In Memory of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach

Today is a day the I’ve been dreading, but knew would come. Even though Nicholas Katzenbach was under hospice care the news of his passing last night is still hard to bear. I spoke to him on the phone recently and he sounded strong, the way I will remember him.

As a biographer it’s tricky confronting the end of your subject’s life. I didn’t want to be an intrusion and just wasn’t sure where that line is drawn. Should I call? Should I visit? Should I write? Should I give them their privacy? I still don’t know the answer.

Katzenbach is much more than the subject of my next book, and, in fact he has become an important part of my life, as is the subject of any biographer.  Their lives start consuming our own. The significant days in his life dot my calendar. If you read this blog regularly you’ve noticed that – January 17 (birthday), February 23 (shot down over the Mediterranean), and June 11 (the stand in the school house door).

And, now today, there is another date to add to the calendar – May 8th, but that date is already etched in my mind. May 8th is also the anniversary of the death of another important person in my life – my grandmother.

Right now what gives me solace is that the broader public is learning what I already know, that Katzenbach was a national treasure whose life was intertwined with some of the most historic events in the latter half of the twentieth century from the struggle for civil rights to the Vietnam War and everything in between – The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Cuban Prisoner Exchange, Ole Miss, the Stand in the School House Door, the swearing in of LBJ, the Warren Commission, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the Pentagon Papers, the Pueblo, and so much more.

While I’ve already written the ending to my book, Katzenbach’s life now has an end too.

In some sense there is an irony that on the day it was learned that an unsung hero of the civil rights movement died, the President of the United States, the first African-American, advocated his support for same sex marriage.

I’m not sure if there is such a thing as a perfect marriage, but if there is it was the marriage of Lydia Phelps Stokes and Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach who were married for 65 years. She is feisty and ever bit his intellectual equal, not an easy feat. My sympathies go out to Lydia and the rest of the Katzenbach family.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for sharing this extraordinary man’s extraordinary life with us!


  2. The Washington Post obituary reminds us of what an extraordinary man he was, and we look forward to your book. New Jerseyans are proud of our Trenton native and want to make sure this brave but modest man takes his proper place in history.


  3. Did I see you at Robert Caro’s talk yesterday? Did you hear him mention Katzenbach? Look forward to reading your bio.


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