Reporter Milton Esterow Has a Lifetime of Stories and Still More to Tell

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Lindner headlined “A Lifetime of Stories, and Still More to Tell”:

In 1938, an article in The Monthly Star Eagle reported that a truck had crashed into a car on New Lots Avenue in Brooklyn.

The writer was a 10-year-old boy, Milton Esterow. The publisher was, too: The young, dogged reporter had created the newspaper, made 18 copies and sold them to friends for 2 cents a pop. Each was one page, written by hand.

But he kept one copy for himself, which, now yellowed and frayed, hangs framed on an office wall in his Upper East Side apartment. This is where Mr. Esterow, now 94, writes articles about culture and art for The New York Times.

Decades of reporting have taken Mr. Esterow — a Brooklyn native with the accent to prove it — around the world. He got his start at The Times as a copy boy and moved his way up. He developed friendships with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Henry Moore. He purchased the country’s oldest art magazine, ARTnews. He produced journalism that won him a National Magazine Award and two George Polk Awards. He developed and defined a new style of culture reporting. And, about 50 years since his last Times byline, he returned to the newspaper in 2019.

“What better way, I thought, to continue my writing career than to go back to The New York Times,” Mr. Esterow said.

His office is a treasure-trove and a testament to a colorful career and life. Among the newspaper clippings and awards are photographs of his grandparents and grandchildren, books on Georgia O’Keeffe and a baseball autographed by Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson, two major league players connected by their matchup in one of the biggest moments in baseball history. (Mr. Esterow, who enjoys a good stogie, met them at a cigar aficionado party, many years after his tenure at The Eagle.)

On his desk sits a 1950 Royal typewriter, which Mr. Esterow uses to draft in-depth features that take several weeks to complete. Once he’s finished with an article, his daughter, who lives a few blocks away, scans it and sends a copy to his editor, Kevin Flynn.

Though he is perhaps best known for his reporting on culture, the arts weren’t always Mr. Esterow’s passion — or his beat. In 1945, Mr. Esterow, then a student at Brooklyn College, landed a job in The Times’s newsroom as a copy boy. His first assignment was to acquire horse betting sheets for the managing editor. (They weren’t for an article.)

Within a few years, Mr. Esterow and his wife, Jackie, considered starting a family. And around 1948, he was promoted to reporter. He decided to drop out of school to pursue journalism full time.

“I got about 30 credits before I was promoted,” Mr. Esterow said. “The Times newsroom was my journalism school.”

In 1948, he was assigned to cover a murder in a Bronx apartment. Veteran journalists crowded the area, scribbling observations in their notepads and taking statements. Mr. Esterow visited a pay phone to share the facts with a rewrite reporter, Meyer “Mike” Berger.

“I thought I had a complete story,” Mr. Esterow said. “Mike, very calmly, very politely, began asking questions. He wanted to know the color of the wallpaper.” Mr. Esterow returned to the scene to gather more details. He left with enough for a story, but also with a firmer grasp on what it meant to be a journalist.

After spending the early part of his career on the crime beat, Mr. Esterow was asked to cover culture and the arts. He wrote profiles of philanthropists like Bernard Baruch and thespians like Margaret Webster. But, despite praise from his editors, he wanted to pursue stories with an edge.

People were often “mystified” by the arts, he said, viewing cultural institutions as opaque. That, he added, “is what turns off a lot of people.” He wanted to go deeper.

By 1964 he had found a unique entry point into culture coverage: He applied an investigative style of reporting to the arts. On Nov. 16 that year, a report by Mr. Esterow on treasures stolen by the Nazis during World War II appeared on The Times’s front page with the headline “Europe Is Still Hunting Its Plundered Art.” At the time, it was rare for a culture story to land on Page A1.

By 1968, Mr. Esterow had been promoted to assistant to the director of cultural news, what he said “was one of the best jobs at The New York Times.” Even though he had “carte blanche,” he still felt a pull to run his own operation, so he left to lead the publishing division of Kennedy art galleries. Soon, though, he wanted more autonomy over the creative process. So, in 1972, he made another career move: He purchased ARTnews, a magazine then on the decline.

His investigative approach helped turn the publication around, and it soon became one of the most widely circulated art magazines. In the early 1980s, Mr. Esterow received a tip about a monastery in Vienna that was rumored to house thousands of works looted by Nazi soldiers. The source said that he didn’t know whether “the Austrians ought to be criticized or to be commended, but you ought to look into it,” Mr. Esterow recalled.

Of course, he looked into it. Mr. Esterow and his wife flew to Vienna. After meeting with the head of the Federal Monuments Office of Austria, who he said seemed defensive, Mr. Esterow assigned a reporter to put the pieces together. When the investigation was published in 1984, asserting that there was indeed looted art tucked away in the monastery, “all hell broke loose,” as Mr. Esterow put it.

In 1985, the Austrian government announced a plan to return stolen works to their owners or heirs. In 2016, the general consul of Austria presented Mr. Esterow with a Cross of Honor for Science and Art, saying that his work helped to make Austria “a better country.”

In 2014, Mr. Esterow sold ARTnews. He was 86, and his family thought he should “take it a little easy.” Mr. Esterow, though, still had stories to write.

So he returned to The Times, where he continues to pursue the trail of Nazi looting. He recently wrote an article about German museums returning artifacts that Jews were forced to part with under the Third Reich.

Though Mr. Esterow could easily rest on his many achievements, he has no plans to retire. He estimates he has written a staggering 6,000 articles over his lifetime, and he continues to tally up new ones. Whenever one story ends, there’s another yet to be told.

“I’ve really been lucky,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with what’s happened in my life, and I am thankful for what I have.”

But, he added, he has a big incentive to stay in the game: “Work is more fun than fun.”

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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