From “The American Editor”
Published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors
Tribute: An unforgetable mix of talent and charm
To his friends and colleagues he was always ‘Danny,’ and his rare combination of professional skill and personal charisma will be greatly missed.
By Lawrence Ingrassia
The Wall Street Journal has about 400 reporters. But any time in the past decade someone at the Journal mentioned the name Danny, everyone else instantly knew who it was.
Danny Pearl. Never Dan. Never Daniel (except in his byline). Just Danny.
At the Journal, with dozens of bureaus around the world, and many reporters who’ve never met each other, getting noticed isn’t easy for a new, young reporter. Danny got noticed, right away, after starting at the Journal in 1990. For me, it wasn’t for the beaming smile that the whole world now recognizes. It wasn’t for his soft-spoken charm that lit up everything around him. It wasn’t for his generosity to friends, colleagues and strangers.
That’s not why I noticed Danny, not initially anyway. I still hadn’t met him, because back then he was a reporter in our Atlanta bureau, and I was Boston bureau chief.
What caught my eye from afar was Danny’s graceful and clever writing, and his knack for getting into the shoes – heck, the socks – of people he was writing about. For a young reporter, his range was surprising. He crafted thought-provoking social analyses (on what it was like for African-American cops, despised as turncoats by inner city youths, in the wake of the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King) to delightfully whimsical “A-heds” (about Southerners taking “accent reduction” lessons to lose their drawl).
Like most Journal bureau chiefs, I kept a mental short list of up-and-coming hotshots. “I want this guy,” I said to myself. After I moved to London, I got him.
What made Danny a first-rate foreign correspondent was his ability to put readers in places they never have been, so they could see and smell and hear what a person or country is like. A lot has been written about Danny being a master of the Journal “A-hed.” He was, of course. But Danny was a serious journalist with intellectual depth and breadth.
Danny refused to do the easy story. Early on, I stopped suggesting he ought to do a specific idea. If it was straightforward enough for an editor sitting behind a desk to come up with, Danny figured it wasn’t worth doing.
Instead, I learned to ask Danny whether it might be the right time to look into a certain topic. Invariably, he came up with an angle far more insightful, provocative and richly textured than I possibly could have.
“Hey, it’s Danny,” he would always say, whether calling from a dusty village in Sudan or a five-star hotel in Dubai. Then he’d regale me with what he was picking up on the ground that was the real story.
His take often was surprising and enlightening. Like his 1996 front page story on relations between Iran and the United States, reporting that – despite all the heated rhetoric from Tehran about the “great Satan” – what made many young Iranians most angry was that they couldn’t get visas to visit America. Or his front page story on ethnic cleansing in the Balkans – focusing on the fact that Serbs, who were perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, themselves had been victims of ethnic cleansing in Croatia.
Always, the stories landed on my desk with his creative flair, like his tale of the rival claims of Ethiopia and Yemen over which was the home of the Queen of Sheba. It ran with two, virtually identical leads he wrote:
AXUM, Ethiopia – Her name was Makeda, better known as the Queen of Sheba. The Bible records that she ruled a rich kingdom from here, according to locals who tell legends about the wise, beautiful African queen. Soon, Ethiopians hope, her tomb here will be found. …
MARIB, Yemen – Her name was Bilqis, better known as the Queen of Sheba. The Koran records that she ruled a rich kingdom from here, according to locals who tell legends about the wise, beautiful Arab queen. Soon, Yemenis hope, her tomb here will be found. …
Perhaps my personal favorite was an A-hed that didn’t run the way he initially wrote it. After reporting a story on Russia trying to harvest caviar by having surgeons cut open sturgeons, remove their eggs and then sew the fish back up – rather than fishermen killing them – Danny filed the story as a poem, playing on the surgeon-sturgeon rhyme. It was hilarious.
Alas, editors in New York foolishly asked him to re-do it in prose.
Danny had a sense of humor about himself, too. He had arrived in London with a ponytail, but got his hair cut to mid-length cut before his first Mideast trip, figuring the ponytail might complicate his reporting. Later, he got his hair cut even shorter. Curious, I asked why. Sheepishly, he explained that a gun-toting security guard at a Mideast hotel had made a pass at him, and he wanted to avoid that.
Danny’s desk reflected his jaunty personality. Many newsrooms nowadays resemble insurance offices, with row after row of bland cubicles. Now picture Danny’s: it was adorned mementos from his trips – a rug with the visage of King Hussein of Jordan, a giant water pipe, prayer beads. And a beach chair. (“I want to meet this guy. Where is he?” asked Elisabeth Goth, a member of the family that has a controlling interest in Dow Jones & Co., which owns the Wall Street Journal, when walking past Danny’s desk while visiting London.)
In addition to collecting things, he collected friends and admirers everywhere. A Journal reporter recalls bumping into a woman in an obscure Guatemalan town whose face lit up when he told her where he worked.
Her response: “Wow, that’s great. But do you know Danny Pearl?” She’d seen Danny at a party in upstate New York, and was captivated by his violin playing – and good looks.
Danny’s circle included a Bulgarian shoe salesman named George, who asked Danny for the time on the London subway, a heavy-drinking and often unemployed Scottish construction worker named Andrew, and an Irish fiddle player, Belgian bassist and an Slovakian singer who jammed with Danny at a blues bar in London’s Soho.
And Mariane, Danny’s wife, whom he met at a party in Paris. A French broadcast journalist of Cuban and Dutch descent, she is beautiful, smart, exotic. An intoxicating mixture for someone like Danny who had the highest of standards for everything. She came with Danny to my going away party in London. Everyone’s eyes were on them, but they were oblivious, with eyes only for each other.
Danny’s eclectic group of friends assembled at a French chateau for their enchanting wedding in August 1999. Afterwards, I sent a photo of Danny and his new bride to one of his former girlfriends, with the message: “The photo that broke 100 hearts.” She replied: “Make that 101.”
Now, there are millions of broken hearts. For my friend and colleague, a brightly shining light I will never, never, never forget. Danny.
Ingrassia, Money & Investing editor of The Wall Street Journal, was a friend and colleague of Danny Pearl.