James W. Michaels, the US army ambulance driver who was faster than any reporter to tell the world that Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated, and then went on to edit 1,000 issues of Forbes magazine over 37 years, passed away in New York on Tuesday, the eve of Gandhi’s birthday. He was 86.
Michaels covered India’s independence and the bloody communal rioting that followed for the news agency, United Press International (UPI). He was the first foreign reporter to get to the scene of fighting in Kashmir, traveling on horseback to the remote, mountainous region.
(In a 2001 interview, he called India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharhal Nehru “the worst disaster to hit India”.)
In 1954, when Michaels came to Forbes as a reporter, the magazine’s circulation was 130,000. When he stepped down as editor in 1999, the circulation was 785,000, and was described by a former head of Time magazine as “the smartest editor I’ve ever worked for.”
“He virtually created modern business journalism. He saw Forbes as the ‘drama critic’ of business. Under his stewardship, Forbes became the definitive source of who was doing well, and who wasn’t, and why,” Steve Forbes said.
“He referred to himself as a working journalist. By that he meant that he could skip the dinner party circuit and avoid Manhattan’s media scene. Instead, he would put every article through his typewriter, usually making it a lot shorter. “It was always said that Michaels could edit the Lord’s prayer down to six words and nobody would miss anything.”
A New York Times obituary recalls that Michaels “belittled the ‘on the other hand’ kind of balance so many publications strive for as mere wishy-washiness.”
Michaels believed that it was the editor’s right to get into a reporter’s copy as much as possible to make it accessible to readers. Allan Sloan, Michaels’ protege who now works at Forbes‘ competitor Fortune, writes:
“When I was sued over an article entitled “Drilling for Suckers”—the subjects felt they needed several million of Malcolm Forbes‘ dollars to ease their pain—I testified under oath that I wasn’t sure which parts of the piece was my original writing and which were Jim’s….
“Working for Jim was more than occasionally maddening, but he was the greatest editor I’ve ever seen or ever expect to see. He used to say he could cut at least 15% out of any story, no matter how tightly written. In his memory, I’m making this 15% shorter than my normal space. So maybe he’s gotten the last word after all.
This is James Michaels’ report of Gandhi’s assassination:
‘Bapu (father) is finished’
New Delhi, January 30, 1948: Mohandas K. Gandhi was assassinated today by a Hindu extremist whose act plunged India into sorrow and fear.
Rioting broke out immediately in Bombay.
The seventy-eight-year-old leader whose people had christened him the Great Soul of India died at 5:45 p.m. (7:15 a.m. EST) with his head cradled in the lap of his sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Mani.
Just half an hour before, a Hindu fanatic, Ram Naturam, had pumped three bullets from a revolver into Gandhi’s frail body, emaciated by years of fasting and asceticism.
Gandhi was shot in the luxurious gardens of Birla House in the presence of one thousand of his followers, whom he was leading to the little summer pagoda where it was his habit to make his evening devotions.
Dressed as always in his homespun sacklike dhoti, and leaning heavily on a staff of stout wood, Gandhi was only a few feet from the pagoda when the shots were fired.
Gandhi crumpled instantly, putting his hand to his forehead in the Hindu gesture of forgiveness to his assassin. Three bullets penetrated his body at close range, one in the upper right thigh, one in the abdomen, and one in the chest.
He spoke no word before he died. A moment before he was shot he said–some witnesses believed he was speaking to the assassin–”You are late.”
The assassin had been standing beside the garden path, his hands folded, palms together, before him in the Hindu gesture of greeting. But between his palms he had concealed a small-caliber revolver. After pumping three bullets into Gandhi at a range of a few feet, he fired a fourth shot in an attempt at suicide, but the bullet merely creased his scalp.
Excerpted from A treasury of great reporting: literature under pressure from the sixteenth century to our own time, edited by Louis L. Snyder (Simon & Schuster, 1949)
Also read: James Michaels’ report on the Gandhi funeral
Photo courtesy: Chang W. Lee/ The New York Times