Done Climbing Mountains, Arthur Sulzberger Takes a Hike
Retired in New Paltz, the former publisher of The New York Times has walked more than 3,000 miles through the pandemic
When the world started falling apart in March 2020, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. decided to walk it off. The preceding decade had been marked by major life transitions. In 2017, he passed on the dynastic mantle of publisher of The New York Times to his son A.G. Sulzberger, the fifth in the family line to hold the position. In February 2020, he filed for divorce from Gabrielle Greene, whom he had married in 2014. The official generational change-over at The Times was completed last September when Sulzberger’s last remaining Times title, chairman of The New York Times Co. board, went to A.G. as well.
In November 2018, The Times threw Sulzberger a swanky retirement party at MOMA’s restaurant The Modern. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Robert De Niro, Barry Diller, and Tina Brown were among the grandees who gathered with high-ranking Times staff to send him off. But with the pandemic raging and people sheltering in place, the longtime mogul was locked down, 80 miles from his hereditary perch, in his home in New Paltz.
It seemed like a good time for some steps forward. Sulzberger had abruptly given up his passion for rock climbing in 2014. By all accounts, it wasn’t because his skills had declined precipitously. “The last year, he was climbing just like he always did. And then he said, ‘Nope, I’ve decided, this is it for me.’ And that was that,” said Marisa Pileggi, a massage therapist who climbed with Sulzberger every weekend for years. “I’m pretty sure he just set a date.”
Sulzberger needed a new hobby, so he started hiking — eight miles a day, assiduously tracking his mileage. They’re not the most demanding hikes, just long. “He likes to explore but not get too strung out on it,” said Rich Gottlieb, who ran a local climbing shop and hikes with the former publisher. “I’m often winging it and looking for new places and getting in trouble and bushwhacking, and that’s not his forte.”
Much of Sulzberger’s hiking is in the Mohonk Preserve, where he’s been a board member since 2016. “We were going on our walks during the worst of the pandemic when the preserve was closed,” said legendary climber and board chair Russ Clune. “As board members, we could be the eyes and the ears to see what was going on in the property.”
Sulzberger had first fallen in love with the area as a climber. After getting his start climbing just north of the George Washington Bridge in 1987, he began exploring the Shawangunk Mountains, long known to climbers as “the Gunks,” in the early ’90s. “He wanted him and his son to be exposed to nature and to confront his own fears,” said Glenn Kreisberg, who guided the Sulzbergers on some of their early Gunks climbs. (Sulzberger’s first and most influential guide was Jim Munson, a well-known authority in upstate climbing circles.)
A.G., then a tween who was called “little Arthur” by his father, seemed less enthusiastic. “A.G.’s attitude was, ‘my dad is dragging me along,’” Kreisberg recalled. “They ribbed each other a lot at the diner after climbing.” Soon the elder Sulzberger started coming up without his son. “I was surprised that climbing became such a big part of his life,” Kreisberg said.
Sulzberger bought his New Paltz home, in part for its access to a semi-private climbing area. Friends speculate that what drove him to the mountains was a need to get away from work and clear his head. Over the next two decades, he would establish a reputation as an accomplished lay climber. “A lot of celebrities get called climbers,” says Susan E.B. Schwartz, a historian of Gunks climbing and one of Sulzberger’s longtime climbing partners, “but Arthur was legit a really good climber.”
He made an annual tradition of lead climbing Modern Times, a route which people put on their bucket lists. “It was terrifying, it was such an open, scary climb, and every time he did it with such confidence and commitment,” said Pileggi. “He was completely committed when he was climbing.”
Schwartz said Sulzberger took his climbing back to the city. She recalls climbing the outside of the old Times building with him and A.G. after the younger Sulzberger discovered an access point. “I’m sure the shareholders wouldn’t have wanted to hear about what he was doing,” she said. (Eileen Murphy, Sulzberger’s spokesperson at The Times, disputed Schwartz’s account, writing in an email, “he never climbed the building.”)
Now, Sulzberger has been telling friends that this is likely his last summer he’ll ride his Triumph motorcycle. “I’ll believe that when I see it,” Clune said. “He’s gotten such great joy out of riding his bike over the years that I actually challenged him: ‘You don’t really — What? Why? ’Cause you’re getting older? Do you feel more wobbly?’ We’ll see if he actually does it. He might or might not.”
Since the advent of the vaccines, Sulzberger has been returning to the city more, but most days, he’s still hiking six to eight miles. Sometimes A.G., now more accepting of his father’s outdoor lifestyle, joins him. “I do think A.G. will want to climb with his kids,” Pileggi said. “It’s a pretty special father-son thing that they had.” Inevitably, she said, the next generation of Sulzbergers will have a strong connection to the outdoors, even if only through the efforts of the former publisher. “When the grandkids are old enough, he’ll be hiking with them,” she said. “I’m 100 percent sure of that.”