Mark Danner

Glimpsing Fritz Stern

Scanning my memory for especially telling episodes in my friendship with Fritz has brought much pleasure, for my memories are full of laughter and also, of course - this is after all Fritz Stern - much wisdom.

Contribution by Mark Danner to “Liber Amicorum for Fritz Stern: A Book of Friendship to celebrate 2 February, 2006,” Stern’s 80th birthday.   

Scanning my memory for especially telling episodes in my friendship with Fritz has brought much pleasure, for my memories are full of laughter and also, of course – this is after all Fritz Stern – much wisdom.  Laughter and wisdom were present in plenty when I first spent time with Fritz in his Low Library office in October 1987. I was profiling him for the The New York Times on the occasion of his Dreams and Delusions; that spring, he had – in being the first foreigner to address the Bundestag on West Germany’s national holiday – “set off,” as I (somewhat regrettably) wrote, “a firestorm of indignation that has persisted to this day.”

The sentence that had done the damage, he told me, was his observation that “An undivided Germany brought unspeakable misfortune to other peoples and to itself.”  He thought there’d been a bit of a misunderstanding: “I meant it simply as a historical statement, but some people took it as a kind of moral justification for the division of Germany.”  He leaned back in his chair and his face, in that delightful transformation I would come to know so well, crinkled into a deeply pleasurable grin.  If the German indignation was owed to a bit of misunderstanding, I realized, it was one Professor Stern did not regret, for it was yet another piece of delectable evidence of the intertwining of past and present in his chosen field of creation.

Seven years larter, at the height – or should I say the depth? – of the Bosnian War, I heard my name shouted by a full-throated and familiar voice.  I was in the Munich Airport, and beside me was Peter Jennings, for whom I was writing a documentary on Bosnia; Peter and his ABC News crew had stopped in Munich on their way back from Moscow, I had stopped on my way from Sarajevo, and the aim of the convergence was to conduct interviews.

We had just finished the first of the day, and I was feeling sheepish.  Peter was glaring at me with some asperity – clearly not a friendly look.  I was new to television, and the eminent European diplomat whom I had insisted the famous anchorman interview had turned out to possess, together with his eloquence, an extraordinary, rather enormous facial twitch.  None of my telephone interviews could have revealed this, but it was so distracting and disorienting that even I knew it would be very difficult to put him on screen.  The gentleman, pleased by the attention, had just taken his leave, and Peter was staring at me in disbelief and regret.  At just this moment we heard a shout of “Hey, Danner! Hey, Mark Danner!”

All eyes turned to the distant airport doors where, slicing through the crush of people like an ice cutter through polar seas, came the unforgettably dynamic figure of Richard C. Holbrooke.  He was flanked by several American officers led by an Air Force general, and this impressive phalanx of power was striding rapidly in our direction.  Though I might normally have been happy to see Dick – he was after all expert on the Balkans and in general a greatly entertaining fellow – at this juncture my feelings were mixed.  I had seen Peter’s face darken on hearing that shouted address and seeing its source.  Wait a minute, I thought, wasn’t there something … between them? What in fact was between them was a wife, a wife who had been Peter’s and was not yet Dick’s.  And then Dick had chosen to shout out across the airport my name, not Peter’s.  I was new to television, but I knew its first principle: overshadow the anchorman at your peril.

With startling speed they closed upon us; I grimaced, clenched – and then, not quite believing my eyes, glimpsed just below Dick’s large shoulder a floating halo of white hair and a delightfully familiar face bearing a typically conspiratorial half-smile.  It was Fritz! I felt a surge of pleasure and relief.  Of course.  Fritz was in Germany as Holbrooke’s special advisor.  Which is to say that Fritz, in a brilliant Svengali-like gesture of diplomatic public service, had consented to serve as Holbrooke’s Brain, and now here they were.

Fritz’s presence that morning allowed me to hand off Dick to Peter, placing the alpha males in close and equal proximity where they could fight their battles on their own.  And I was free to grasp a familiar hand and to take in Fritz’s incomparable smile, which told me he knew entirely what was what, beginning with the inherent hilarity of his own position and extending to the delicate rivalry being played out (as it were) in the trees above us, and could share the pleasure in all its ironical delights.  Fritz and I beamed at one another.  The people coursed by.  Was it not great to be alive, and part of history?

Mark Danner
New York City