were in our ivory tower, we started paying more attention,” Kluger said. “It gave the paper a little more of a sophisticated reach; it wasn’t just campus stuff at that point.”
John Doyle ’56, who served as managing editor under Kluger, attributed Kluger’s success both at the ‘Prince’ and as a journalist to four things: hard work, curiosity, ability to manage the abundant talent available and vision.
“When I say hard work, I mean obsessive hard work. He worked hard, we all did,” Doyle said. “So if we were successful … degree of effort would have to be number one.”
Doyle added that Kluger’s vision of covering more world events was all the more impactful given that the Princeton of the late 50s was a “juvenile, nursery school environment” in which change was difficult.
“The environment and therefore the opportunities for journalism were different then than they would be now. We had no women on the campus. We had no Democrats as far as I can tell, except for maybe Dick and a few other people on the newspaper. It was extremely conservative,” Doyle said.
William Greider ’58 served on Kluger’s staff as well and said the newspaper business in the 1950s was transforming from a job that didn’t necessarily require a college degree to a career that even graduates of the University coveted. Most ‘Prince’ writers at the time did not necessarily plan to be journalists or writers, but many wound up in the journalism industry as a result of their time at the ‘Prince.’
“The ‘Prince’ really was a refuge for a lot of us, because we’d be up late at night getting the paper out, having fun and being squirrelly and provocative in a good way,” Greider said. “It was fun in the sense that it was a relief from the heavy work of keeping up in class.”
Greider explained that, during his time at the ‘Prince,’ the newspaper took an aggressive stance toward the University. For example, when the Whig-Cliosophic Society invited Alger Hiss, a former State Department official and convicted communist, to speak in a lecture on campus, the resulting controversy led to the firing of the University chaplain, Father Hugh Halton, for deriding the University as sympathetic to communists. Though the president of the University at the time, Robert F. Goheen ’40, asked them ahead of time to not break the story until the University made its announcement, Greider and Robert Sklar ’58, the managing editor and Chairman at the time, decided to the print the story anyway after Halton broke the news of his firing at weekly mass.
“For us, it was an easy call,” Greider said.
They called Goheen back and told him the story would run, Greider said, adding that Goheen’s reaction was not a concern for the ‘Prince’.
“Goheen was bitterly denouncing us, but I thought that was a stand-up moment,” Greider said. “That’s the role of a newspaper, right? To piss off the authorities.”
Einstein died on April 18, 1955, a few months into Kluger’s term as Chairman of the ‘Prince,’ bringing Kluger full circle. The staff of the ‘Prince’ went into overdrive that day, publishing a special one-page extra by noon.
“Dr. Albert Einstein lived in our midst — right down the street, quite literally — yet lived a life so dramatic, so intense, so utterly inscrutable to most of us that his proper home was not Princeton, but the universe,” Kluger said in an editorial he wrote the following day.
Beyond the ‘Prince’
Kluger enrolled in Columbia’s Journalism School after graduating from the University in 1956 but dropped out, saying that he felt he had already developed the necessary skills to be a journalist while at the ‘Prince.’
“My four years at Princeton were really training for me,” Kluger said.
Kluger went on to work at the New York Post, and then Forbes, where he wrote critically about businesses. He then became the Herald Tribune’s Book Week editor.
Kluger eventually became the executive editor at the publishing house Simon & Schuster, where he brought numerous successful books to the firm, including Caro’s “The Power Broker.” However, when he sought a writer for an account of the Brown v. Board of Education case he had first become familiar with under Firstenberg’s tutelage, he couldn’t find anyone for the job and ultimately decided to write it himself.
“Scholars didn’t want to do the legwork to do it, and journalists didn’t have the background in history or legal writing,” Kluger said. The project turned into “Simple Justice,” which would become a finalist for the National Book Award.
With some difficulty, he was able to obtain an interview with Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who argued the case for the plaintiff before the Supreme Court and was later appointed Associate Justice to the Supreme Court, who had repeatedly declined to comment. Kluger said Marshall’s letter hangs next to Einstein’s in his office.
“It was a way to write about my country, participating not as an activist but as an observer and a commentator,” Kluger said of the book. “I’ve been kinda doing that ever since.”
Kluger, like many other journalists, including many of his former ‘Prince’ colleagues, made the natural transition from full-time journalist to full-time writer. He even co-authored several novels with his wife, Phyllis Susan Schlain, whom he met during his sophomore year at the University.
“Books are a most lasting avenue for writers, by the very nature of what a book is,” Kluger said.
Kluger’s arguably most famous project is an investigation of the tobacco industry in America — “Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.” Although he had experience with getting unwilling sources to talk, getting information from private corporations was another story. Kluger therefore had to strike deals with tobacco executives, promising them a fair — though not necessarily favorable — portrayal and a look at the book before it was published, although they weren’t allowed to change anything.
“I was looking for a subject that had social impact but that also showed American business at its most aggressive, its most successful and, in the case of the tobacco industry, its most dangerous,” Kluger said.
Kluger interviewed over 50 executives for the book, which he says is likely one of the reasons it won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
Kluger’s latest project is an exploration of the history of the free press in America, centered around the 18th century case of John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. The landmark case established truth as a valid defense against charges of libel.
“The notion of, as a citizen, if you’re a whistleblower and steal papers … should you go to jail if your purpose is to show that your government is doing terrible things? That’s the ongoing social issue that [Edward] Snowden has brought to a head. So in my mind, even though I’m writing about something that’s almost 300 years old, it’s still with us,” Kluger said of the project.
The project is the culmination of Kluger’s six-decade career as a journalist.
“I think it’s a noble profession to become a journalist. Because the law needs them, it’s become very dangerous in many parts of the world, and it can be dangerous in this country too, because people don’t like to hear the messenger’s bad news,” Kluger said. “And yet we need messengers. The public needs messengers for the safety of the country, for the security of the country, for the freedom of the country.”