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ANNALS OF COMMUNICATIONS
THE MAN WHO DISAPPEARED
At one time, a whole generation of Times reporters wished
they could write like McCandlish Phillips. Then he left them all for God.
BY KEN AULETTA
Last April 12th, a crowd filled the First
Church, in Wenham, Massachusetts, for the funeral of Nathaniel C. Nash, the
Frankfurt bureau chief of the New York Times. Nash, a much admired reporter,
had been among the thirty-five passengers and crew killed when the airplane
carrying Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown crashed into a Croatian mountain.
Seated among the journalist’s friends and family were some two dozen newspaper
employees, including the Times’ publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.
There were three speakers at the service, including the rector
of the First Church and the pastor of a neighboring church. The principal speaker
was John McCandlish Phillips, Jr., and he caused a stir. Phillips, who is six
feet six but weighs only a hundred and sixty-one pounds, loomed over Nash’s
coffin. Wearing a baggy gray striped suit jacket and black pants, and with his
long, thin neck sticking like a pole through a too large collar hoop, the sixty-eight-year-old
Phillips looked like an overdressed vagrant. When he reached the pulpit, he
began to weep. When he spoke, he cited Scripture, scolding those who had sinned
and assuring the bereaved that Nash awaited them “in a better place.” Nathaniel,
he said, “was lovely in life here, a friend of friends, and I expect to see
him later there.”
Phillips spoke at the behest of the Nash family, who wanted
people to understand how devoted Nathaniel had been to Phillips’s Pentecostal
church group, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship. Nash had joined the group
as a Harvard freshman, and after he graduated, in 1973, Phillips helped recruit
him to the Times as a copyboy. In those days, McCandlish Phillips, as
his byline read, was a star reporter at the Times, and was the newspaperman
whom Nash most admired. And Nash was not the only one who felt that way. Among
the outstanding journalists who worked in the newsroom in those days—Gay Talese,
David Halberstam, Gloria Emerson, J. Anthony Lukas, Richard Reeves—Phillips
was widely thought to be the most gifted writer.
Many of those who crowded the spare New England church in
Wenham did not know about Nash’s spiritual side. “Nash was close to his God,”
Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., says. “You could have a beer with Nash and not know
that.” Nor did many at the church know that during the years Nathaniel Nash
lived in New York, in the seventies and early eighties, he and Phillips and
two dozen or so others met on Tuesday evenings and Sunday mornings to pray and
to share their faith that salvation comes only to those who are “born again”
as believers in Jesus Christ. Each spring and fall, Fellowship church members
trolled the Columbia University campus, reciting Scripture and dispensing literature.
Nash played the guitar and Phillips slapped his thigh as the group sang hymns.
Sulzberger, like many others at Nash’s
funeral, had never met McCandlish Phillips before. Others at the Times
had known Phillips—in the newsroom he was called John—but had not seen him for
decades, although they vividly remembered stories he had written. Gay Talese,
who left the paper in 1965 and became a best-selling author, says, “He was the
Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural. There was only one guy
I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”
Colleagues on the Times knew Phillips as an uncommonly
polite and generous man who never drank, smoked, cursed, or played cards. He
kept a Bible on his desk, and once a week, surrounded by a handful of Times
employees, he conducted Bible readings in the back of the third-floor newsroom.
To competitors like Pete Hamill, then a columnist for the Post and now
the editor-in-chief of the Daily News, he was “a gentle character” who
“seemed miscast as a newsman” among the sharks from what were until the early
nineteen-sixties seven competing daily newspapers. Or so it appeared, until
Hamill read Phillips’s copy. He recalls, “He used the senses. He looked. He
listened. He smelled. He touched. There was a texture to his writing that was
sensual.” Phillips’s stories often focussed on forgotten people: the homeless
for whom the Port Authority Bus Terminal became a place not just to keep warm
but to socialize; the typesetter who saved a literary treasure from oblivion.
Phillips reported fires and murders, he covered Albany and the United Nations,
but he was best known as a stylish feature writer. When editors wanted someone
to bring a fresh and humorous eye to Abraham Lass, a remarkable Brooklyn high-school
principal who was also an accomplished ragtime piano player, or to chronicle
the last piece of cheesecake sold at Lindy’s, Phillips was their man. He could
write about Wisconsin that the state “bobs on a sea of curdled milk,” or describe
a jazz group in which “one player in this noisome pestilence looked something
like a blond werewolf, with a veil of hair growing across his face.”
It was a brilliant career, but in 1973, after twenty-one
years at the Times, Phillips startled his colleagues by announcing that
he was quitting. He was forty-six. He fell out of touch with his former co-workers,
though they would occasionally hear that he had been spotted in Morningside
Heights, trying to convert Columbia students. When Phillips left the Times,
he had had a full head of dark hair, cut short around the temples. At Nash’s
funeral, former colleages were startled by the change in his appearance. His
ears stood out starkly beneath strands of gray hair at his temples. His complexion
was sallow. He looked like an apparition.
What remained unchanged was the ready smile, the somewhat
gawky manner, the sweetness. And, for the contingent from the Times,
memories of a legendary journalist more interested in the truth and texture
of a story than in scoring a scoop. And a question: Why did a man with so much
talent walk away from it?
John McCandlish Phillips graduated from
high school in 1947 and went to work at a weekly newspaper in Brookline, Massachusetts.
There a colleague introduced him to the Baptist Church, which affected him deeply.
But the transforming experience of his life came in Baltimore in 1952, five
weeks before he was to be discharged from the Army. He had continued to attend
Baptist services, and at a service one night, while the congregation was praying,
a lay minister bellowed, “Are you willing to go anywhere in the world and do
anything Christ asks of you? If you are, stand up!” Phillips did not stand up.
“But every word of that went right into me,” he recalls.
Four weeks later, those words were still with him. Restlessly,
Master Sergeant Phillips rose before the 6 a.m.
reveille and walked to the small chapel on the Army base. “The morning was a
low blue,” he told me. “It was quiet. I sensed the presence of God with me and
I went into that chapel and said yes to God on the basis of that challenge.
I told Him I’d go anywhere in the world and do anything He wanted me to do.”
Phillips expected that he would become either a preacher or a missionary.
First, though, he took the train home to Boston to stay with
his father, who was sick. He boarded the train in Baltimore, and as it approached
Penn Station God spoke to him. “Get off the train” is the command he remembers.
“I didn’t understand it. I simply got off the train.” He found a cheap hotel
near Times Square, and the next morning he bought copies of the Herald Tribune
and the Times. On a Times classified page he spotted an ad for
an editorial trainee. He fell to his knees beside the bed and prayed for guidance.
Again, he heard the voice of God, telling him, he remembers, that he “had a
mission to go to the New York Times and get a job.”
What did he hear when God spoke? “You don’t hear through
your outer ear,” he explained. “You hear through your inner ear. You are conscious
of being talked to, but you don’t hear the words.”
Wearing his Army uniform, Phillips left his dingy hotel room
and walked to the Times, where the personnel office was crowded with
applicants for the editorial-trainee job. Phillips was in the habit of saying
“Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” and this made a favorable impression, as did his
assurance that he could live on twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents a week.
And he did, finding a room at the Y.M.C.A. on West Twenty-third
Street off Seventh Avenue, for ten dollars and fifty cents a week, and eating
supper at the nearby Automat, where for forty-five cents he could get a plate
of three hot vegetables, mashed potatoes, a dish of prunes, and a roll with
butter. Most weeks, he managed to save two dollars to send to his mother, and
each week he put fifty cents or so in the collection plate of the Baptist church.
His job was not glamorous. The city room, on the third floor,
stretched for an entire block, from Forty-third Street to Forty-fourth Street,
and was filled with the sound of telephones, pounding Royal and Underwood typewriters,
creaking swivel chairs, blaring microphone summonses for reporters to appear
at an editor’s desk, shouts of “Copy!” and “Boy!”
There was a lot of gambling in the newsroom. Arthur Gelb,
who joined the paper as a copyboy in 1944, rose to managing editor, and is today
president of the New York Times Company Foundation, recalls that gambling was
once so prevalent that the managing editor, Edwin Leland James, “hired two bookies
as copyboys. James bet. We all bet on the horses. They paid off with rolls of
cash.” McCandlish Phillips lugged his Bible everywhere, but he did not try to
impose his values on others. He was awed by the newsroom and the eminences who
inhabited it—Meyer (Mike) Berger, who wrote the “About New York” column; Peter
Kihss, who kept (and generously shared) meticulous files on every subject he
ever reported on; Homer Bigart, who, like the TV detective Columbo, was not
afraid to ask the childlike question that unlocked the story. It was a room
filled with eccentrics, and the copyboy who read a Bible at his desk, addressed
editors as “Sir,” and resembled Ichabod Crane fit right in. When someone called
out “Copy!” Phillips was hard to miss, loping like a giraffe across the room.
Early in 1955, Phillips was promoted to reporter and assigned
to the “shack” that the Times maintained across from Brooklyn police
headquarters. He worked as a legman and learned the tricks of reporting—in particular,
the art of the interview. At one press conference, reporters were shouting rude
questions at a museum director. As Phillips recalls it, “I just sidled over
to the director and asked him a series of quiet questions, gentleman to gentleman,
which he answered readily. I never veered from that in all my reporting experience.
It seemed comfortable and decent. And it was by far the most effective way to
What made the newsroom take notice of him was not a story
for the paper but a satire he wrote that treated life in the Brooklyn shack
as if it were a foreign posting. Published in the August, 1955, edition of Times
Talk, the newspaper’s house organ, it contained such observations as
“Policemen are remarkable linguists. They do their calls in hundreds of languages,
none of which owe any debt to English.” And this:
Two weeks ago, a man of about 55 who looked as though
he had been made out of scrap iron and old revolver handles dropped in to explain
that he had just been sprung from the Tombs; that some old friends had taken
the trouble to beat him up his first night out and that he wasn’t afraid of
nobody, especially cops. He wanted to know why the newspapers suppressed all
sorts of important things, like prison conditions and graft among politicians.
“It’s a plot,” I told him. “But what can I do? I’m just
one of the little ones.” This cheered him and he left without striking me.
Arthur Gelb remembers the satire—and the new byline, which
was then John M. Phillips—vividly. “We all said, ‘Who is John Phillips? Who
wrote this wonderful piece?’ I can’t think of any other case where a star was
born in the newsroom and overnight everyone in the newsroom knew who he was.”
Phillips was soon promoted to a desk in the newsroom’s next-to-last row.
Professionally, Phillips began to soar;
his personal life was not so smooth. His father, a sales representative, who
had separated from his mother when their son was three, died in 1958. Now his
mother—with whom he’d moved so often that he switched grammar schools thirteen
times before the age of twelve—was penniless. He invited her to live with him
in an apartment he had rented in Brooklyn. This provoked tension between them,
and it exploded in an ugly way in 1959. Gay Talese recalled the evening: he
was working on the night rewrite desk when an editor exclaimed, “Jesus, I just
heard from the city desk that there’s some problem with John. The cops are over
there. John’s been breaking plates, and his mother called the cops.”
The argument was over his mother’s unwillingness to take
off her spike heels, which were gouging holes in a new floor. Phillips remembers
that they had words and he smashed his fist through a window. He said he never
physically threatened his mother, but she summoned the police. “I was taken
to Kings County Hospital, and I was essentially held there for six or seven
days,” he recalled. He was subjected to psychiatric examination. After that,
his mother moved to an apartment in Queens. And although they were still on
speaking terms and got together with Phillips’s younger sister on holidays,
they remained somewhat distant for the rest of her life. (She died in 1991.)
Around the newsroom, Phillips kept pretty much to himself.
Sometimes he had dinner at the home of Gay Talese and his wife, Nan, or went
across the street to Gough’s to eat with colleagues. But he never went drinking
with the boys. Nicholas Pileggi, who was a police reporter for the Associated
Press in the fifties and sixties, remembered that when the police raided a porn
parlor they would confiscate movies. Then the cops and the brass from the old
Police Headquarters, at 240 Centre Street, would join reporters at the Times’
office across the street, set up an 8-mm. projector, and hang a sheet backed
by a blanket over the window to serve as a screen. Every time they did this,
Phillips would step outside and take a walk around the block. Pileggi, who says
he played poker instead, recalls, “These guys were so retarded. They once forgot
the blanket and projected right through the bedsheet. So the outside of Police
Headquarters had a movie of Lucky Pierre in his socks chasing this lady around
Phillips rarely dated. Since 1950, he says, he has dated
only one woman, a former Associated Press reporter. He stopped seeing her when
the Scriptures instructed him that one cannot “yoke” a believer and a nonbeliever.
“I am not susceptible to loneliness because I am not alone,” he says.
Perhaps the most influential person in
McCandlish Phillips’s life was a woman he met in 1961, in Miami. He was there
on an assignment to search for secret United States government bases where exiled
Cubans were training to invade their homeland. Once, on a night off, he got
lost and came across a small Spanish mission, where he sat and listened to the
service, which was in Spanish. An older woman who spoke English came over and
helped him translate. This was Hannah Lowe, who was then sixty-six years old.
Her husband, Thomas Lowe, had formed Pentecostal congregations in Baltimore
in the late nineteen-twenties, and had then gone as a missionary to South America,
where he died in 1941. She had continued his work, and had spent much of her
life since as a missionary in Colombia and in Israel.
A year later, Phillips again met Mrs. Lowe by chance when
she visited New York to preach. Phillips was awed by her devotion. She returned
to South America, and they met the next year at a Christian businessmen’s breakfast
in New York. He persuaded her to stay. Over the next several years, they would
pray together, and they organized a church, called the New Testament Missionary
Fellowship, recruiting members, spreading the gospel that there was, in his
words, “a priesthood of all believers.” This church believes that pornography,
drugs, abortion, and any form of fornication (including premarital sex and homosexuality)
are sins—although, unlike the religious right, it does not champion government
intervention to regulate behavior.
In 1963, Mrs. Lowe and another woman moved to a third-floor
apartment at 116th Street and Broadway; the following year, Phillips moved to
a two-room apartment on the seventh floor of the same building, where he still
lives. Often they dined together at the New Asia Restaurant, near 112th Street
and Broadway. After dinner, he went home and sometimes read books; most often,
he read Scripture and prayed.
In the morning, a prayer group convened for an hour at seven-thirty. After that, Phillips entered the secular
world at the Times. He was enraptured by his job. In 1963, when A. M.
Rosenthal was summoned from Tokyo and put in charge of the city desk, with Arthur
Gelb as his deputy, Phillips and Talese and others were excited. Rosenthal was
known to want better writing in the paper. While he was still in Tokyo, he had
already decided that Talese and Phillips were the two writers he admired most.
Of Phillips, Rosenthal recalls, “He was an original. He had a very telling eye.
He had a quiet merriment. His writing wasn’t heavy.”
Phillips’s most celebrated story was written in 1965, when
Rosenthal and Gelb assigned him to investigate the life of Daniel Burros, who,
at twenty-eight, had become the leader of the state Ku Klux Klan. Rosenthal
had received a tip that Burros, who had also been a ranking official in the
American Nazi Party, was Jewish. For five days, with help from a team of reporters,
When he had the facts, he got up early one day and took the
subway to Ozone Park, Queens, hoping to stop Burros as he left his apartment.
He intercepted him outside a barbershop, and they walked to a luncheonette and
found a booth. Burros ordered a Coke, Phillips had scrambled eggs. They talked
about the Klan, about how Burros had come to embrace Nazism, about his service
in the Army and the pictures in his wallet. Then Phillips revealed that he knew
Burros had been reared in a Jewish home. Burros demanded angrily, “Are you going
to print that?”
Phillips said that it was not within his power to make that
decision, but the fact that Burros’s parents were married in a Jewish ceremony
was a matter of public record.
Burros put his hand inside his coat and told Phillips that
he had a vial of acid in his pocket, and that he would kill him in the luncheonette.
Phillips nervously glanced down at the knife and fork near Burros’s fingertips,
then calmly put a dollar down on the table, and rose to leave. Burros followed
him outside. As Rosenthal and Gelb later wrote, in “One More Victim: The Life
and Death of an American-Jewish Nazi,” Phillips “had the story in his notebook”
but decided to stay and try to convert this man who seemed so full of hate.
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” Phillips told Burros. “Old
things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
“You’re trying to con me,” Burros snapped. They walked for
a while, and before they parted they shook hands. Phillips went back to the
office, and all day Burros kept calling, one moment pleading, the next threatening.
A security guard hovered while Phillips wrote his story. That night, two detectives
drove Phillips home. Gelb and Rosenthal held the story, hoping to confirm that
Burros had been bar mitzvahed; when they did, Phillips wrote an insert, and
the story was published. When Daniel Burros saw the story, on the front page
of the Times, he shot himself to death.
These events became a sensation, the more so when the usually
tender Phillips seemed to exhibit no guilt at the news that Burros had committed
suicide. Rosenthal remembers the conversation this way: “He said, and this was
the first time his religion entered into his work, ‘It was the will of God’—it
gives me shivers to say it!—‘and you were the instrument of God!’ ”
It was common at the time for publishers to turn out quickie
paperback books on big news stories, and New American Library wanted to do one
on Burros. Hollywood studios expressed interest in a movie. Rosenthal and Gelb
invited Phillips to lunch. Phillips brought along Hannah Lowe and his Bible.
The two editors outlined the book proposal and discussed movie rights. Phillips,
the editors remember, opened the Bible and, in a booming voice, read passages
aloud. The crowded restaurant fell silent. Embarrassed, Rosenthal and Gelb slid
down in their seats. Phillips, citing Scripture—“Touch not the spoil”—declined
the book offer, having decided that he could not enrich himself from a tragedy.
Marvin Siegel, who joined the Times
as an editor in 1966 and who lives in Phillips’s building but rarely sees
him, recalled that assigning Phillips to a story was like having money in the
bank. “As a combination writer-reporter, I don’t think anyone topped him,” Siegel
said recently. He did not besiege editors with story ideas, as, for example,
Gay Talese did, but he could be depended upon to produce at least three beautifully
crafted stories a week.
As the sixties wore on, and as hair lengthened in the newsroom,
Phillips seemed an increasingly anomalous figure. “He was definitely regarded
as somewhat strange,” said a former colleague who had been on assignments overseas
and barely knew him. “He was widely said to be a religious fanatic of some sort.”
This reporter admired Phillips’s prose, and the fact that he kept his religion
strictly segregated from his work. This separation, however, was becoming harder
A sense of mission was building within Phillips. It expressed
itself in a book he wrote in 1970, “The Bible, the Supernatural, and the Jews.”
Its thesis was that the Devil plotted to get people interested in the supernatural
in order to lead them down the “path of spiritual ruination.” He denounced the
forces of “evil” that encouraged drug use and promiscuity, and
warned that these forces were “multiplying and spreading.” The book coincided
with a new chapter in Phillips’s life. He wanted to do something else. He didn’t
want to move to the Washington bureau or become a foreign correspondent. He
aspired to write essays, book reviews, maybe a sports column. Although the Times
bent the rules for him—granting him a leave to finish the book, for example—he
Phillips was obsessed with a story that no one else seemed
to take seriously: the life and art of a man named Otto Griebling, a circus
clown Phillips had first seen in 1952, when he was in the Army in Baltimore.
Phillips believed that Griebling was a great artist, and for years he was haunted
by the idea that Griebling, although he’d worked at his trade for more than
half a century, had gained neither fame nor reward. Whenever the circus came
to town, Phillips would pester his editors to assign a story about Otto the
Clown. (“Griebling’s clown,” he wrote, in a 1974 collection of essays, “was
harassed and futile, truly pathetic, yet he was also limitlessly patient and
persistent and devoted. The things that menaced him were entirely unseen; they
were private torments locked within some chamber of his consciousness
and showing only on his face. For a circus clown to seek his effects in implied
psychology rather than in plain and overt acts; for him to rely on a suggestion
of an inward state rather than an outward showing of things, is virtually
a defiance of the form.”)
Phillips was particularly incensed in 1972 and 1973 by public
accusations by parents that their college-age children were being brainwashed
by elders of the New Testament Missionary Fellowship. His church, he believed,
was founded on democratic principles. Phillips pleaded with editors to assign
stories about what he condemned as a new wave of McCarthyism, this one aimed
at born-again Christians. He was bothered by the Times’ seeming indifference.
In turn, some editors believed that a change had come over Phillips. “He began
to filter things through a religious prism,” Marvin Siegel says. Editors became
nervous as, increasingly, he prayed for guidance while he was working on stories.
Phillips was also tired—emotionally spent by the toll that
being an empathetic reporter can take. “If what you are covering is ‘moving’
and you are not moved by it, you will not move anyone with it,” he says. In
December of 1973, after twenty-one years at the Times, John Phillips
told his editors that he was resigning his job, which then paid twenty-six thousand
five hundred dollars a year.
It was not especially unusual for gifted or ambitious writers
to exit the Times. David Halberstam, who left in 1967, said recently,
“The rest of us sat around and talked about what we wanted to do. He never did.”
When colleagues in the newsroom learned that Phillips was quitting, they assumed
that he wanted to pursue a religious life. This belief was reinforced when Phillips
virtually disappeared. God, it was often said around the Times, had spoken
to Long John.
Phillips himself says that it was not that simple. He says
that he was looking for a bigger stage and felt that the institution could not
bend enough to accommodate its writers. “I wanted to go higher and have more
scope,” Phillips said he told Rosenthal. But former associates, including Rosenthal,
don’t believe that he walked away out of mere ambition. “Phillips is not interested
in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Gay Talese said. “He is not interested in demeaning
or finding flaws. He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different
drummer! Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”
Before Phillips left the Times, he worked out a freelance
arrangement that permitted him to write occasionally. He was contacted about
writing for a morning television show, and doing feature stories for a local
TV station, but such jobs held no allure. He thought of writing for magazines,
of becoming an editor, but he was painfully shy. He had no network
of friends and was not a generator of story ideas. He waited for the phone to
ring with assignments. It didn’t.
In the next eight years, McCandlish Phillips’s byline occasionally
appeared in the Times. His 1974 collection—“City Notebook: A Reporter’s
Portrait of a Vanishing New York”—was not even reviewed by the Times.
His income, which he neatly itemized on a reporter’s pad, fell to ten thousand
three hundred and eighty-three dollars in 1976. He stopped writing for the Times,
he said, because the paper wanted features that took the better part of a week
and paid him too little for the effort. For the past fifteen years or so, Phillips
has written occasional pieces for church journals. With the exception of Nathaniel
Nash, he lost touch with former co-workers. Hannah Lowe, with whom he founded
his church, moved to Jerusalem, where she died of a stroke in 1983, at the age
Today, Phillips works out of an office
in a narrow bedroom that he rents in a friend’s tenth-floor apartment on 116th
Street. He sits at a Formica-topped metal folding table. The walls are bare
of any adornments except a clock and a calendar; to his left rests a Bible and
a small radio tuned to classical music; to his right stands a metal locker.
Behind him, on another folding table, is a telephone, a typewriter, a computer
that he doesn’t use much, and stacks of church literature. A window caked with
soot faces north.
Phillips spends part of his time as general
manager of Thomas E. Lowe, Ltd., a small religious publishing house that he
founded with Hannah Lowe. It buys remaindered religious books and reprints a
handful of others, and sells them to Christian bookstores. Phillips estimates
that he spends about a quarter of his time managing the firm,
and in 1996 his gross pay for this was two thousand two hundred and fifty-six
The bulk of his time is devoted to the Fellowship church,
of which he is an elder and administrator. The church, which relies on contributions
from its members, has an income of about seventy thousand dollars a year, and
pays Phillips twenty thousand dollars. With Social Security, interest on a savings
account, and small stock dividends, his total income in 1995 was just under
thirty thousand dollars. He helps prepare for twice-weekly prayer meetings,
speaks at about a third of these, does photocopying and other errands, handles
correspondence, serves as one of six trustees, and is generally available to
listen. “John is like an older brother,” explains Jaan Vaino, a CBS News financial
executive. Jaan and Sharon Vaino’s apartment, on 110th Street, is one of two
sites for church gatherings. (The other is in a house the church owns in Yonkers.)
On a recent Tuesday, the group met, as it does every other
Tuesday evening, in the Vainos’ cramped living room. Nineteen members were present,
including an N.Y.U. student and eight recent Columbia and Yale graduates, and
ten other men and women who would not have looked out of place on Wall Street—except
for Phillips, who wore an open, oversized red vest and a muddy yellow shirt
with a red tie pinching his collar. For two hours, group members offered spontaneous
prayers, sang favorite hymns, recited from the Scriptures, and invoked Jesus’s
good deeds. Vaino played an electronic keyboard; a professor in environmental
medicine from N.Y.U. Medical Center, Roy Shore, played a clarinet; and a pin-striped
executive with the Bank of New York, Philip Chamberlain, took Nathaniel Nash’s
place on strings, with a Colombian instrument called a tiple. There were muted
cries of “Praise the Lord!” and arms stretched at times to Heaven, much as in
a Baptist service. As he once climbed into the lives of people he wrote about,
Phillips now showers empathy on the brethren of his church. “John is very tried
in God. There is this holiness in him,” remarked Helen Sun, a 1995 Yale graduate
who works at CBS.
It was a relaxed evening; those present were not unlike Christmas
carollers who unwind through song. Holly Vitale, who is a credit manager for
a midtown company, said that she looks forward to these meetings as “an oasis,
a family gathering.” What helps to bind them together, members say, is John
It was that feeling—a belief in Phillips’s largeness
of spirit—that led the Nash family to call on him when the journalist was killed
in Croatia. Nathaniel Cushing Nash says Phillips was “a great inspiration” as
well as a “mentor” to his son. At the funeral in Wenham, Phillips was often
the stern preacher, proclaiming that Satan was near. But when he spoke of his
friend he became empathetic and highly personal. “He was a spacious man,” Phillips
said. “He carried a kind of innocence that had no tincture of naïveté in it.
There was nothing narrow or confined—or confining—about Nathaniel.” ©