Mike Wallace, newsman and Vineyard Haven resident, dead at 93

Martha's Vineyard Community Services held a dinner following the Possible Dreams Auction on August 4, 2008 to celebrate the event's 30th anniversary and honor long-time supporters that included Mike Wallace, at center. His wife, Mary, to his right, singer/songwriter Livingston Taylor, and auction committee member DiAnn Ray and her husband, Sandy, far right, joined in the applause. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Mike Wallace, the television journalist, relentless investigator, and Vineyard Haven resident, died Saturday in New Caanan, Connecticut, where he had lived for several years. He was 93.

Tim Weiner of the New York Times writes in his obituary of Mr. Wallace, published Easter Sunday, that Mr. Wallace was “A reporter with the presence of a performer, [he] went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities and con artists for more than 50 years, living for the moment when ‘you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you’re really talking to each other,’ he said in an interview with The New York Times videotaped in July 2006.

“Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked ‘a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.’

“… ‘Forgive me’ was a favorite Wallace phrase, the caress before the garrote.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Wallace, columnists Art Buchwald and James Reston, and novelist William Styron formed the core of a summer cadre that enjoyed tennis at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club and long evenings together discussing politics, art, sports, and world affairs.

Mr. Wallace told an interviewer in 2006 that Mr. Styron, Mr. Buchwald, and he had suffered depression simultaneously, “‘so we walked around in the rain together on Martha’s Vineyard and consoled each other,’ adding, ‘We named ourselves the Blues Brothers.’ Mr. Styron died in 2006 and Mr. Buchwald in 2007,” Mr. Weiner writes.

A recent portrait

From a portrait of Mr. Wallace, written by CK Wolfson (“Mike Wallace at this time of his life“) and published in The Martha’s Vineyard Times in September of 2008: “Mike Wallace became famous for headlining CBS’s ’60 Minutes’ (1968 until 2006), with his groundbreaking, frontal assault style of interviewing. He accompanied United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to Iraq to prevent a war with Saddam Hussein. He received 20 Emmy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement, three duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Peabody Awards, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in the international broadcast category.”

In 2008, after years of heart problems, Ms. Wolfson wrote, “Mike Wallace is in his Vineyard Haven home overlooking the harbor — a setting that looks like a painter’s canvas of summer. Looking thin and a bit fragile, he itemizes the aftermath of the triple bypass surgery he had in January: a loss of mobility, speech, responsiveness, the need for rehabilitation and daily physical therapy.

“He talks slowly, shaping his words deliberately between bites of the lunch prepared and served by his daughter, Pauline, who is visiting from Connecticut. His memory, he admits, ‘is not reliable.’ And with casual flair, he confesses, ‘How much of this I’m making up, I’m not absolutely certain.'”

Still, Ms. Wolfson wrote, the fire that marked his journalism had not been damped.

“And yes, were he able, he’d still be doing it,” she wrote. “‘You know,’ he said, ‘at the age of 90 [he was born on May 9, 1918], there are not many people who want to employ you.’ He recalls when Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was making headlines: ‘Well, I knew him, I covered him, so I called the [CBS] office. Oh my God, I can just see it on the other end: ‘That guy doesn’t realize that he’s lost a certain amount of usefulness to us.'”

“I had my time”

“Mr. Wallace is unflinching: “I’m not disappointed in myself. I had my time. I was an object of respect and of celebrity — why do I avoid that word — I wince when I hear it. But things aren’t the way they used to be — for anybody.

“When his visitor tries to deflect his blunt self-assessment, he dismisses the attempt with the same directness and edge he used when interviewing presidents, history makers, and international luminaries such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Noriega, and Putin.

“He quips, ‘Didn’t you used to be Mike Wallace?’ to explain how former associates react to him.

“And now the subject is aging.

“‘My memory started to go — and it has gone. Self-assurance started to go, and it has.’ His voice has become the broadcaster’s again, emphatic and animated: ‘You’re not as articulate as you used to be. You don’t have as good a time as you used to have. In addition to which, age has taken over.’

“There is no trace of whimper, instead only staunch declaration: ‘I’m living in the past. Face it. I know that I have a certain reputation, I mean that in the best sense, but I can’t achieve that again. I’m not going to get younger. You don’t have the psychic energy you used to have. I mean, look at me.’

“But for all the adjustments, Mr. Wallace says his emotional equilibrium has not been affected. ‘And not a hint of depression,’ he says. ‘You figure, maybe this is going to bring back the old stuff, but not a hint…. If your relationship with your physician is close enough, you just handle it as it comes and goes.’

“Pauline (the daughter of his third wife, Loraine Perigord) and her husband, Dick Bourgeois, join Mr. Wallace at the dining room table. They’ve been staying with him while his wife of 22 years, Mary Yates Wallace, was on a trip to Estonia. He beams at them as Pauline talks about how people arrive at each part of their lives, and have to make the appropriate adjustments. She knows that for all of her father’s advantages, it doesn’t compensate him for not being able to continue doing what he did.

“Not that he is complaining. He says his relationships have gotten better; he values his wife (‘She’s a love”) and his children.

“Chris (his son, ‘Fox News Sunday’ host Chris Wallace) and I — you know, we had grown apart to a certain degree, and now we’re real pals again, maybe more than ever.”

“He revels in the Vineyard (raised in Brookline, he first came when he was 10), and in watching the harbor from his back porch. ‘I can’t imagine a more attractive place to be,’ he says, and then adds, ‘But let’s face it. This is an artificial life.’

“He is all dignity and resolve as he begins, ‘So — I think I’ve lived too long. But I don’t feel sorry for myself.’

“His acceptance, he says, is ‘absolute.’

“And when he is asked how he would describe his attitude, he pauses, thinks a moment, then answers: ‘Waiting. Waiting for the end. It’s inevitable. It’s not about being comfortable. It’s not a question of being passive. You wait to wake up the next morning. You wait to find out what’s going to happen. You wait to see what’s going to happen to people you love when the wait is over.’