“I’ve always had a great fondness for Bloody Marys. But it was very hard to get tomato juice in Russia,” Bernard M. Gwertzman ’57 says as he remembers his days as a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union. “The only tomato juice was imported from Bulgaria. It wasn’t reliable.”
Gwertzman, once managing editor for The Crimson, grew familiar with Russia despite the unpredictable supply of tomato juice. As a graduate student at Harvard, Gwertzman participated in an exchange program with the Soviet Union. Years later, he returned to Russia as the bureau chief for The New York Times.
Gwertzman’s interest in Soviet-American relations started at The Crimson when he was assigned to write a series of articles about the Russian Research Center, now known as the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Marshall D. Shulman, then an associate director of the center, was “determined to get young journalists interested in Russian stuff,” Gwertzman says, “so they could write more intelligently about it.”
After graduation, Gwertzman was accepted into a reporter training program sponsored by The Washington Evening Star, then the capital’s leading newspaper. Contingent upon his acceptance was a stint in the Army Reserves.
“We had a draft in those days,” Gwertzman explains.
Gwertzman completed basic training at Fort Dix, N.J. before serving six months of active duty at Fort Davens, Mass., followed by five and a half years in the Reserves.
In January of 1958, Gwertzman began work at The Washington Evening Star. As relations between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became more prominent in the news, Gwertzman again sought out Shulman at the Russian Research Center, who suggested that Gwertzman apply for a master’s degree in Soviet Studies at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. So Gwertzman found himself back at Harvard in the fall of 1958—now spending his time in Widener Library rather than the Crimson newsroom.
The Washington Evening Star rehired Gwertzman upon the completion of his master’s degree, with the promise of an international reporting assignment. After a stopover in police reporting, Gwertzman finally began his career as a foreign correspondent.
In 1968, The New York Times needed a correspondent in Moscow—and Gwertzman fit the bill.
“I was recommended as a journalist who spoke Russian,” says Gwertzman. In February of 1969, Gwertzman left Washington for Moscow, where he spent two and a half years as a bureau chief for the Times.
From 1971 to 1987, Gwertzman covered foreign affairs for the Times; in 1989, he was promoted to foreign editor. Although he thought that no job could compare to being a foreign correspondent for the Times, Gwertzman found that he enjoyed being an editor even more. As an editor, Gwertzman dealt with everything from the breakup of the Soviet bloc, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, the invasion of Panama and the Persian Gulf War. “Every day was like a new surprise,” Gwertzman says.
But after several years, Gwertzman felt it might be time to move on. “I really thought at that point my journalism career was over. I had just turned 60,” Gwertzman explains.
“I’m lucky that my wife is 10 years younger,” he adds. “I didn’t feel 60.”
But in 1993, Gwertzman decided to stay in journalism after a visit with his son James S. Gwertzman ’95 at Harvard.
The younger Gwertzman, who was studying computer science, showed his father the Library of Congress Web site on his computer workstation. Gwertzman remembers wondering: If text and images can appear on the screen, “why can’t you put a newspaper on the Web?”
For the veteran journalist and editor, the Internet seemed like an opportunity to report breaking news again in the age of CNN, a 24-hour cable news channel.
“To me, this was unbelievable.”
Gwertzman served as the editor of the Web site from 1996 to 2002.
“I went from being a veteran newspaperman...to a totally new field,” Gwertzman says.
While he no longer works at the Times, Gwertzman continues to interview political leaders for the Council of Foreign Relations Web site, where he serves as a consulting editor.
“For better or for worse, it’s all I’ve ever done,” Gwertzman says. “I’ve had a lot of fun.”
—Staff writer Emily C. Graff can be reached at email@example.com.