Rembering Irving R. Levine
Have Bow Tie, Will Travel
Irving R. Levine, NBC News Correspondent, 1922-2009
I have a bit of a different perspective on Mr. Levine from his colleagues who worked with him in the news room. From 2001 to 2005, Mr. Levine employed me to work with his Library of Congress manuscript collection. Now in archival terms, his collection covers 69.2 linear feet and includes 60,500 items. In journalistic terms, that’s thousands of scripts and stories dating from the Korean War to the 1995 Halifax Economic Summit.
Sitting in the quiet manuscript reading room, I could hear his distinctive voice in my head as I read through his scripts. The hallmarks of the “Irving R. Levine” style—serious and well-researched, personable and witty—proved just as captivating on paper, and I found myself quickly turning pages as events unfolded or laughing out loud at clever and insightful commentary.
Mr. Levine credited his interest in becoming a foreign correspondent to fellow Brown graduate Quentin Reynolds’ 1948 Only the Stars are Neutral. While Reynolds documents the excitement and glamour of this assignment, the book’s first line may also have held special appeal for Mr. Levine. Reynolds wrote that his story was “as personal as a toothache, a liking for spinach, or a taste in fancy ties.”
I count myself among the lucky who actually witnessed Mr. Levine’s amazing ability to tie his bow tie in what must have been a millisecond. On one visit, I asked if I could take a photo of him, and he agreed, hurrying away to grab a bow tie to make the portrait complete. He returned with the long piece of fabric and deftly tied it sans mirror so quickly that I wondered if I had really witnessed that split second transformation to his professional self.
Listeners were always attracted to Mr. Levine’s warmth, wit, and intelligence. His early television reporting included ten-minute color broadcasts featured on NBC’s Today Show in the early 1950s to showcase RCA’s compatible color system from such color-worthy locations as Baltimore’s B&O Railroad Museum and a family-run farm in Illinois.
His journalistic instincts—honed with the International News service—were evident when he cabled Nikita Khrushchev in spring 1955 for permission to accompany U.S. farmers to Russia, while their counterparts toured Iowa. Khrushchev agreed before President Eisenhower had formally approved the exchange. When the farmers returned home, Mr. Levine parlayed his temporary visa into permanent accreditation by the Soviets—the first American radio and television correspondent to receive this.
His scripts from this period describe Russia’s ever changing leadership, Sputnik, Stalin’s deflated role in Communist history, Khrushchev’s rise. They are carefully crafted to communicate while circumventing the censor’s pen.
Certain stories stand out for me. He reports the increasing forays by Americans to the Communist country as well as the travails of navigating Russian markets by his bride Nancy. Mr. Levine also reported that paintings and statues of Stalin were disappearing from office walls. When he mentioned this to one official, he was shown a painting of bear cubs frolicking in the woods and was told, “this must be the painting you mean.”
After four years in Moscow, the Levines moved to Rome for twelve years, minus some time in London. While Moscow had intrigued him, Rome delighted him, and his scripts revel in the sights and sounds of his surroundings.
Mr. Levine reported on everything from the 1960 Summer Olympics, the packing of the Pieta for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, to the the election and travels of Pope Paul VI.
He also covered the region’s hot spots, reporting from Israel, Turkey, and Algeria. Among his most memorable scripts was his coverage of the chaotic former Belgian and French Congos. Especially moving are his reports from the Berlin Wall in 1961 and ’62 when families desperately attempt to escape to the West as the Wall is being built.
In 1971 Mr. Levine arrived at NBC’s Washington Bureau, and the dashing foreign correspondent made the transition to the serious, knowledgeable financial expert who could be trusted and believed.
Mr. Levine covered the economy with a thoroughness and intelligence that ensured that financial concerns—personal, national, and international—would become news staples. As NBC’s first Chief Economics Correspondent, he delved into the stories and personalities behind everything from labor meetings to international economic summits.
My work with Mr. Levine was the perfect job for a J-School graduate who had shifted gears mid-career to study history. With his blessing, I began researching the American farmers’ 1955 visit to Russia from their perspectives.
I am honored to have worked for Mr. Levine. Studying how he developed and reported stories, coupled with his encouragement and kindness, has influenced my work as a researcher. While Irving R. Levine informed and delighted thousands over the years, I look forward to historians and their readers learning from the cogent observations and insights of his scripts and writings in his manuscript collection.
My condolences go out to Mrs. Levine, Daniel, Jeffrey, and Jennifer—your husband and father was a talented reporter and a true gentleman.
Peggy Ann Brown
Celebration of Irving R. Levine’s Life
National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
May 8, 2009