As Mark Whitaker was about to graduate Harvard, diploma and a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford in hand, his father gave him some memorable advice: “Beware of what you ask for, because you might just get it.”
The context here is important, as Whitaker relates in his fascinating new book, “My Long Trip Home” (Simon & Schuster), which is both a memoir of a poor, mixed-race boy who becomes a classic American success story and a painful recounting of a troubled childhood haunted by a brilliant but self-destructive father.
Seeing his son graduate from one of America’s elite colleges, C.S. Whitaker urged him to try business and law, but Mark Whitaker would have none of it: He had walked into a newsroom for a summer internship at Newsweek and was smitten. A higher-up even suggested that he could be a senior editor one day.
“And what did you say to that?” his father asked.
“I told him, why not the top editor?” he replied.
And that youthful bravado prompted the graduation day advice.
But here’s the thing: He got it. Whitaker became editor of Newsweek in 1998, the first African American to head a major newsweekly. He then went on to be the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, and now, as managing editor of CNN, occupies an inviting office in the Time Warner building, with breathtaking views of Manhattan’s Central Park. At 54 years old, not only has he achieved the professional success that he wished for, but he has also found the family and community that he desperately missed in his itinerant, struggling adolescence.
And to his surprise, he found it with Jews.
There’s a “generational fittingness” — his words — to this part of his story, which he relates in an interview with The Forward after a long workday: “My grandpapa saved Jews; I married a Jew, and I’m raising my children as Jews.”
Whitaker’s book is propelled by a process of discovery. A year after his father died, Whitaker awoke early one morning and realized that he wanted to be a journalist reporting on his own life; to better understand his parents, especially his father. His mother, Jeanne Theis, was the eldest of eight girls. Her father — the grandpapa that Whitaker references — did, indeed, help save the Jews, famously so. Edouard Theis was the assistant pastor in the French Protestant village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which bravely created a sort of underground railroad for Jews and other refugees fleeing Nazi rule during World War II.
Learning more about his French roots when he spent a year in Le Chambon as a teenager helped Whitaker appreciate how courageously his family had fought persecution, because as French Protestants, they already felt like outsiders in a defiantly Catholic country.
His mother and five of her sisters were sent to America during the war, and she was raised in Swarthmore, Pa., where she eventually became a professor of French at Swarthmore College. That was where she met C.S. Whitaker — known as Syl — one of very few African-American students on that campus in the 1950s. A descendant of slaves, raised in Pittsburgh, and both fiercely smart and utterly charming, Syl Whitaker was unafraid to break convention, which he surely did by marrying a white woman who happened to be on the faculty.
Whitaker’s parents’ bitter divorce, his father’s philandering and alcoholism, and his mother’s struggle to support her two sons all made for a painful childhood that left him thirsting for communal connection. He began to find it at Harvard, through a close friend who was a devout Zionist.
“I felt this incredible sense of solidarity with Israel, a sense of it being a piece of the family history,” he said. “Coming from two different traditions of being persecuted — black and French Protestant — I thought that Jews taking responsibility for themselves in the aftermath of one of the worst atrocities in human history showed great determination.”
But it wasn’t until Whitaker met and married Alexis Gelber, also a journalist, that he solidified his connection to Jews and Judaism. They found a wonderful rabbi who agreed to marry them, an interfaith couple, as long as they promised to raise their children “with a clear knowledge of what it meant to be Jewish.” They found a welcoming synagogue in Manhattan with a Jewish day school that both of his children attended through sixth grade. Photographs of his marriage under a chuppah and of his mother at his daughter’s bat mitzvah are included in the book.
He wonders aloud about converting someday.
And he especially relishes the Jewish sense of humor. “I was looking for some laughter and levity in life, and a lot of Jewish friends I made in college were hilarious. Smart. Irreverent,” he remembered. “They are very motivated to make it, to be a mainstream success, but they still have an outsider perspective and a sense of humor about it. A lot of my black friends have it, too.”
That’s the larger point that Whitaker hopes he has made in his book and by the way he conducts his life, another lesson he learned from his father: not to be confined by race, or religion, or nationality.
“When I wrote this memoir, I was worried that people would be either upset or confused by the notion that I wasn’t definitely declaring I was one thing or another,” he said. “In fact, I find that people are intrigued. This is increasingly the American story: We’re all mixed one way or another.”