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All the History Fit to Frame

Tucked inside the New York Times is a museum overseen by David Dunlap, a former reporter whose life has been intertwined with the paper for more than 40 years

There’s a photograph of David Dunlap in the Museum at The Times on the 15th floor of The New York Times building, which opened in September. In it, the former reporter who spent more than 40 years in the newsroom is wearing a double-layer hazmat suit, a full-face respirator, and a hard hat. As the museum’s lead curator, Dunlap is a bit bashful about that photo. “I could not persuade my colleagues to eliminate it,” he told The Fine Print. “The photographer, Fred Conrad, and I were the only two journalists that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation permitted to visit the contaminated Deutsche Bank Building at the World Trade Center site before it was demolished.”

Since Dunlap joined The Times in 1975, as a clerk for columnist and former executive editor James “Scotty” Reston, he’s hoovered up arcana about the institution and become a walking archive of the paper’s past. “Under Reston’s wing, I was immersed from the outset in Times history and loved it and couldn’t get enough of it,” he said. “I was completely bitten and smitten.” When The Times moved from its old building off Times Square in 2007 to its new headquarters on 41st Street, he thought of all the artifacts that could be lost in the shuffle. “Journalists at The Times generally have a very proprietary sense about the place and a pride. They have keepsakes that commemorate milestones,” he said. “I also thought if I got hit by a bus, no one would know how many riches there are. It could all get scattered and lost.” 

So, in 2016, Dunlap persuaded the late masthead editor Janet Elder to allow him to convert a conference room off of the newsroom into a “Timeseum,” where he could display objects like the shards of the rocket that nearly killed war correspondent C. J. Chivers in Libya and the camera that photographer João Silva was carrying in Afghanistan when he stepped on a landmine and lost his legs. The incarnation, he said, “really was a curio shop.” But when The Times reduced the number of floors it uses in the building in 2017, forcing a restacking of its office plan, then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, which owns the paper, supported creating a permanent museum. Though Dunlap retired at the end of that year, it was only natural he’d continue as the new museum’s curator. Along with others at the paper, he began to arrange the artifacts he’d collected in the newly installed Goppion display cases, no longer just preserving them but crafting a narrative. 

The story the Museum at The Times tells is that of the institution, but, for Dunlap, it’s a personal story, too. Along with the photograph with the hazmat suit, perhaps the most emotionally resonant section for him is a shelf dealing with the history of the paper’s treatment of its gay employees. “I was one of the earliest gay employees to come out at The Times,” he said, explaining that it was in 1984 when the infamously homophobic executive editor Abe Rosenthal still ruled the newsroom. It was a risky act at the time. Dunlap told the story of how Rosenthal cut down Richard Meislin in 1985. “Meislin was shooting his way like a meteor through the reporting ranks. He was the Mexico City bureau chief when, one version of the story goes, he brought his boyfriend from Mexico City, who was visiting New York, to tour the newsroom, as, of course, you would do with your spouse or partner,” he said. “Meislin had been a clerk to Rosenthal, and Rosenthal is said to have spotted the two men together in the newsroom and asked someone, ‘Who is that with Meislin?’ And was told who that was. Meislin soon found himself packing his bags, removed from the Mexico City bureau, and brought back to Metro, punitively,” he said. “Rosenthal maintained he never did such a thing punitively, that he always knew that Rich was gay. Where the truth actually lies, I’m not sure, but I know on which side my beliefs tend.”

But Dunlap found a protector who empowered his revelation. “Very importantly, by this time, young Arthur Sulzberger, not yet publisher by any means, in fact, eight years before he became publisher, had reached out to folks that he knew to be gay,” he recalled. “He took me to lunch, and he said, ‘I know you’re gay, and don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.’” That made it easier for Dunlap to accept an invitation in 1984 to participate in a panel at Yale of gay alumni that included gender theorist Judith Butler, who was just completing their Ph. D. He remembers jokingly telling the crowd, “I used to think I was the only gay person at The New York Times, but now I look around the newsroom and I think, ‘God, who here isn’t gay?’” Decades later, he reflected, “if there was a Sulzberger saying you were going to be okay, you didn’t worry as much about Rosenthal.”

There are four objects on the shelf at The Times’s museum dealing with this history. The first is an issue of The Advocate with the cover line “A. M. Rosenthal: Is the Times’ Guiding Light a Raving Homophobe?” “Like a squirrel, I not only clipped and kept any mention of The Times in other big magazines like Time and New York and Newsweek,” he said, “but I especially was interested in the gay press coverage of The Times, which was, for many years deservedly, not friendly coverage at all.” To its right is a copy of an old Times stylebook, open to the G section, where the use of “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual” is forbidden. “This particular stylebook belonged to the man who is now the Letters to the Editor editor. When he was on the foreign desk, he had this style book that he marked up conscientiously. Every new change in style, Tom [Feyer] marked up,” Dunlap said. “You can read the entry about ‘gay,’ but then there’s a marginal note from him saying, ‘superseded by AMS memo,’” referring to Allan M. Siegal, then an assistant managing editor who oversaw the paper’s style guide. Stapled to the adjacent page is a dot matrix printout of a memo dated June 15, 1987: “Starting immediately, we will accept the word gay as an adjective meaning homosexual.” A placard in the case explains that “gay” had begun appearing in The Times in the 1960s, but “that halted in 1975, after the Travel section published a freewheeling and slightly racy account of a gay luxury cruise. The publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and the managing editor, A. M. Rosenthal, were apoplectic. ‘Gay’ was then banned as a synonym for ‘homosexual.’ Coverage of topics relevant to gay men and lesbians all but ceased.”

The other artifacts are of slightly later vintage. One is a tearsheet of the 1993 obituary for Jeffrey Schmalz, a journalist at The Times who died of AIDS, having transformed the national coverage of the epidemic. It was written by Meislin, the banished Mexico City bureau chief. (Meislin, who went on to become the top digital editor of The Times before retiring in 2015, died last year; Dunlap wrote his obituary for The Times.) “I knew well before Jeff came out that he was gay. Jeff was very circumspect about his sexual identity because he was a rocketship. He was clearly heading for the masthead,” Dunlap said. In 1990, Schmalz, then deputy national editor, was forced out of the closet after a brain seizure at his desk led to his Times colleagues learning he had AIDS. “It’s a terrible thing. In the middle of the office, someone stands up and collapses. There was no denying anything any longer,” Dunlap said. “But Jeff, to his eternal credit, rather than turning away from that, embraced it.” Schmalz redirected his reporting to cover the epidemic which promised to claim him. “For the next year and a half, two years that were given to him, he plunged into the story of AIDS and wrote about the gay community with an abandon that no one had written about it before.”

The final item is a photograph of Schmalz taken by Annie Liebovitz. “She came into the newsroom for a few hours to take pictures of Jeff at his desk. It was meant to be part of a series she was doing on men (I’m pretty sure she was only shooting men) with AIDS for Vanity Fair,” Adam Nagourney, a political reporter at The Times and close friend of Schmalz’s, told The Fine Print. “We were told that after she filed her work, the editors at VF decided against running the portfolio because the photos were too depressing or dark.” Dunlap didn’t remember that back story, but he knows what he sees when he looks at it. “A discerning eye knows that they’re looking at a diminished man,” he said. “Anyone who knew anyone who was sick during the epidemic, I think, could see it in Jeff. It’s a very haunting photograph.”

Nagourney and Dunlap were with Schmalz when he died at his home on the Upper West Side. “His sister Wendy and Wendy’s husband, Michael, and Adam Nagourney, and Adam’s partner, Ben Kushner, and I were sprawled over Jeff’s bed and Jeff’s head was cradled in my left arm as he died,” Dunlap recalled. “He was 39 fucking years old when he died. That’s incredible to me now. And so was everyone else — I mean, that’s when my friends died, in their 20s and 30s.” Dunlap reeled off the names of other casualties of the AIDS epidemic at the paper. “Rusty King, who was an editor on the news desk. I think AIDS is what killed Rusty. John Duka, the fashion writer. That’s right off the top of my head.”

The impact of Schmalz’s work went well beyond The Times. “It was so funny because I had been one of the first people — six years before Jeff came out of the closet, I was out of the closet,” Dunlap said. “But Jeff’s impact was 50 or 100 times greater than mine. He had a national impact. President Clinton spoke about him.” And Schmalz’s death had an impact too. “What his death did was prompt a good deal of soul searching among people who realized, we’ve lost sight of this,” Dunlap explained. “Jeff’s real legacy was a magazine cover story, published posthumously, titled ‘Whatever Happened to AIDS?’ Jeff died in ’93 and already it was clear that hope was on the horizon, at least for people wealthy and well-connected enough to get to these drugs. But already, people with AIDS were feeling, ‘Hello? We’re still dying.’ It seemed as if the nation’s attention had moved on, as it certainly will with COVID. I think ‘Whatever Happened to COVID?’ will be a story one day.”

In the year after Schmalz’s death, Dunlap lobbied then-executive editor Joseph Lelyveld to let him keep the gay and lesbian beat alive and to have the paper continue featuring the sort of coverage of AIDS that Schmalz pioneered. He was eventually allowed to take it on as a half-time assignment, which he had to balance with his work covering real estate. “I continued to report to the real estate editor, he was my boss, and on the gay and AIDS front, I really didn’t have a boss. I worked with various editors at various desks and what sounds like an ideal arrangement, which is that you’re your own person and you can send yourself wherever you want to send yourself and cover whatever you want to cover, actually for me turned out to be kind of a disaster because I didn’t have anyone to push me, nor to advocate for my work in the upper ranks of The Times,” he said. “My stories always ran, and there was never any ideological editing — terms like ‘insertive partner’ had to be negotiated delicately because I would say to people, ‘It’s insane to write about AIDS without writing about anal intercourse, right?’ — anyway, there was never any interference, but no one knew what to do with my stories, so they were orphans.”

Despite those challenges, Dunlap managed to produce stories he was proud of during his two years on the beat. “I did a story about serodiscordant couples — men who, eyes open, a negative partner and a positive partner, would say, ‘We’re going to do it, we’re going to be partners, even though one of us is going to die,’” he recalled. “I thought that was a good story and I know that, in that case, the editor fought to get it on page one, but she could not.” Another was a story about “a doctor who had gone into medicine to become a geriatrician and then was treating 20-year-olds who were dying, and now once again, saw hope that he might actually have patients who lived into their 70s and 80s.”

But, in retrospect, he’s largely dissatisfied with his work from that period. “I wish I’d done a better job. I did a dutiful job, but very little in the way of groundbreaking reporting of the kind that Jeff did. I was a very pale runner up to Jeff’s blazing star,” he said. “Among the things I wish I had been more alert to and insistent upon was the real turning point: the introduction of the protease inhibitors and the cocktail. Certainly, I did stories about how people were beginning to see the light, but I didn’t press them aggressively.” He sees that as an institutional failure. “There was this extraordinary turning point and The Times did not chronicle as it should have, as a smart news organization should have, and I put that pretty squarely on my own shoulders,” he said. “That’s my fault, I’m a meat and potatoes kind of reporter.” 

In part, Dunlap’s work at the Museum of The Times is meant to remind the paper’s current staff of some of the complexities in their institution’s history. “Having Jeff there, having the gay excision on display in the museum speaks to our desire to confront the fact that The Times’s history is rife with instances of racism, of misogyny, of anti-semitism, of homophobia,” he said. “We deal with all of these things in the museum, because while its principal purpose, obviously, at the headquarters of The Times, is to impress and inspire, it’s a New York Times product, so we can’t turn a blind eye to our many failings and foibles.”