About Jeff Schmalz
Jeff Schmalz was a journalistic prodigy. He was hired by The New York Times while still a college student, and he was essentially running its metropolitan coverage by his mid-20s. From his crisply pressed trousers and shirts to his unerring sense of how to structure a feature story, he was a consummate Timesman. People in the newsroom speculated that someday he could be “on the masthead” – the list of the top editors on the world’s most important newspaper. All the while, though, Jeff was struggling with his identity as a gay man. He came out to many friends and peers on the Times, but he kept his sexual orientation secret from the newsroom management, the people who had control over his professional life. Under the executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, the Times newsroom of the 1970s and 80s was a homophobic place, and journalists known to be gay or lesbian were stalled or even demoted in their careers.
Then, one day in December 1990, Jeff collapsed in the newsroom with a brain seizure. It was the first evidence that he had full-blown AIDS – a death sentence in these years before drug cocktails were available to victims of the disease. With AIDS, Jeff was endangered and he was outed. Yet he was also cracked wide open in positive ways. He found his calling in writing about HIV and AIDS, doing memorable portraits of Magic Johnson, Mary Fisher, and Harold Brodkey, among others, and chronicling his own experience reporting on the most personal beat imaginable. As Jeff himself said at the time, having AIDS stirred an empathy in him that he had long obscured beneath a witty, cynical, hard-driven exterior.
Who Jeff was and what he did deeply changed The New York Times, sensitizing it as never before to the humanity of gay people. The Times of today – publishing same-sex wedding announcements, editorializing in favor of marriage equality – is the fruition of changes that Jeff helped set into motion but never lived long enough to fully see.
And now, 22 years after Jeff died at age 39, his contributions have been largely forgotten. “Dying Words” will restore his name and work to the annals of gay history and journalistic history.
About Our Project
Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeffrey Schmalz is a project with two parts – an audio documentary and a book. Both were based on our contemporary interviews with many of Jeff’s friends and colleagues, existing recordings of Jeff himself, and excerpts from his AIDS coverage. The project features interviews with major journalists as Anna Quindlen, Adam Moss, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and Elizabeth Kolbert, as well as the AIDS activist Mary Fisher and the LGBT historian Eric Marcus. Our project had the full and enthusiastic support of Wendy Schmalz, Jeff’s sister, who is his closest living relative. Thanks to Wendy, we had access to original microcassette recordings of Jeff’s interviews with Larry Kramer, Magic Johnson, Randy Shilts, and Bill Clinton, among others.
The audio documentary was produced by Kerry Donahue and edited by Ben Shapiro, both award winning journalists. It was distributed by PRX to more than 125 public radio stations, including eight of the top 10 markets. It is also available for download. The Dying Words book was published by CUNY Journalism Press and released on December 1, 2015 to coincide with World AIDS Day.