Jeffrey Schmalz, a journalist who wrote with passion and insight about the determination and despair of AIDS sufferers, died of complications of the disease yesterday at his home in Manhattan. He was 39.
When his illness was discovered three years ago, Mr. Schmalz, who spent his entire two-decade career as a reporter and editor at The New York Times, saw his situation not only as a patient but as a journalist.
Returning to work after a year of battling AIDS-related illnesses, he persuaded his editors to allow him to cover AIDS and gay issues. His writing gained him national attention as he brought readers into the world of gay politics and of people with AIDS in a blunt and sometimes startling way.
"To have AIDS is to be alone, no matter the number of friends and family members around," Mr. Schmalz wrote in a searingly personal article last December in The Week in Review section of The Times. "Then, to be with someone who has H.I.V., be it interviewer or interviewee, is to find kinship. 'I'm so glad they picked you to do this,' Mary Fisher said in an interview just before she spoke at the Republican National Convention as a woman with H.I.V. With her, as with Magic Johnson and Bob Hattoy and Larry Kramer and Elizabeth Glaser, who spoke at the Democratic convention, the talk was the same: of anger and courage and politics. We talked of that deep nausea in the pit of your stomach when even cancer patients pity you and when a doctor, who should know better, puts on latex gloves just to shake your hand."
Colleagues credited Mr. Schmalz with a finely honed news sense, a devotion to accuracy, a sharp-edged writing style and an innate sense of politics, both of the Government and of The Times, that helped him to rise quickly at the newspaper.
Began as a Copy Boy
Born in Abington, Pa., he began his career as a night copy boy in January 1973, while a student at Columbia University, where he studied economics.
Mr. Schmalz was regional editor and a metropolitan news reporter before being named chief of The Times's bureau in Albany in 1986, where he covered the early years of the Cuomo administration.
He joined the national staff in 1988, working as bureau chief in Miami before returning to New York two years later as deputy national editor.
"The healthy Jeff was an outstanding correspondent and editor with a great future in American journalism," Max Frankel, executive editor of The Times, said yesterday. "Jeff in illness plumbed the depth of his experience and applied it brilliantly to his coverage of the plague, producing a remarkable bequest to American journalism."
A Seizure at His Desk
Mr. Schmalz was deputy national editor in December 1990 when he suffered a brain seizure at his desk that led to the discovery he had AIDS.
Part of the price of his ascent at The Times, Mr. Schmalz long believed, was that he hide his homosexuality from at least some of his superiors. But after his illness became known, and with his sexual orientation no longer a secret, he became an eloquent spokesman for the frustrations of people with AIDS and an outspoken supporter of equal rights for gay people. In public speeches, he frequently apologized for coming late to the cause.
At the same time, he was careful to limit how much his own feelings got into print. The potential conflict in having this "by the book Timesman, no personal involvement allowed," as he put it, covering the disease that was killing him, was one of which he was acutely aware, and he addressed it head on in the article last December.
'The Prism of AIDS'
"Now I see the world through the prism of AIDS," he wrote. "I feel an obligation to those with AIDS to write about it and an obligation to the newspaper to write what just about no other reporter in America can cover in quite the same way." He spoke of his situation as a reporter in the context of women who cover women's issues, or blacks who cover issues of importance to blacks, calling it "the cutting edge of journalism."
"Some people think that it is the journalism that suffers, that objectivity is abandoned," he wrote. "But they are wrong. If the reporters have any integrity at all, it is they who suffer, caught between two allegiances."
Mr. Schmalz's life centered on his association with The Times. But with his career ambitions blunted by his illness, he became more contemplative and more philosophical. In a talk to students at the Dalton School earlier this year, he marveled at the idea that, after a year of fighting a usually fast-killing brain infection, blood clots and pneumonia, he had been given "time to get my life in order; my life is more together now than it ever was."
A Fatalistic Edge
His sense of humor, always acid, took on a fatalistic edge. Told by a doctor in April 1992 that he would have to give himself blood-thinning injections each day for the rest of his life, he cracked, "Well, at least it won't have to be for too long." When the count of his T-cells, an indicator of the strength of his immune system, dropped into single digits, he joked about giving them names.
He was acutely aware of the "looking-glass world" in which he lived, seeing his disease as "a good story" as well as a reporter's tool as he sought to give a human face to the AIDS epidemic.
"I make sure everyone with AIDS whom I interview knows that I have it, too," he wrote. "To be sure, that is an interview ploy; I'm hoping the camaraderie will open them up. But there is more to it than that: I want them to take a good look at me, to see that someone with full blown AIDS can carry on for a while, can even function as a reporter. Much of the time, it works. Their faces light up. There is hope."
"But sometimes it fails," he continued, "and I am the one changed by our chat, overcome by guilt that I have lived these two years when so many of my friends and hospital roommates and people I've interviewed have died. At times, I think my fellow AIDS sufferers are laughing at me, looking up from their beds with eyes that say, 'You'll be here soon enough.' "
Mr. Schmalz is survived by a sister, Wendy Wilde of Manhattan, a literary agent.
(New York Times, November 7, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition - Final)