Imagine, in today’s scrutinized world, a journalist being on the payroll of a major national outlet while having their expenses separately covered by the enterprise to which they are embedded. Such was the case in 1945 for New York Times reporter William Laurence, a.k.a. “Atomic Bill,” as he chronicled the Manhattan Project.
In a long and fascinating piece in Undark magazine, Mark Wolverton tries to decipher lines of demarcation that were heavily governed by circumstances of World War II. Laurence’s stealth tracks make this harder:
For someone who spent almost 40 years as one of America’s most prominent journalists, most of them working for The New York Times, Laurence remains remarkably elusive. Even though he wrote four books and hundreds of articles in the world’s best-known newspaper, upon his death in 1977, he apparently left behind no papers, diaries, journals, notebooks, or any of the other records that would be expected of a professional writer.
He and his wife, Florence, had no children, and in years of researching his life, I’ve located only one surviving person who actually knew him, the former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb, who died in 2014. Apart from his voluminous writings, the most detailed source of information on Laurence is a lengthy oral-history interview he did for Columbia University in 1964. The transcript’s more than 500 pages are fascinating, detailed, and colorful, but–given Laurence’s predilection for self-aggrandizement and factual exaggeration (qualities that also crept into the sometimes purplish prose of his professional work)–less than fully reliable.
Wolverton walks readers through his research process and explains that just when he was about to tilt on the side of those who color Laurence’s post-WWII endorsements of the promise of atomic energy as tainted, he was swayed by FBI files obtained throug the Freedom of Information Act. Bookmark, read the full piece here.
Laurence won Pulitzer Prizes for reporting in 1937 and 1946.