When Richard Ben Cramer* died of lung cancer last January, he was primarily remembered for his monstrously great book on the 1988 presidential elections, What It Takes. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post said the book changed his life and, after Cramer died, Klein initiated an attempt to drive the book to the top slot on Amazon's sales rankings. Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker wrote that, "though no campaign book has come close to accomplishing what Cramer's did, he taught a generation of political writers that the two pillars of great nonfiction-immersive reporting and expert storytelling-could turn even a mediocre campaign into high drama."
There is no doubt that Cramer will be remembered for this achievement-and for his great Esquire magazine piece "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?." But here in Baltimore, we might make a case that William Donald Schaefer-or "MAYOR ANNOYED: THE BEST MAYOR IN AMERICA, FOR A WHILE," as Cramer suggested his statue be subtitled in a 1984 Esquire piece-was the best subject of the best writer in America, for a while.
Cramer came to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University. "Right away I loved the town," he told Esquire Magazine. "A great city. Run-down. Crabs five dollars a dozen. Johnny Unitas. National Bohemian beer." He quickly became the editor at the News-Letter. There, he was known for encouraging his staff to break with tradition-and for his slacker jeans and hunting cap. By the time he started at The Sun a few years later, Dick Cramer had become Richard Ben Cramer and sported spiffy suits and wide-brimmed hats.
"Cramer was working on his persona before he ever got to The Sun," recalls Tom Horton, a colleague from those days.
Horton recalls shortly after Cramer started at the paper, "he was a very new reporter and was sent out on a breaking news story in the morning, and basically he did an extremely good job rapidly during that, and then took off for the Eastern Shore on another assignment and by that evening had filed another truly well-written, excellent story. Jesus, who was that guy? It got my attention. It proved to be the real deal and not a fluke."
And though Cramer left The Sun long before he wrote about Schaefer for Esquire-winning a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Middle East along the way-one can almost see Cramer and his own love of Baltimore in the picture he paints of Schaefer. "Damnit, I wanna live in a row house," he quotes Schaefer as saying. "I don't want a tree. I don't want a lawn. I live in Baltimore. I like a row house, I'm gonna have my row house, I AM BALTIMORE, I LIVE IN A ROW HOUSE-GET IT?"
Wherever he went, Cramer was Baltimore.
Cramer's reporting got him exceptionally close to his subjects. He spent six years working on What It Takes, tracking down every ex-girlfriend and second cousin of the candidates. "Richard, Christ, he impaired his health, he got so far into it on What It Takes," Horton says. "He got Bell's palsy, where he couldn't move the side of his face for some time. It was hard on him."
Cramer spent the last years of his life working on a book about Alex Rodriguez with which he struggled so greatly that it was years late to the publisher, who sued him to get the advance back. Horton spent a lot of time with Cramer, who had moved to the Eastern Shore, as he worked on the book and recalls that "he was growing increasingly disenchanted with A-Rod as a human being and as a subject."
But, had he lived, this disenchantment may have driven Cramer back to Baltimore. Horton says that the book Cramer really wanted to write was a book about the D'Alessandro family. "The only hook he really had to sell it was Nancy Pelosi. But he didn't want to do it because Pelosi was the most powerful woman, but to write about Tommy the elder and Baltimore-he would have wallowed in it like a pig in shit," Horton says. "I have no doubt that that book would have been a masterwork. That would have been Cramer at his best."
In absence of that book, we are left with the best writer in America on the best mayor in America, for a while.
To read Cramers Esquire story on Schaefer, go to esquire.com/blogs/politics/mayor-william-donald-schaefer-esquire-profile-5586877
*An earlier version of this story called Cramer a "lifelong chain smoker." In later life, he smoked several cigars a day, but not one after another. We regret the error.