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R.I.P. Janet Battaile: New York Times (and Politics Daily) Editor Had 'a Gift for Humanity'

4 years ago
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The last time I saw my friend and longtime editor Janet Battaile, who died just after midnight, more than 10 years after she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, we sucked on the high-end Tootsie Pops someone had brought her and she told about how her wash-out as a waitress led her into the newspaper business.

It all started when her father read his pal who was the editor of their hometown paper, the Winchester Evening Star, the funny letter she'd written home about the latest restaurant job she'd been fired from. For heaven's sake, the editor said when he stopped laughing, tell her to come on back to Virginia and work for me for the rest of the summer. Eventually, IHOP's loss was the New York Times' gain; Jan worked there for two decades, and made such a mark that six years after taking early retirement, her death was announced at today's Page One meeting.

"Jan was a journalist's journalist, an editor's editor,'' said Michael Oreskes, a former colleague at the paper. "She had a gift for making every story she touched -- and every person she touched -- better. She had, actually, a gift for humanity.''

And in her own decorous way, for swigging, guzzling, and gulping life, while tasting all of it. I will never forget standing in my kitchen in 2000, trying to absorb the fact that, yes, Jan was really on the phone telling me that she had a kind of cancer that could kill her in a matter of months. Yet for all the years she made a fool of that disease, she neither denied what was happening nor let it rob her of joy or purpose.

After her diagnosis, just as before, the sight of her coming around the corner in the Times' Washington bureau was a morale-booster everyone seemed to appreciate. That last time I saw her, she read me a note former NYT reporter Phil Shenon had written her, saying what a light in the dark she'd been on lots of days, and she was both moved and more surprised by that than I would have thought. (Jan: "Really?" Me: "Duh!") She was also the finest word editor I ever wrote for; she always laughed when I swore she kissed my copy, but it was true; every change she made was an improvement.

After leaving the paper in 2005, she and her husband, former Washington Post financial columnist Jerry Knight, made a series of meticulously planned trips to Europe, which Jan then chronicled in beautiful photo books. (The photo of them above was taken in Umbria.) She gardened, learned Italian, spent time at her family's lake house -- and about the time I was launching Politics Daily two years ago, confided that she wouldn't really mind going back to work very part-time.

Though hesitant to commit because she was worried that if her cancer came back, she would somehow be letting me down -- !!! -- she was gleeful about being part of our adventure, and we were even gladder to have her. "As a newbie to beat reporting when I started at PD,'' said our congressional reporter, Patricia Murphy, "I was intimidated by almost everything, but especially by the idea of turning my stories into a longtime editor from THE NEW YORK TIMES. I envisioned Lou Grant in a skirt with a virtual whip. Instead I found the kind, intelligent and funny Jan Battaile on the other side of my e-mails. Jan delivered critiques softly, compliments frequently and became a partner in crime in a joint effort to catch deadlines retroactively. I missed her very much when she had to step away from PD, and have a heavy heart today knowing she's gone.''

While part of our close-knit ensemble, Jan also did some extraordinary writing for our Woman UP blog -- about Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, and what her father, the GM dealer, would have made of the car company's troubles. She described her insurance nightmare in a piece that, even before publication, finally got her insurer's attention:
Within 24 hours, I got a call from a woman at UHC who said she was handling my case. I'm grateful for the quick response. But the insurance company couldn't really explain why UnitedHealthcare's system was so convoluted and inefficient. Or why they would not accept information from the doctors most familiar with my case. Or why I was unable to talk with anyone at UHC who actually had any familiarity with my case. Or why this whole process was taking a month, while my cancer advances day by day.

It made me wonder: What about those people who can't call up corporate communications and say, "I used to work for The New York Times, who switched me over to your coverage, and now am writing a piece for AOL, and I'd like you comment about the unbelievable trouble I'm having getting approval for a treatment that may help to save my life?"
Another piece, headlined "I Have a Wife, and He's Spectacular,'' was a love letter to her husband:
"Is that a compliment?" he asked me when I explained, sort of, what I wanted to write. "Damned straight," I said. How is this possible, you ask? In part because he's retired, which makes it a lot easier and is obviously not an answer for everyone. But also because of my condition – an incurable marrow cancer that gnaws at my bones and makes me weak as a little bird attacked by my kitty, that began 10 years ago. Much of that time I have been in remissions that have allowed me to live a fairly normal life. When I relapse, though (I'm now on my fourth), that always means fractured bones, of which I currently have many. Even the radiologists refer to my "moth-eaten" bones in their reports.

...Because I'm so laid up, he drives me everywhere I need to go – lots of doctors' appointments -- but also to lunches with friends that don't include him. He does all the grocery shopping, although I go with him sometimes, and he loves to take me shopping for clothes (that's the one that gets most of my women friends salivating). He's got very good taste and often finds me great bargains; last Christmas he gave me a $750 black leather dress at a Saks sale – there was only one on the rack and it was my size and $220.''
(And here I'd like to insert that the way he looked at her in that dress is how every woman wants to be looked at by her partner.)

Born in Winchester, she graduated from St. Catherine's School in Richmond and Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. Her summer stint at the Winchester Evening Star led after graduation to a job with the Associated Press in Des Moines, where she met her husband.

After two years she was transferred to New York and became the third woman ever to work for the AP's General Desk, the second having arrived the week before. She worked for several years in the Washington bureau of the Dallas Morning News. At the Times, she served as deputy editor, weekend editor, enterprise editor and directed the Lewinsky and impeachment coverage during the Clinton years. She also pioneered the Times' entry into the multimedia world in 2000 as co-producer with ABC News of "Political Points," a daily half-hour webcast.

After her diagnosis, she used her journalistic skills to research possible therapies, and decided to forego conventional chemotherapy and pursue experimental treatments. At the time she was diagnosed, the average life expectancy for new myeloma patients was three years. She survived almost 11, and was a data point in the Mayo Clinic study that made thalidomide the first new myeloma therapy in a decade. Just a few weeks shy of her 64th birthday, she died at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and in addition to her husband is survived by their three children and six grandchildren. (A memorial service will be held at noon Thursday, Feb. 24, at St. Columba's Episcopal Church, 4201 Albemarle St. NW, in Washington. In lieu of flowers, she asked that friends make a gift in her name to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.)

We talked a lot about death in the last few months, yet on every occasion laughed our fannies off, too -- as when she asked me to speak at her funeral, and then, always the editor, wondered if I could please let her see what I planned to say. In the hospice where she spent Christmas, while trying to wrestle her pain to the ground, she put on some dangly earrings for my visit – "Is that silly?" -- and when I opened the box of half a dozen Georgetown cupcakes I'd brought, she gasped and said, "Let's eat ALL of them.''

It was all so wonderful, she said of her life, that she only wished there were more of it. And while open to the idea of Heaven, she said she was not much interested in the communion of saints – "unless they're all like us.'' Which is unlikely, since there was no one else like her.

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Is there only one comment on the passing of this marvelous woman?

February 22 2011 at 8:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What a beautiful tribute to an obviously amazing woman. I feel like I know her - just throught the beautiful essay.

February 18 2011 at 4:52 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

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