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Author to present work on pioneering journalist
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Author to present work on pioneering journalist

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Award-winning journalist and author Samuel G. Freedman will speak about Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How It Transformed The New York Times, which he coauthored with radio producer Kerry Donahue, at [words] bookstore in Maplewood on Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m. 

Dying Words — a multi-media project in audio documentary form with a companion book — is about the groundbreaking journalist who covered the AIDS epidemic as he was dying of the disease. The project was released on Dec. 1 to coincide with World AIDS Day. 

Schmalz was achieving success at the Times in his mid-20s, as he kept his sexual orientation secret from the newsroom management. “Jeff was my mentor,” said Freedman, a professor at Columbia University Journalism School who writes a religion column for The New York Times. When Schmalz collapsed in the newsroom in December 1990, said Freedman, “it was the first evidence that he had full-blown AIDS — a death sentence in those years before drug cocktails were available.” 

“With AIDS, Jeff was endangered and he was outed,” said Freedman. Yet “he found his calling in writing about HIV and AIDS, doing memorable portraits of Magic Johnson, Mary Fisher, and others, as well as chronicling his own experience reporting on the most personal beat imaginable.” Schmalz’s work is credited with changing the Times’ coverage of gay issues. He died in 1993 at age 39. 

Freedman has called Schmalz his “rabbi.” 

“Jeff wasn’t Jewish,” he wrote. “But doing this work is a Jewish act for me…. Every Shabbat, the names of the yahrzeits from the preceding week are read aloud. Remembering those who’ve died is a Jewish thing to do, a godly thing to do.”

Freedman said his hope is that Dying Words “will restore Jeff’s name and work to the annals of LGBT history and journalistic history.” 

Both the documentary and the book draw upon extensive interviews, recordings by Schmalz, and excerpts from his AIDS coverage. Among those interviewed for the work were such major journalists as Anna Quindlen, Adam Moss, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and Elizabeth Kolbert, as well as AIDS activist Mary Fisher and LGBT historian Eric Marcus. The audio includes recordings of Schmalz’s interviews with Johnson, Bill Clinton, and others. 

Freedman, who was raised in Highland Park and is a former member of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, writes a religion column for The New York Times. He is the author of seven books, including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, which won the 2000 National Jewish Book Award for nonfiction. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and won the Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. 

At the bookstore, Freedman will sign purchased copies of the book; visit wordsbookstore.com or call 973-763-9500.

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