Almost a Family

Almost a Family

by John Darnton


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From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author: a beautifully crafted memoir of his lifelong chase after his father’s shadow.
John was eleven months old when his father, Barney Darnton—a war correspondent for The New York Times—was killed in World War II. John's mother, a well-known reporter and editor, perpetuated a myth of Barney as a hero who gave his life for his family, country, and the fourth estate. Decades after his father’s death, John and his brother, the historian Robert Darnton, began digging into the past to discover who the real-life Barney Darnton was. When they did, they found a man who was far different from the story they had grown up with. Intensely moving and vividly descriptive, Almost a Family is the compelling story of one man’s search for the truth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307266170
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/15/2011
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

John Darnton has worked for The New York Times for forty years as a reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent. He is the recipient of two George Polk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. He is also the author of five novels, including The Darwin Conspiracy and the best seller, Neanderthal. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


One of the few acknowledgments of my existence to come from my father happened in the middle of a feud between the Darnells and the Watsons on the banks of the Mississippi in the 1840s. That is, in the description of such a feud in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. There, halfway down page 210, just as friends of the ferryman shoot old Darnell through and through—“filled him full of bullets, and ended him”—lies an X in the margin. At the page’s bottom, the X is explained:
Nov 20, 1941—1:40 AM. As I was reading this in French Hospital, N.Y., Dr. Heaton came into the waiting room and said: “You’ve got another boy.”—It was John.
—B. D.
I like my father’s handwriting. It’s in thick black pencil straight across the full width of both pages, sprawling and virile. The “B.” and the “D.”—for Byron ­Darnton—­are ­full-­bellied. No question about it: It is a declaration for history. Looking closely, I see the “20” after “November” is superimposed over a “19.” A natural mistake: It’s 1:40 a.m. Perhaps he’s sleepy and thinks it’s still the night before. Or maybe he’s so excited by the news that he wants to get it down and only a moment later, rereading, realizes his error. I picture the waiting room in my imagination. It’s a stuffy enclosure off the entrance to the maternity ward: two windows, ­grime-­covered, a lineup of ­straight-­backed metal chairs, a ­beaten-­down couch, framed prints of British foxhunting scenes on the wall, a rack with ragged copies of Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, two ­stand-­up ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, a radiator pumping away in the corner and worn linoleum on the ­floor—­or maybe a thin carpet. I see my father waiting there, reading. He’s sitting comfortably, ­self-­contained, right foot resting on his left knee. His eyes sparkle with amusement at a nervous young man walking in and out from the corridor. They’ve exchanged a few friendly words. He provides the comfort of an older man, an old hand at this. A smile is ready to break out under his bushy dark mustache. He’s wearing a tweed jacket around his broad shoulders, and his dark brown trousers are beginning to lose the sharpness of their crease. His overcoat and fedora are hanging from a coatrack. Is he smoking? Surely. But what? Luckies? Camels? Is he carrying his fancy ­leather-­bound flask, and does he offer the young man a swig of whiskey? He goes back to reading, back to the Mississippi. The door swings open and the doctor comes in to tell him about me. He stands up to take the news, beams, and pumps the doctor’s hand.
But what is he feeling? Had he wanted a girl? Is he worried about his wife? Does he feel the rush of second ­fatherhood—­another son to round out the family, another little body at the dining room table? Or is there just a smidgeon of uncertainty, regret even, the vague sensation of being trapped? Another mouth to feed on a reporter’s salary, another obligation. Now he will surely have to settle down.
He would be told to wait a few minutes before seeing his wife and baby. Does he, too, pace about now and look out the window at Eighth Avenue far below, yellow headlights penetrating what appears, perhaps, as a cold rain and billows of steam rising from the manholes? Or does he sit down again and jot the note in the margin and resume reading, lulled by the companionship of Twain, who goes on to describe the great flood of 1882, which broke down the levees, destroyed the crops, washed away the houses, and turned the mighty Mississippi into a scourge seventy miles wide?
The book resurfaced after ­forty-­three years, hidden in plain sight in my brother’s bookshelf. He sent it to me with a note: “This isn’t ­really a present, because by rights it belongs to you. . . . Happy birthday!” It had moved houses many times without being opened, testament to the immutability of a moment of supreme consequence (as far as I’m concerned)—and also to its transience.
And so I was born.


Four days old, I was taken home to a cozy white clapboard house in the backwoods of Connecticut. According to family lore, I was carried across the threshold by a nurse, so that my brother, Bob, ­wouldn’t become instantly jealous. My mother carried a toy for him, a ­brand-­new fire engine. ­But—­and here the lore surely verges into the ­apocryphal—­he pushed it aside and demanded, “Where’s my brudder?”
Two weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
My father heard the news over the car radio as he drove our family off on a ­long-­awaited vacation. He immediately spun the car around, dropped the three of us off, and headed to the headquarters of The New York Times on West ­Forty-­third Street. The vast ­third-­floor newsroom, on what was to have been a quiet Sunday afternoon, was thrown into high gear. Copyboys rushed from the agency tickers with the latest bulletins, and the switchboard was jammed with calls from a frantic public. Reporters and editors streamed in from all corners to man the phones and take up assignments. My father headed for an enclave in the city room, where eight wooden desks had been pushed together for an enterprise that had begun only six days earlier and that he headed: news broadcasts over the radio station WMCA (the forerunner to WQXR). Until well after midnight a steady stream of copy flowed out through a Teletype operator to the station, which beamed it to the city.
My father, listed as Francis Byron Darnton on his birth certificate, was known to everyone simply as “Barney.” With a dry wit, cool composure, and an air of dependability and integrity, he was, at ­forty-­four, an important figure at the Times. Gossiping reporters speculated he was on track to become managing editor. He had joined the paper in 1934, following a traditional stepladder of newspaper jobs that had long ago taken him from his hometown of Adrian, Michigan. At the Times, he had performed a number of ­high-­level assignments, including setting up “The News of the Week in Review” section, but he had hungered for a closer contact with the news and so two years before had become a roving correspondent. Now, with war upon the country, he felt a new restlessness. For some time, he and “Tootie”—as our mother, Eleanor, was known to close ­friends—­had taken the position that armed conflict with Adolf Hitler was inevitable. As debates raged in bars and around dinner tables, they had long since sided with the interventionists against the isolationists. After the Japanese attack, in late December or early January, as our mother told the story, our father became quietly moody. One morning, in bed with him, divining his secret, she turned to him and said, “So when do you leave for the war?” He wrapped her in his arms and replied, “Thank God. I was wondering how to tell you.”
Our father left to become a war correspondent on a cold winter’s day, striding purposefully down the front path of our country home in Westport. He and our mother had traveled hard and separate roads to end up together there, and in leaving the three of us, he was putting a dream on hold. Shortly before his departure, in the flurry of securing accreditations and buying uniforms and gear and getting inoculations, he had sat down to explain why in a letter to his older brother Robert, whose automobile factory back in Michigan had been converted for the manufacture of aircraft. Barney was the youngest of seven ­children—­six boys and one girl. Most of them had stayed close to home, but when he was just out of high school, with World War I raging in 1917, he had enlisted in the ­32nd “Red Arrow” Division and saw plenty of tough fighting in France. His wanderlust ­wasn’t entirely quashed by his time in the trenches. Now, somewhat defensively in writing to his brother, he set down his reasons for going to war again, “because my decision might seem lighthearted and irresponsible to anyone who knew only the exteriors.” Banging out the words quickly on a typewriter and copyediting them afterward with a black pencil, he wrote, in part:
In these times it is rather difficult to fix the order of one’s responsibilities. The first is, of course, to my family, but it seems to me that certain actions that would be unthinkable in ordinary times are not in these times. My absence may run to a couple of years. That certainly isn’t an ideal situation with a couple of young boys. But unless those boys can grow up into a decent sort of a world it won’t make any difference ­anyway—­and it seems to me that I must do something ­toward the end that we all pray for. You are making airplanes. I’m no good in any such field, nor in active service. But I am trained for one job, and I think it’s an important job.
His family, he said, would be taken care of if anything happened to him and, through the generosity of the paper, would be “better provided for than they ever would be if, in other circumstances, I fell off a cliff.” Still, the decision to go would have been impossible if his wife had not been the woman she was:
Bob and Johnnie can safely be left to her. She isn’t the stuff that cracks under a bit of difficulty. She, too, wants the kids to grow up in the right kind of world, and she too believes that we can bring that about only if every one of us does his utmost. This is a joint, not individual, decision.
After a few sentences on the national need for sacrifices, he returned to the subject of his chosen profession:
And there is another motivation. I very much respect the business I am in, even though it falls far short of perfection in all its parts. But it is rightly given special status in the Constitution, for it is an indispensable force in the achievement of democracy. That special status must be justified by the service performed by the press. And that service can’t all be easy. It can’t all be privilege without any duty.
All this sounds like a sermon. And I don’t like preaching them any more than I do hearing them. But I’ll let it stand because I very much want you to understand. It would be most natural, in view of the different ways in which our lives have developed, for you to incline to the belief that I was going off ­half-­cocked. Even if you disagree with my motives, I want you to respect them. And to stand advocate for me before the rest of the family. Middle life can easily be a time of the weakening of family ties. I hope that when this is over we can enjoy the strengthening of them.
I expect to start Monday. The best of things from us to you and yours, and for God’s sake turn out those airplanes.
Along with a contingent of other reporters and photographers, my father shipped out of San Francisco in February 1942, and reached Australia some three weeks later. It was a low point of the war: The Germans and Italians were dominant in Europe. In Asia, the Japanese were leaping southward in a ­stepping-­stone series of lightning conquests and besieging American forces in the Philippines. By the time the correspondents arrived in Brisbane, Japanese soldiers were digging in along the northern coast of New Guinea, the huge island just to the north, and invasion fever had struck Australia. For months it was clear the enemy had the upper hand.
Barney was older than the other correspondents, the dean of the American press corps. His dispatches were notable for their ­clear-­eyed humor and the admiration, dosed with affection, shown for the young men doing the fighting. But over seven months he was to grow increasingly frustrated. He had volunteered to cover the war, and he had lobbied hard for the assignment at the Times, but so far his coverage had been heavy on ­human-­interest features. He had pieced together accounts of the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the Battle of Midway in June, but his war stories had been based on sources, not firsthand experience. Aside from an occasional bombing run by Japanese planes over Port Moresby, the key town on the Papuan peninsula of New Guinea, not once had he seen combat firsthand. All the major engagements so far had taken place in remote seas and skies, far from his eyes and ears. On top of that, he had had to contend with reams of red tape from the armies of both the United States and Australia and to fight tooth and nail with the U.S. Army censors. They cut any breath of news that departed from the vapid daily communiqués and excised color as if it were gristle on a steak. Worse, their main job seemed to be to burnish the warrior image of the vain supreme commander of the South West Pacific Area, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Then abruptly, in ­mid-­October, things turned around. Barney was about to see some action. As luck would have it, the division he had served with in the Great War, the ­32nd, had been chosen to dislodge the Japanese from their stronghold at Buna on Papua’s northern shore.* Barney rarely spoke of his wartime experience a quarter of a century before, even to close colleagues, but this time he had shamelessly exploited it to argue that he should be allowed to chronicle his old outfit’s exploits. He had buttonholed the division commander, Maj. Gen. Edwin F. Harding, a genial man with a soft side who composed poetry and stashed Kipling verse inside his army manual. Harding bought the argument and gave him permission to accompany the ­battle-­green troops.

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Almost a Family 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
libsue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting memoir about the authors parents, but bogged down when he wrote about his own life.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
John Darnton had a most unusual childhood. Although his father, Byron ¿Barney¿ Darnton, a legendary World War II war correspondent for the New York Times, died when John was an infant, the son was raised in the shadow of his larger-than-life dad. John¿s older brother Robert, mother ¿Tootie¿ and he formed an eccentric band, moving all over the eastern seaboard, chasing a dream of a normal life. That was tough when Tootie was an active alcoholic for most of her sons¿ childhoods.But Almost a Family is not an altogether sad tale. There were moments of comedy, but for John it came at a price ¿ living one life at home, another outside it and still another inside his head. Like most families of alcoholics, especially in the first few decades after World War II, the name of the game was ¿denial.¿Eventually ¿Tootie¿ embraced sobriety, and her two sons succeeded in their fields: John as a Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter and then editor for the New York Times; Robert as a well respected historian. After their mother¿s death first Robert, then John decide need to find out the real story of their mythic father and the life he had with Tootie before they were born. But this is John¿s story. Using the tools of a journalist, he becomes a family historian, tracing the paperwork and the travels of Barney Darnton.I have read a lot of memoirs/autobiographies by journalists and am more often than not disappointed ¿ Walter Cronkite¿s and David Brinkley¿s come to mind. Then there was Katharine Graham¿s wonderful Personal History, which won a Pulitzer prize for biography. Almost a Family is in the same category as Ms. Graham¿s ¿ although it is definitely more memoir than autobiography.A combination of personal narrative and investigative journalism, Almost a Family strikes a fine balance. Combined with solid, unpretentious writing and almost none of the self-aggrandizement that often accompanies memoir ¿ Almost a Family is a satisfying read. I believe it is a great book, not just for news junkies like me, but also for anyone who appreciates what it takes to survive a childhood with an alcoholic parent. Family historians will also find the search for roots most interesting.I¿ve read one of John Darnton¿s earlier books ¿ the novel Black and White and Dead All Over ¿ that I thought was terrific. Now I¿m anxious to see what writing project he will take on next in retirement.