The week before last at around 10 o’clock in the morning London time the phone went. Unusual this since most potential callers now either use Nick’s cellphone number or know that I have virtually given up daytime aural contact in favour of email. “Apple here,” boomed a familiar but not recently heard voice.
This was quite extraordinary. Our friend R W ‘Johnny’ Apple Jr had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer of the trachea late last year which had progressively robbed him of his speech and much else. We knew that he had just undergone some extraordinary surgery to rebuild the bits that the cancer treatment had destroyed and here was the evidence. Calling at 5am his time, he obviously couldn’t wait to show off his new voicebox. Alas, the cancer had spread too far to allow him more than another couple of weeks with his beloved wife Betsey, her son and daughter, and new granddaughter Charlotte with whom he was truly besotted. He died yesterday morning in Washington DC.
I’m thoroughly fed up with writing about great people whom I have been privileged to know and will know no longer. But for Johnny to die at only 71 seems even on the most objective level just plain barmy. That guy, the smart kid from Akron, Ohio, knew so much about so much and, most importantly, used it so wisely that we are all left impoverished. And for there not to be a Johnny Apple racking up his legendary expense account in restaurants great, humble but always notable will surely make a dent in the global economy.
The obits will fill in all the details about his unparalleled career as a political writer and war reporter for the New York Times in which institution he had no equal. I’ve just read the Times’ own tribute to him – a great read which has presumably been assembled, pored over, edited and re-edited over the last year – and even though I must have shared countless meals and bottles with him over the last 15 years, and read the Calvin Trillin multi-page tribute to him in The New Yorker which thrilled him so much, I still learnt a great deal about his extraordinary range of achievements. He may have dropped names but he did not boast. He also had the true journalist’s innate insecurity.
I knew him basically as a trencherman, with Betsey the southern belle always in full complementary flower. His knowledge of food was quite daunting, as Nick intends to indicate in a separate article. Fortunately for me, he knew very slightly less about wine than about food, so eating with him was not too intimidating professionally for me and always a huge – huge is the right word in every sense for Johnny - pleasure. My last meal with the Apples was a lunch at Bistro Bis, one of their favourite Washington restaurants, when I was there for one day last May. Johnny did his utmost to rally for the occasion, but had to have a sitdown between the table and the car and, for the only time ever, suggested himself that a halt was called to consumption. He brought along a bottle of Dry River Pinot Noir from his newfound love, New Zealand. But he still managed his profound interest in every detail of our children’s lives and the curious ways of the world. (He had just been reading proofs of a book about Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, with a view to giving one of his many pre-publication blurbs I believe.)
For many years we all celebrated New Year together near Wells in Somerset. It was typical of Johnny that one year, many years ago, he invited a photographer and reporter from Saveur magazine to record it, just as fellow journalist Calvin Trillin was invited to cover his extraordinary 70th birthday dinner in November 2004 when he took over the entire premises and, apparently, entire menu of Ami Louis in Paris. Not that he was saving up for it. That same day we joined him, Betsey and her son John Brown for a lunch at Allard, one of the old-fashioned left bank brasseries he loved, that would have felled many a lesser epicure.
He absolutely worshipped journalism, and of course the New York Times. At New Year he would emerge for breakfast from their room in a disconcertingly tight nightshirt (for his girth was massive) and report on how many thousand words he had already written on some weighty matter – political, architectural or, often, gastronomic. He always chuckled on telling the story of how our youngest aged six admonished him while he was writing and she was pirouetting: “I have to have complete silence for my dancing practice.”
New Year will never be the same again, although the chairs required to bear his weight may be breathing a sigh of relief. Great memories: a wedding anniversary dinner one summer at l’Oustau de Beaumanière; three days’ solid, very solid, tour of Johnny’s favourite spots in New Orleans; our last lunch à quatre at The Swan at Southrop near their pretty house in the Cotswolds to which he brought a gorgeous bottle of Veuve Clicquot 1989 rosé and a rather fading Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises 1990; a lunch at Bibendum when he was over to report on Princess Diana’s funeral; a very obvious American at Wiltons; grouse at The Goring; guzzling at favoured tables in Boston, New York and Washington.
We had been planning to go and see him from New York in a fortnight’s time, although it would have been a slightly strange meeting with, I suspect, food and wine playing an unusually minor role.
Not that Johnny, in any circumstances, was ever short of a few thousand words.