From humble beginnings in the poor Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Jack Newfield rose to become one of the most important crusading newspapermen of his era, a working-class hero zealously exposing mendacious slumlords and corrupt judges and politicians.
But he simultaneously rubbed shoulders with the rich and powerful, becoming a confidant to such power brokers as slain Democratic presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy and three-term New York Governor Mario Cuomo.
So it was no surprise last week when Cuomo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and hundreds of prominent journalists, prosecutors, defense attorneys, union leaders and others packed into Riverside Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to pay homage to Newfield, who died December 20 at the age of 66 after a short bout with kidney cancer that spread to his lungs.
Some privately pondered what drove Newfield to fight for the underdog, muckraking for the disadvantaged at The Village Voice, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, and in several investigative books on urban politics.
His brother-in-law, Dr. James Finkelstein, imagined Newfield as a modern-day version of the biblical prophets, daring to speak truth to power, taking personally God’s commandment to protect the widow, orphan and stranger.
But others posited that Newfield’s righteous inspiration came from not religious but cultural roots.
“For me he was a cultural Jew, not a religious Jew,” said longtime friend Joel Cohen, a partner at the Stroock & Stroock & Lavan law firm and the author of “Moses: A Memoir” (Paulist Press, 2003). “Newfield was a nondenominational crusader for justice. The irony is, maybe he would have been better if he was religious, but likely he wouldn’t have been as good as he was.”
Newfield acted on the commandment to help the widow early in life, taking care of his mother after his father died when Jack was just 4 years old.
As an only child, Newfield and his mother had to remain in Bedford-Stuyvesant after his Jewish and Italian neighbors fled, as the neighborhood became increasingly black. Finkelstein said that experience helped plot Newfield’s course in life. He noted that during the 1950s and ’60s, while some progressive Jews were supporting liberal causes like civil rights with talk and donations, “Jack lived it. His upbringing made his life unique.”
One time, Finkelstein said, he showed Newfield a photo of their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson, major league baseball’s first black player. He asked Newfield which one he wanted to be. Newfield unhesitatingly chose Robinson. “No other Jewish boy in Brooklyn would have chosen Jackie over Pee Wee,” Finkelstein remarked.
Newfield had a life-long passion for sports. Longtime friend Harold Mayerson, a New York divorce attorney, played basketball at Hunter College in the early 1960s while Newfield covered sports for the school newspaper, the Hunter Arrow. “It was a Jewish milieu, this fascination with sports as a boy from a working-class Brooklyn Jewish family,” Mayerson said.
He stressed that Newfield’s fascination with justice for the oppressed also grew out of that cultural background. “He cared about poor people, but most working-class Jewish families in those days were like that.” The difference, he continued, was that “as others got their piece of the sun and turned their backs, Jack stayed the course.”
In the early 1960s, Newfield was a devout socialist. Legend has it, Mayerson said, that when Newfield worked as a copy boy for the New York Daily Mirror in 1961, the wire services moved a story declaring that the United States had invaded Cuba. Newfield was so disgusted by America’s action that he threw the report in the garbage, making the Daily Mirror the only daily paper in the country not to have the story on its front page the next day.
During his heyday at The Voice, Newfield helped expose fraud in nursing homes, shed light on abuse of the elderly, and crusaded against lead poisoning in public housing.
His first book, “A Prophetic Minority,” was about his experience fighting for civil rights in Mississippi. His subsequent books included “The Abuse of Power: The Permanent Government and the Fall of New York” (Penguin Books, 1977), written with Paul du Brul, and “City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York” (HarperCollins, 1988), written with Voice investigative reporter Wayne Barrett.
In his memoir, “Somebody’s Gotta Tell It: The Upbeat Memoir of a Working-Class Journalist” (St. Martin’s, 2002), Newfield quotes the ancient Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I?”
In the end, perhaps Newfield’s own words best explain what inspired him, as he cited his own “Ten Commandments,” learned on the streets of Brooklyn in the 1940s.
“My Brooklyn was the working-class Brooklyn of the Dodgers, Democrats, unions, optimism and pluralism,” he wrote. “Out of this neighborhood environment I acquired a simple code that would shape my values for the rest of my life. Among them are: ‘Play fair and by the rules.’ “Never forget where you came from.’ ‘Be loyal to your friends.’ ‘Don’t be afraid of bullies.’ ‘Never give up.’”