There’s a backstory to my account of the day I could have walked away with millions of dollars worth of paintings from the Phillips Collection, a story I told here a couple of weeks ago with a version published in today’s Washington Post.
I wrote that I was visiting Washington with my first wife, Anita, back on that Memorial Day weekend in 1972.
But I didn’t mention that I was working in New York for UPI at the time, or that we were staying with a couple of colleagues.
One of them was Tom Corpora, perhaps the most intimidating person I ever worked with in all my years as a reporter and editor.
Corpora, a native Californian, was a very cool dude who had earned his stripes as a UPI war correspondent in Vietnam.
I was in my early twenties when I started at UPI-New York in 1970. Corpora was probably a few years older.
I was a rookie in the business, and looked up to the real pros in the newsroom, such as Lucien Carr, who was always kind in providing guidance and friendship.
And while I desperately wanted Corpora’s approval, I never got it.
A couple of times I went for drinks with him after work. The more he drank, the more he ripped me apart, saying I wouldn’t know a story if I tripped over one and couldn’t write it worth a damn anyway.
But I did learn one important lesson from him – that every good story told could be a story written.
When Anita and I got back from our adventure at the Phillips Collection, I told Corpora what happened.
“Did you call it in?” he asked.
“Sure, I told you, I called Mrs. Phillips.”
He shook his head in disgust. Corpora had a habit of jiggling his leg when he was agitated. He was jiggling furiously.
“No” he snapped, dressing me down with his hard, hooded eyes, “I mean did you write a story and call it in to UPI?”
“No,” I said, “I never thought of that.”
“Big surprise,” he sneered.
I don’t think I ever saw Corpora again. Or talked to him again.
I looked for him online a few years back. Not to get in touch. Just curious what he was up to.
He and his Japanese-born wife owned a winery in Virginia.
Then, in 2015, I learned that Tom died.
I couldn’t find an obit then. Can’t find one now.
And while his UPI byline appeared in papers around the world, there is little trace of him or his work to be found.
But, as I’ve said, he made a strong impression on this kid during the brief time we worked together.
And, as any reader of this space knows, I’ve learned to turn many of my memorable experiences into copy.
It only took 45 years to write about the Phillips Collection caper.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.