With a Gumshoe Gait

Inigo Thomas · Bad Weather in New York

When I lived in New York there was another dimension to the annual snowstorms, and that was the weather reporting of Robert McFadden, one of the New York Times’s great journalists. Now 78, he has been writing for the paper since 1961. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 'for his highly skilled writing and reporting on deadline during the year'. Among the pieces the judges mentioned was one about a shooting rampage in Harlem and another about cockfights in the Bronx, as well as McFadden's coverage of the Unabomber case and the Oklahoma City bombing. They also cited a feature on Easter Day in Corona, Queens. It began:

On the Avenue, they strolled in and out in the Florentine-gold sunlight like people in a song, sweeping picture brims and straw boaters, chapeaux ribboned and plumed, toques, berets, top hats and Panamas – a passing parade of creamy parfait colour for spring: lemon-lime, strawberry-orange, cranberry-rose.

It was a nearly perfect Easter, a day without brass bands or beery pomp, a day to step into the rotogravure and notice a woman's windblown hair or the geography of an old man's face. The sky was cloudless, as blue as an amateur's painting, and a chilly wind seemed to justify the new spring coat, the white gloves, the face uplifted to a warming sun streaming between the skyscrapers.

At the beginning of the New York Black Out in 1977, which McFadden saw from the windows of his Upper West Side apartment as blocks of the city going dark one after the other, he and his colleagues wrote their stories on typewriters in candlelight. There’s a photograph of McFadden at work in the dim light on one of the nights of that emergency. The copy room looks like a classroom, its desks all facing the same direction, and McFadden is in the front row, where every writer aspired to sit, having worked their way up from the back.

A 55-year career, filing at least 100 times a year, makes McFadden one of New York’s most experienced observers. The subjects he has written about include: prison riots, the Weathermen, unsolved murders, explosions, police strikes, air crashes, drugs, gas leaks, snipers, murderers, methadone clinics, police brutality, chess players, taxis, ministers, taxi drivers, mayors, Russian ballerinas, traffic, the Mob, milk sellers, shipwrecks, meat prices, stowaways, runaways, runaway cars, fraud, insurgents at a Manhattan radio station, Concorde, falling masonry, the Son of Sam, Legionnaire's Disease, Bulgarian diplomats, the abduction of Calvin Klein's child, Studio 54, gasoline shortages, rent strikes, chromosomes, a violinist murdered at the Metropolitan Opera, bomb plots, stampedes, graft, lay-offs, death by lightning, lottery winners, Russian defectors, collapsed buildings, patricide, matricide, infanticide, fratricide, suicide, genocide, and if Malcolm X was for some a godly figure then he’s written about deicide, too.

Then there's the weather. Weather writing has noble tradition. Daniel Defoe, whose bust is in the hall of Columbia University’s journalism school, wrote a book about the fearsome storm that swept over Britain in 1703, a companion to his book about the plague in London in 1666. David Remnick once compared McFadden’s weather reporting to the writing of Whittaker Chambers, the former Russian agent turned right-wing moralist, who wrote about ideology as if it were another storm.

At first, in the 1960s, McFadden’s bad weather pieces were statements of fact: what happened, how many inches of snow fell, or how hot it was, and the physical effects the storm had, such as knocking out the electricity supply in the suburbs. One measure of a storm’s force, then and now, is how many houses lost power. Over time the pieces grew longer, usually based on the reporting of half a dozen or more other Times journalists.

One winter storm he said was ‘erratic’, with ‘a gumshoe gait and capricious mood’. Another was ‘a globular nebula with bullying winds’. A blizzard in early December 2003 was a ‘marathon snowstorm, a 450-mile-wide galaxy swirling counterclockwise’. He once began by invoking Wagner: ‘Howling like Valkyries on a rampage, a huge pre-winter storm packing gusts up to 90 miles an hour and enough rain to submerge a small state struck the New York metropolitan region yesterday.’ Sometimes McFadden gave the impression that he’d been into space to see the storm from above. ‘The gigantic storm, a swirling comma-shape 150 miles wide and 500 miles long, formed east of Washington before dawn and moved up the coast in a daylong assault.’

In his summer heat pieces, McFadden is more like Raymond Chandler than Chambers. A report on a heat wave in early May 2000 began:

The molten sun beat down mercilessly. The hot, slow afternoon was a furnace. The parks lay green and motionless. Pavements shimmered like burning lakes. It might have been one of those torrid days in August when the heavy iridescent air presses down on the spirit and all seems hopeless.

In his one analytical piece about meteorology, published in the late 1960s when forecasting was closer to divining than the science it is today, McFadden discussed storms with an expert at Columbia University, who believed bad weather was more likely on Fridays. Had he checked McFadden’s reporting he would have found the evidence to prove his theory wrong.