Seymour Topping, a senior New York Times editor and top Pulitzer Prize administrator who bore witness early in his career as a foreign correspondent to the Chinese Communist Revolution, the war in French Indochina and other momentous events that shaped the past century, died Nov. 8 at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He was 98.
He recently had a stroke, said his daughter Rebecca Topping, an editor with Newsday on Long Island.
A review of Topping’s dispatches serves as a tidy summary of mid-century world events, including the Communist capture of Nanjing in 1949, the Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane in 1960, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and mass killings carried out by the Indonesian military in the mid-1960s.
While at Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Yanan, Topping watched peasant folk dances with Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was later a driving force in the murderous purge dubbed the Cultural Revolution. He interviewed Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971, after “ping-pong diplomacy” paved the way for the opening of Sino-American diplomatic relations, and later met with Fidel Castro in Havana, where the Cuban leader poured himself two drinks of Scotch and relayed his affection for Ernest Hemingway.
Fittingly, Topping titled his 2010 memoir “On the Front Lines of the Cold War.”
Widely known as “Top,” he spent a decade with the Associated Press before joining the Times in 1959. He rose to be foreign editor and later managing editor, helping decide what ran on page one while working closely with A.M. Rosenthal, the paper’s brilliant but volatile executive editor. Under their watch – and against the Nixon White House’s political and legal threats – the Times published the Pentagon Papers, the government’s top-secret history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
In his last post at the Times, Topping served as director of editorial development for the company’s network of 32 regional newspapers. He left in 1993 to teach journalism at Columbia University and work as Pulitzer administrator, and for the next decade he supervised the selection of jurors and the judging of entries.
“At heart, he was a writer and he was happiest when he was on the run, chasing a story or toiling late into the night on his latest book,” Rebecca Topping wrote in an email interview.
Topping’s books included two novels inspired by his overseas reporting: “The Peking Letter” (1999), which a Times reviewer described as a “silly but undeniably lively extravaganza” set against the backdrop of the Communist Revolution, and “Fatal Crossroads” (2005), a love story involving clandestine American operations in French Indochina.
In his memoir, he wrote that the “defining moment” of his years as a correspondent came during the last days of the Chinese Civil War, when he crossed the Nationalist lines as an AP reporter in January 1949. Seeking an interview with Mao, he joined the Communist armies marching south in the Huaihai campaign, only to be taken prisoner by militia riflemen who took him to a hut near the battlefield.
He was held captive for two days, released only after the artillery fire had stopped and the Nationalists had surrendered. Mao’s triumph “had thus become a certainty,” Topping wrote, and “marked the onset of an era in which East Asia would be engulfed in war, revolution, and genocide.”
Topping was on hand for much of that turmoil, including as the first American correspondent based in French Indochina after World War II. Soon after he and his wife arrived in Saigon in 1950, a bomb went off outside their hotel, killing French troops at a sidewalk cafe and introducing him to the First Indochina War, which pitted the French against Viet Minh fighters seeking independence.
A year later, Topping spent two hours answering questions from John Kennedy when the young Massachusetts congressman visited his cramped Saigon apartment to inquire about the conflict. Topping happened to be at the Times’s New York headquarters – between stints in Moscow and Hong Kong – when then-President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
“It was discovered, inexplicably, that there was no advance obit for the young president,” he later recalled, so editors placed their confidence in him and two-time Pulitzer-winning war correspondent Homer Bigart to file a herculean lookback on the president’s policies in the four and a half hours before the 6:30 p.m. deadline.
After subsequent postings in Asia, Topping emerged as a leader of the Times newsroom. By many accounts, he was a calming influence on Rosenthal, known for his intense – some called it abrasive – pursuit of journalistic perfection.
“Topping’s most important contribution, and it was an important one that took a lot of nerve, was to carefully seek out those whom a Abe Rosenthal tirade dressed down, and calm their nerves and assure them that Abe’s rage was momentary and had already been forgotten by him,” Bill Kovach, a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, said by email.
“We always knew Top’s strength was always with us,” he added, “and his thoughtful care for our contribution to the paper was all that really mattered.”
Seymour Topolsky was born in Manhattan on Dec. 11, 1921, the only son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His mother was a homemaker from what is now Ukraine, and his father was a furrier and shop owner from Poland who anglicized the family name.
As a high school senior in the Bronx, he read journalist Edgar Snow’s account of Communist Chinese guerrillas, “Red Star Over China” (1937), which fueled his desire to work as a foreign correspondent in the country. He graduated in 1943 from the University of Missouri, where he also played on the polo team, then served as an infantry captain in the Pacific during World War II.
Topping was traveling to the Philippines for a planned invasion of Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He launched his journalism career the next year, joining the Hearst-owned International News Service as a stringer in Beijing.
He soon switched to the AP and moved to Nanjing, where he met Audrey Ronning, the daughter of noted Canadian diplomat Chester A. Ronning. She became a photojournalist and frequently collaborated with Topping. They married in 1949, spent their honeymoon at Angkor Wat and had five daughters born in four countries.
Topping later recalled that he and his wife were reporting in Moscow when the light fixture exploded above the foot of their bed one night, revealing a surveillance device. “The KGB had been listening to some choice pillow talk,” he wrote in his memoir.
In addition to his daughter Rebecca, of East Northport, N.Y., survivors include his wife, of Scarsdale, N.Y.; three other daughters, Karen Cone of Redmond, Wash., Lesley Topping of Brooklyn and Joanna Topping of Pound Ridge, N.Y.; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His daughter Susan Topping died in 2015.
Long before the advent of cable news or the internet, Topping relied on telegrams to get the news out, taking a rickshaw or sprinting to the Beijing cable office to beat his competitors after a news conference ended. He was still writing telegrams when he joined the Times, where his colleague James “Scotty” Reston looked on in amusement as Topping filed one of his first stories from Moscow.
“He saw me doing something very peculiar on the dispatch,” Topping later told the Baltimore Sun. “I was crossing out the ‘thes’ and the ‘a’s’ to save money because you were charged by the word. Having spent 10 years with the parsimonious AP, I always did that.
“Scotty laughed and said, ‘Forget that. We don’t do that sort of thing at the Times. Go file the story and don’t do that again.’ To me, that was the difference between working for the AP and working for the New York Times.”