Legendary journalist Seymour Topping, former managing editor of The New York Times and administrator of the Pulitzer Prize, died Sunday, Nov. 8, at White Plains Hospital. He was 98 years old and had lived in Scarsdale since 1966.
“Top was a wonderful husband, a great father, a brilliant reporter and editor, and my partner in journalistic adventures around the world,” said his wife Audrey.
As a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and The New York Times, “Top,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, was an eloquent eyewitness to most of the defining events of the 20th century, starting with the lead-up to the Korean War and Mao Zedong’s defeat of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Held prisoner by Communist forces, Topping was the first Western correspondent to report on the battle that ended the Chinese civil war. After the Communists consolidated their control over mainland China, Topping was forced to decamp to Hong Kong. He took advantage of the respite from war to marry Audrey Ronning, the daughter of Canadian diplomat Chester Ronning, and then returned to the AP Bureau in Hong Kong.
Still hoping to be allowed back to the mainland, Topping accepted what he thought would be a temporary assignment in Vietnam in February 1950. No sooner had he and Audrey checked into a Saigon hotel when a bomb exploded across the square, killing scores of French soldiers and launching a war that would give the young reporter plenty of fodder for the next two years. He was to return to Vietnam as The New York Times Southeast Asia bureau chief from 1963 to 1966.
After Saigon, Topping was assigned a quieter diplomatic beat in London and went on to head the AP Bureau in West Berlin, where he reported on tensions with East Germany that were to culminate in the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Topping’s scoops and insightful reporting caught the attention of The New York Times, which offered him a job in 1959. As Moscow bureau chief for the Times, he broke the news of the U-2 spy plane incident in 1960 and the Sino-Soviet rift in 1963. He reported on the Soviet space shots and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
The Times appointed Topping foreign news editor in 1966. He encouraged the 40 reporters under his supervision to focus on daily life and culture in the countries they covered to provide a richer context for events. He continued to write and interview heads of state including President Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Prime Minister John Vorster of South Africa, the shah of Iran, Fidel Castro, Premier Zhou Enlai, Golda Meir of Israel and King Hussein of Jordan.
Between 1969 and 1986 Topping served variously as assistant managing editor of the Times, deputy managing editor and managing editor, all under the abrasive executive editor A.M. Rosenthal.
Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, a Scarsdale neighbor, was hired by Topping in 1984. “The Times can be a tough place, and reporters regularly lambasted editors behind their backs,” he told the Inquirer. “But I never heard a harsh word about Top. Partly it’s because he had impeccable news judgment, but he was also somehow a gentleman who was forever kind and inspiring even as bullets and missiles whizzed by him.
“When feelings were hurt, when the paper had treated somebody wrongly, when tantrums had created crises, it was always left to Top to sort the problems out and heal the wounds. The Times has had plenty of great journalists and plenty of great managers, but Top was the rare great journalist who was also a great manager — and we loved him for it. We miss him.”
With fairness, thoroughness and insight, Topping presided over the paper’s coverage of the Cultural Revolution, the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers case, the Watergate scandals, the Cold War and crises in the Middle East. During his tenure, the Times added a national edition, new feature sections and supplements on fashion travel, education and other subjects of popular interest. Circulation, advertising and revenues grew.
In 1987, Topping stepped down as managing editor and became director of editorial development for the company’s regional newspapers, a post he held until 1993, when he assumed the presidency of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Also that year he joined the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and became the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. He held both posts for a decade, until 2002.
Topping remained engaged in writing and speaking as a member of the International Press Institute and the Council of Foreign Relations. He shared his experiences with his Scarsdale neighbors, speaking at the local library and at meetings of the Scarsdale League of Women Voters and the Town and Village Civic Club (now the Scarsdale Forum) and reading excerpts from his books, “Journey Between Two Chinas” (1972) and “On the Front Lines of the Cold War: An American Correspondent’s Journal from the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam” (2010). He also published novels set in China and Vietnam, ”The Peking Letter” (1999) and “Fatal Crossroads” (2005).
He was a loyal subscriber to and fan of The Scarsdale Inquirer.
Born Dec. 11, 1921, in Harlem, Topping was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He became interested in China as a student journalist at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx and enrolled at the University of Missouri. After graduating from the university in 1943, he served as a U.S. infantry soldier in the Pacific and at the end of the war was hired as a part-time stringer and then as a staff reporter in Asia for the International News Service. In 1948 he went to work for the AP in Shanghai. That’s when he met Audrey, who was a student at the University of Nanking.
The couple’s love for China is reflected in Audrey’s memoir “China Mission,” about her missionary grandparents, diplomat father and her own career as a photojournalist, and in their Heathcote Road home full of Chinese art and mementos. Audrey returned to China to cover the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and her husband was given permission to visit in 1971. They made several more trips after that and also returned to Vietnam to document the changes that had taken place since the war.
Four of the five Topping daughters were born abroad: Susan in Saigon, Karen and Lesley in London and Robin in Berlin. Lesley and Robin are both practicing journalists — Lesley is a filmmaker, currently working on a project with the Scarsdale Historical Society, and Robin is an editor at Newsday on Long Island. “My dad never put pressure on me to follow in his footsteps,” said Robin, “but he gave me great advice and his work ethic, dedication and passion were an inspiration to me.”
She added that her parents helped and complemented each other both as parents and as professionals: “They made a great team.” The Toppings would have celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary Nov. 10.
Barbara MacDonald, who lived next door to the Toppings for 50 years, said Topping was an adoring husband, a loving father, a genuine friend and “the consummate host.”
In addition to his wife, Topping is survived by four of their five daughters: Karen Cone of Redmond, Washington, Rebecca (Robin) of East Northport, New York, Lesley of Brooklyn and Joanna of Pound Ridge; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Susan Topping died in 2015.
The family plans to have a memorial gathering when it is safe to do so. Memorial donations may be sent to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
— This obituary includes research by the Associated Press and The New York Times.