Francis X. Clines, Lyrical Writer for The Times, Dies at 84

Francis X. Clines, a reporter, columnist and foreign correspondent for The New York Times whose commentaries on the news and lyrical profiles of ordinary New Yorkers were widely admired as a stylish, literary form of journalism, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

His wife, Alison Mitchell, a senior editor and former assistant managing editor at The Times, said the cause was esophageal cancer, which was diagnosed in February 2021.

To generations of Times colleagues, Mr. Clines was an almost ideal reporter: a keen observer, a tenacious fact-finder and a paragon of integrity and fairness who could write gracefully against a deadline. He resisted praise with a shrug or a bit of self-deprecating deadpan.

He worked his entire 59-year career for The Times (1958-2017), starting as a copy boy without a college degree or formal journalism training. After years as a political reporter at New York’s City Hall, the Statehouse in Albany and the Reagan White House, he corresponded from London, the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Moscow, where he covered the last days of the Soviet Union.

As a national correspondent later, he tracked political campaigns and the Washington scene, taking occasional trips through the hills and hollows of Appalachia to write of a largely hidden Other America. And for nearly two decades before retiring, he produced editorials and “Editorial Observer” columns hailing labor and social progressives, and lambasting the gun lobby and Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Clines established his reputation as a literary stylist with “About New York,” a long-running column begun by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Meyer (Mike) Berger, who died in 1959. One of several Berger successors, Mr. Clines wrote the column from 1976 to 1979. Though occasionally about news-related events, his column was mostly devoted to vivid portraits of New Yorkers — the rich and the poor, the influential and the forgotten.

He called them sketches of the city. They were factual profiles overlaid with his observations and literary allusions, often humanistic in tone and quite personal, like a brother’s letters home about extraordinary people he had met.

“Tomorrow is Alice Matthew’s birthday,” Mr. Clines wrote in a typical vein on Oct. 6, 1976, “and if you ask politely she will tell you about her 93 years, from the time she saw the dappled firehorse that led to her elopement from Indiana 74 years ago, to the night here in her welfare room where she saw the spirit of Louis XIV, and he had his beautiful white horse lay his head on the counterpane of the bedridden woman to comfort her.”

“None of these stories is sad,” he went on. “Mrs. Matthews sees to that. She represents a small drain on the city Human Resources Administration budget. But she herself is a major human resource of memory and good company who belongs as logically in the slick Big Apple ads about the city’s strengths as she does in the roach-infested room that she graces at the Hotel Earle off Washington Square.”

Mr. Clines wrote three 900-word “About New York” columns a week. He profiled a solitary Etruscan scholar pursuing his work from a single room in a “frugal West Side hotel,” and a shoe salesman who turned pages for concert pianists. He went to a racetrack with a rich landlord, spent a night watching street prostitutes, and sometimes just listened to night sounds after closing time at the Bronx Zoo. Once, he attended a Chinese funeral with an Italian band playing the dirge.

“Beyond a matter of life and death, the tableau represented a bit of symbiosis in neighboring cultures of Chinatown and Little Italy thriving tightly about Canal Street in Manhattan,” he wrote. “So there was Carmine inside Bacigalupo’s assembling his men in front of Mr. Yee’s open coffin and giving a downbeat for such songs as ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ and a gentle, airy tune from the old neighborhood, ‘Il Tuo Popolo’ (‘Your People’). The music seemed to soothe the mourners.”

On a night of marauding crowds during a citywide blackout in 1977, Mr. Clines caught an uglier side of the city: “The looters scattered, roachlike, in the full morning sunlight, then stopped to watch brazenly when the owner of Joe’s candy store showed up and saw his store disemboweled onto the Brownsville sidewalk. He let out a furious howl.”

Mr. Clines’s columns won Columbia University’s Mike Berger Award in 1979, and the next year the best of them were collected in a book, “About New York.”

As a London-based correspondent from 1986 to 1989, he covered British politics, arts and general news, but also traveled to breaking news on the Continent, in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland, where gun battles and terrorist bombings known as “the Troubles” killed Protestants and Catholics with numbing regularity.

He followed up that posting with one in Moscow, from 1989 to 1992, when he helped cover the end of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s presidency and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

No matter where he was writing from, however, he brought to his reporting the same observant eye and finely attuned ear. From Belfast in 1988, for example, he wrote of a little girl surrounded by death:

“Beyond the coffin, out in the churchyard, red-haired Kathleen Quinn was full of fun and flirting shamelessly for all her eight years of life. ‘Mister, I’m to be on the TV tonight,’ she told a stranger, squinting up happy and prim. Kathleen had taken her brother’s bike and skinned her knee bloody, all while people were praying goodbye inside the church to another rebel body in another coffin.

“As it turned out, the television ignored Kathleen and missed a classic Irish truth, a sight for sore eyes. She climbed back on the bike and headed off in a blur, oblivious of a piece of nearby graffiti that seemed all about life’s withering dangers: ‘I wonder each night what the monster will do to me tomorrow.’”

Francis Xavier Clines was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 7, 1938, the youngest of three children of an accountant, Francis A. Clines, and Mary Ellen (Lenihan) Clines. The boy, called Frank, and his sisters, Eileen and Peggy, grew up in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Frank attended the all-boys St. Francis Preparatory School, then in the Williamsburg section, where he graduated first in his class of 1956. He was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and a voracious reader of novels, biographies, history and poetry. He enrolled at Fordham University but soon dropped out before serving two years in the Army.

After his discharge, he applied for a job at The Times and was hired largely on the strength of an essay he submitted detailing his hopes for a journalism career. After a year of clerical work, he wrote radio news bulletins for WQXR, The Times’s AM and FM stations, then covered the police beat and general assignments.

His marriage to Kathleen Conniff in 1960 ended in divorce in the early 1990s. He married Ms. Mitchell in 1995, when she was the City Hall bureau chief for The Times, the two having met when she was the Moscow bureau chief for Newsday.

In addition to Ms. Mitchell, he is survived by his first wife; four children from his first marriage, John, Kevin, Michael and Laura Clines; and a sister, Eileen Lawrence. Another sister, Peggy Meehan Simon, died.

There are many ways to deflate pomposity, which is one reason Mr. Clines relished covering the State Legislature in Albany. Beyond the drumbeat of new laws and proposed taxes, he dissected the mores of lesser-light legislators with a Celtic sense of the absurd: their overblown rhetoric about public service, their crude eating habits during debates, their losing bouts with the mother tongue — all were fair game and duly reported.

“I think he was the best newspaper writer of our time,” Charles Kaiser, a former Times reporter, said in a recent email. “His success said more about the paper’s commitment to beautiful writing than anything else could.”

Mr. Clines once wrote a column on Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, that might have been a kind of self-revelation, saying: “He fights to keep things basic, to remind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ‘Elegy,’ dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself:

‘The way we are living,

Timorous or bold,

Will have been our life.’”

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