I was the New York Times correspondent in Israel at the time. When I reached him on the phone in the midst of a newsroom celebration, champagne corks popping in the background, I dead-panned: “You’ll refuse it, of course.” He lowered his voice and growled into the mouthpiece: “Not on your life!” We both laughed our heads off. I was enormously pleased, and so was he.
Pop enjoyed great good health for all but the last few of his seventy-six years. Again, he was lucky, given all the late nights, booze, and decades of unfiltered Camels. His idea of a good time was to sit late at Toots Shor’s saloon, trading stories with the parade of writers, ballplayers, fighters, mobsters, politicians, and hacks that would come by his table during the course of a night. He was successful financially, but his real definition of economic well-being was to have enough money to be able to grab the check for the table at Shor’s on occasion and not break the bank in the process.
He loved his life, had two kids and two good marriages, and lived long enough to know his six grandchildren and two of his great-grandchildren and to take my son, Chris, fishing for the first time in his life. They laughed together and Chris caught a fish. That sunny day on Martha’s Vineyard became grist for a column, of course, his plinth for the day.
When his health was failing near the end, he struggled to overcome the congestive heart failure and kidney disease that would take his life. He wanted to get better, he said; the Super Bowl was coming up and he wanted to cover it, to write another column, a good column, and then another after that, and make that one better. Spring training was not that far away.
But if he didn’t get better, he told me, he had no complaints.
“I’ve had a great run,” he said.
And he did.