‘He’s still with us through those books’

Tony Horwitz remembered for his humor, his writing, and his friendship.

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Tony Horwitz was remembered as a loving husband to Geraldine Brooks and dedicated father to Nathaniel and Bizu Friday at a memorial service inside a packed Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. He was described as a courageous journalist, a passionate historian, and a fun-loving friend who liked to play poker and make bets, razz his teammates and opponents on the softball field, and take no prisoners in games of Scrabble.

It’s been nearly three months since the Pulitzer prizewinning writer died suddenly May 27 just shy of his 61st birthday while on tour for his new book, “Spying on the South.” On Friday afternoon, his family and friends shared stories, laughs, and tears. The service drew literary giants like Bob Woodward, Michael Lewis, and Jill Lepore. There were powerful songs by Suesan Stovall and Sam Bungey, and Rabbi Caryn Broitman led those gathered in the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Nathaniel Horwitz was steady and composed describing the five threads of consolation that have carried him through his grief. The same couldn’t be said of the congregation, many of whom wept at his touching tribute.

“He was a courageous reporter, passionate historian, brilliant comedian, good husband, and an extraordinary father,” Nathaniel said. “He was my best friend, and I’ll miss him for the rest of my life. He was my best friend, and I’ll miss him forever.”

Nathaniel read from an essay written by Lepore for the New Yorker: “He was like an uncle, the one with all the funniest stories. Not the uncle who says, ‘Gosh, you’ve gotten big!’ to the littlest kid, but the uncle who brings chocolate and says, to that kid, ‘Eat all of this before your brothers get back, and I won’t tell them I brought it.’”

It was one of the dozens of tributes written about Horwitz after his death — those tributes being among the five threads of consolation Nathaniel spoke about along with the love and support of friends, his father’s swift and painless death while on his book tour, the good terms Horwitz was on with family before he died, and the lasting legacy of his father’s literary work: “Five threads that together weave a rope onto which I grasp, hand over hand, upwards toward peace.”

Nathaniel was in Sydney, Australia, when he learned of his father’s death. They last spoke on Nathaniel’s 23rd birthday, and he was looking to get home after a six-month journey to celebrate his father’s 61st.

In the first few dark days, Nathaniel found it difficult to see his father’s books around the house, at a friend’s house, or on the shelves at a bookstore. It was all too painful. But his feelings evolved.

“In his writing he was always at his finest, his smartest, his most thoughtful, and his most courageous and adventurous … Prose often so good that it transcended the subject. Prose so good it would make you laugh until you cried. I recognize now that his books are not the shade of him. They’re the quintessence of his soul, the distillation of a great adventurer and a good man. He’s still with us through those books on our bedside tables, by the tub, in our handbags, and on our reading chairs — in our hearts, in our minds, in his words. At his best, whenever we choose to seek him out. Given the inevitability of loss, I can think of no greater consolation than that.”

Horwitz’s own journeys, like hitchhiking across the Outback, were ever-present in the anecdotes told by his colleagues and friends. 

Michael Lewis, an author whose book about the financial industry (“Liar’s Poker”) was panned by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, came to know Horwitz through what can only be described as perseverance. Horwitz, a reporter at the time for the Wall Street Journal, wanted to write about Lewis. When Lewis didn’t return his calls because of the Journal snub, Horwitz wrote a letter. When Lewis didn’t answer the letter, Horwitz showed up in London — ultimately moving into a vacant duplex next door: “He didn’t think there was anything unusual about how we met.”

The two became fast friends. Lewis described Horwitz as someone who prefered a dumb bet to no bet at all. “Half the people in this room are owed dinner or 20 bucks,” he said to knowing laughs. “I’ve known people who’ve had a gambling problem. That wasn’t your dad. It was more that gambling had a Tony problem.”

Horwitz was remembered for his charm and zest for life. “I think of him as a person who moved through a heavily armed world disarming people,” Lewis said. 

While Horwitz was covering the Iraq-Iran War, Iraqi soldiers had killed Iranian soldiers and were digging a grave with bulldozers. Horwitz stood in front of the machines and insisted the Iraqis at least remove the dog tags of the Iranians so that their families could be properly notified of their deaths. “He won that battle.”

Speaking directly to Nathaniel and Bizu, Lewis told them why he picked Horwitz, a Jew, to be his daughter’s godfather. “I wanted the spirit of your father to be present in my child’s life, and it is. It still lives, and it will always be, as it is in mine and will always be in yours.”

Rich Ivry, Horwitz’s roommate at Brown University, called him a man of “humor” and “heart.” Peter Bale, the editor of WikiTribune, pinch-hit for Ken Wells, who had been Horwitz’s editor at the Wall Street Journal when he won his Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of income inequality at a chicken-packing plant. Bale read a note from Wells about what it was like to edit Horwitz’s work: “It’s like driving a Jaguar. You don’t have to do much but enjoy the ride.”

Martha Sherrill, a former Washington Post reporter, described how difficult it is for her and her husband, Bill, to come to grips with Horwitz’s loss. She remembered his legs, his year-round tan, and how he would wait for friends at the Oak Bluffs dock. She described him as “wickedly funny, shockingly sweet, decent, warm, menschy.”

“I once told him he was basically the Jewish Hugh Grant with thinning blonde hair, and he told me it was the greatest compliment he ever had,” she said. “There wasn’t a room he didn’t walk into that he didn’t light up. I mean, he’s lighting up this one, and he’s supposed to be dead.”

Sherrill said it was never about being the star or the center of attention for Horwitz. “He didn’t want distance from people, he wanted engagement,” she said. “He wanted contact and connection. He wanted to banter, kick around ideas. He wanted to hear your opinions, particularly if you didn’t agree with him … He wanted a connection the way other people want drugs.”

Sig Van Raan, who knew Horwitz as a teammate on Flanders Field in Sunday morning Chilmark Softball games, read two poems in between explaining Horwitz’s passion for those games and his legendary and funny aftergame summaries that were a staple of his since he joined the collection of “fishermen, carpenters, doctors, research physicists, poets, writers, sunglass store owners, hat designers, psychologists, analysts, sheriff’s deputies, ex-cons, old hippies” in 2007. No one escaped his satirical observations. “He was relentless in his insults and barbs, goofy and zany. Yet those of us who were not parodied or insulted felt left out. Insulted, even.”

If Horwitz got on base, he would razz his opponents on the field. But if he popped out, he’d return to the bench asking, “Why did I swing at that pitch?” Van Raan recalled. “I’ve been trained as a psychoanalyst, but I dared not go there.”

The second of the poems, “Ashes and a Mitt,” was about Horwitz’s wish to have his ashes spread and his glove buried at Flanders Field. There were audible gasps as Van Raan read the poem’s final line: “Caps off as you pass that field; it holds treasure in it.”