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Alan Levy: A Personal Reflection

Alan Levy: A Personal Reflection

Posted: April 08, 2004

By Lisa L. Frankenberg

By Lisa L. Frankenberg

I first met Alan at a press event in Prague in the early spring of 1991. Alan would have recalled the exact date, place and event, but I have long forgotten. I was a 22-year-old recent college graduate who was the advertising director of the monthly Prognosis, Czechoslovakia's first English-language paper. Alan was the 59-year-old award-winning writer whose book So Many Heroes was already well-known in Prague's burgeoning expatriate circle as the definitive chronicle of the Prague Spring. He was just back in Prague after a 20-year exile in Vienna. As we sat together he expressed interest in writing for Prognosis. Afterward, I got a copy of his book and devoured every word. I called him up immediately and told him how much his book touched me. Later, Alan came by the Prognosis office to offer his services, but he was rebuffed by callow editors as "too old and not our style." I was flabbergasted that anyone would turn away such a gifted writer and I expressed my apologies to Alan.

A couple of months later, I left Prognosis with the vision of starting an English-language weekly newspaper called The Prague Post that would be more serious and professional. Alan was one of the first people I called, figuring that he had a lot of great contacts and could offer some good advice. I thought perhaps he would also be interested in writing for us, if I was lucky. Instead, after trudging up the 111 steps to our newly rented offices just off Old Town Square and listening to the beginning of my spiel about the new paper I wanted to start, he interrupted to proclaim, "I would give anything to be your editor-in-chief!" And so a wonderful and enormously fruitful partnership began that July day in 1991, along with the invaluable help of investor Monroe Luther, that lasted until April 2 when Alan died.

Alan often referred to his role as editor-in-chief of The Prague Post as "the job I'd been rehearsing for my entire life." He loved Prague with all his heart and he loved The Prague Post. Before I hired Alan he had been a freelance writer for more than 30 years, so it had been a long time since he'd worked inside a newsroom. It will come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Alan, or Alan's work, that he often bristled at authority. Perhaps this also came from his years of living under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia from 1967 to 1971. But I suspect his freethinking predated even that experience.

Alan seemed to derive great pleasure from getting away with something he knew he probably shouldn't. Indeed, one of Alan's favorite maxims was "Never ask a question when the answer might be no." He preferred to go ahead with whatever it was he wanted to do and either be proven right or suffer the consequences later. However, Alan rarely, if ever, suffered. He lived and enjoyed life more thoroughly than anyone I know. He made every moment count. He loved people, gossip and parties and he turned practically every interaction into fodder for his writing. He collected what I suspect are thousands of friends in his lifetime, and that's what helped make his narrative so rich. Alan had a story and a connection to nearly everything and everyone.

Alan's writing style and subject matter were always very personal. He practically invented the story of Young Americans in Prague when he coined the phrase "the Left Bank of the '90s" in his inaugural column Oct. 1, 1991.

Alan's Prague Profiles were an anchor, a high-quality 1,100-word article in most every issue. Love them or hate them, those profiles were a highlight of the paper and consistently one of the most-read features. Sometimes Alan's profiles provoked controversy, which he loved. People complained that his writing was too personal or that he focused on subjects they didn't care about. He would gleefully pore over critical letters, relishing the debate, and urge us to print them.

Perhaps because of the age difference, others often assumed erroneously that I worked for Alan. Sometimes this created friction between us, but it was always temporary. He continued to freelance along with his job as editor-in-chief and once wrote an article for the American Airlines in-flight magazine where he referred to me as his "child boss." I was furious and Alan apologized, but he said he knew it made for great reading. That was Alan.

Alan's memory and mind were incredible. His eye for detail and his complete mastery of the minutiae of facts were legendary. He had written well over 500 profiles for us and could probably tell you at any given moment the precise date and restaurant where he interviewed each person, along with the meals they ate and the vintage of the wine they drank.

He liked to go over as many page proofs as possible with a red pen and correct every diacritical mark he found lacking. He hated to see errors in the paper and on more than one occasion wrote long style memos to the newsroom to argue his points. He was a perfectionist in the best sense of the word.

Alan loved mentoring young writers and he especially reveled in helping young Czechs learn journalism. He was a writer's writer and a champion of the underdog. Though he was sad to lose them, nothing made Alan prouder than to see the writers he'd mentored early in their careers move on to journalism jobs at notable institutions such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Forbes magazine. He wrote hundreds of recommendations for young journalists over the years and was proud of the accomplishments of each of them.

After Alan was diagnosed with cancer in January, the word quickly got around in the community of former Prague Posters, and the supportive cards and e-mails flowed in from all around the world. He forwarded many of these to me proudly, as if to say, "Look at the community of caring we have created!" Those messages meant a lot to him - knowing that he had touched the lives of so many and that there was so much support and prayer and good wishes for him.

While Alan and I had disagreements over the years - indeed he could drive me crazy with his stubbornness and independence - we had a mutual respect and love that made us like what Alan would jokingly refer to as "each other's spouses - even though we're married to other people." I know that we understood each other and we agreed on our objective: doing what was best for The Prague Post. I'm grateful that we told each other we loved each other and I take comfort knowing that Alan knew how much I appreciated his enormous contributions.

It's hard for me to believe that Alan is gone simply because his imprint is everywhere. He died far too fast and too soon and I know that he should have lived at least another 20 years and seen his grandchildren grow up. Alan's great loves were his family, his friends, Prague and The Prague Post. He gave his everything and thankfully his contributions will continue to enrich and inspire us.

It gives me great comfort to know that Alan died where he wanted to be and doing what he loved to do. After he reached age 65 and again at 70, many people expected him to retire, but Alan never intended to retire or leave The Prague Post. He was dedicated and motivated to his last day.

His big concern was that he had two interviews he was working on and he worried that he would disappoint the subjects of his unfinished profiles. Alan's wife, Valerie, told me that on April 1, the day before he died, he asked her to leave the hospital to come into the office and pick up the latest issue of the newspaper. He wanted to see the Night & Day section and his column. Though he was very weak and it was difficult for him to see at that point, Val held the newspaper close to his face and he whispered, "It's good." I'm glad that he knew.

What if all those years ago Alan just hadn't been available when The Prague Post was established? The lives of all who have worked, and continue to work, here at The Prague Post, and my life, would have been infinitely poorer. But I hardly think it possible. There was an inevitability about the joining of Prague, Alan Levy and The Prague Post. Prague, the city of arts, of political tumult, of vibrant change, with its history of high honor to the written word. Alan, the indefatigable and enthusiastic force of free journalistic truth. The Prague Post, with our mission to report and interpret, to quote Alan: "The world we live in and the world around us."

- The writer is president and publisher of The Prague Post.

By Lisa L. Frankenberg

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