The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Murray Kempton
Murray Kempton pic
A Newspaperman of Honor and Elegant Vinegar
We are a government of laws-any laws some government hack can find to louse up a man who's down.

Murray Kempton was long a sharp thorn in the sides of the pompous, the powerful, and those who would deny others the rights they themselves enjoyed. During the 60s, people who otherwise didn't trust anyone over 30 trusted Murray Kempton. He was a hero to those fighting against the war in Vietnam, as well as those fighting for civil rights here at home.

Walter Goodman, in a New York Times article, said, "Whatever the politics of the case, Mr. Kempton can be counted on to choose the victims over their tormentors. His disgust with the uses of power is not just a sentimental indulgence (although he occasionally takes that plunge); it grows from a conviction that every society is so inherently unjust that all the winners must be suspect."

James Murray Kempton was born in Baltimore in 1917 to a family of "shabby gentility," as he described them. Kempton was only three when his father died of influenza, and he said that from then on, he looked to literature for his father figures. One of his most influential role models, though, was one of his first employers--the very real H.L. Mencken, for whom Kempton worked as a copyboy at the Evening Sun. Of the Sage of Baltimore-as Mencken was known-Kempton later said, "The first sight is the spouting, and who cannot be forgiven for coming upon such a spectacle and henceforth and forever deciding that this sportive play in the warm waters is most of what whales are about?"

Kempton attended Johns Hopkins University, where he wrote articles for and then become editor-in chief of The News-Letter, the official Hopkins student newspaper. After graduating in 1939, he became a social worker in Baltimore. He went on to be a labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in Peekskill, New York, good training for a career as a lefty gadfly. He also worked as seaman and as publicity director for the Young People's Socialist League. World War II interrupted his career path; he served in the Pacific in the Army Air Corps.

After the war, he worked for the New York Post, writing newspaper columns that alluded to classic works of literature and philosophy in the service of his political or social point of view. According to writer Garry Wills, Kempton was "...a Socrates who had wandered into Damon Runyon land."

Although Kempton's sympathies were with the left, he had little patience for pomposity from either side of the political spectrum. He maintained friendships with people of differing political views, including conservatives William F. Buckley and Westbrook Pegler.

Kempton wrote voraciously. In fact, a gift of his papers to the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Room included 11,000 columns from the New York Post and Newsday, as well as articles he wrote for The New Republic and the New York Review of Books. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his Newsday columns.

Kempton was not only a writer, but an activist. Garry Wills recalled an incident at the 1968 Democratic Convention in which Dick Gregory led a protest march and asked people to cross the police barricades with him. "I could never turn down an invitation from Dick Gregory," said Kempton. He was arrested, and at the trial, according to Wills, said that he "could not stand by and see his government disgracing itself."

Never having learned to drive, he rode his bike around New York City, listening to music on his headphones and always looking for a good story. He wrote about a variety of people, from President Eisenhower, to novelist Evelyn Waugh, to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. And he also wrote about ordinary working people.

Kempton, died of a heart attack in May, 1997 in New York City before his pancreatic cancer would kill him.

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