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Seymour Topping, renowned foreign correspondent and New York Times editor, dies at 98

Seymour Topping with his wife, the photojournalist Audrey

Seymour Topping with his wife, the photojournalist Audrey Ronning Topping, in their Scarsdale home in 2007.   Credit: Newsday/Bruce Gilbert

Seymour Topping and another foreign correspondent in China had one of the major scoops of the century. Mao Zedong’s guerrilla movement had just defeated the Nationalist forces in Nanking in 1949, setting the stage for the triumph of a Communist revolution that would reverberate around the world.

There was one dilemma: They had to send the news by telegraph, and only one of the reporters could go first. They flipped a coin.

Topping lost. But when the other correspondent had delays with his editors in France, Topping became the first to break the news to the world that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist capital had fallen, he recalled in one of his books, "On the Front Lines of the Cold War."

A noted foreign correspondent for The Associated Press and The New York Times, where he later rose to become managing editor, Topping died Sunday at White Plains Hospital, his family said. The Scarsdale resident was 98.

Topping, known as "Top," administered the Pulitzer Prizes after his retirement from the Times and taught in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University until 2002.

Topping was a front-row witness to major events of the 20th century, covering wars, revolutions and international rivalries — sometimes barely getting out alive.

"He was one of the greatest foreign correspondents of his era for The AP and for The New York Times," said John Daniszewski, standards editor at The Associated Press and a former international editor. "He did really courageous work in China during Mao’s takeover of China."

He noted that Topping was "on the ground when the first bombings in Saigon signaled the beginning of the Vietnam War through the French era and through the American era."

Topping later helped steer The Times during a 34-year career there "through some very exciting epochs of journalism, in the '60s and '70s and '80s," Daniszewski said. "I can’t think of any newsman who has had such an exciting, long life of service as a journalist, as an editor and as someone who helped to maintain excellence in the profession."

Warren Hoge, a former assistant managing editor and foreign editor at The Times who worked with Topping, called him "a great foreign correspondent in China. Topping witnessed things that I think no other Western journalist witnessed. He was there at a time when China was a forbidden place and not very well-known to the Western world, the outside world, and Seymour Topping was one of the few Western reporters and writers to penetrate that, write about it, understand it."

Topping’s life was linked to China in many ways — he met his wife, Audrey Ronning Topping, there. She was the daughter of one of the few Western diplomats in China at the time, the Canadian ambassador Chester Ronning, and was herself an accomplished photojournalist. They wed in 1949 and often worked as a team.

After chronicling the final three years of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, Topping opened The Associated Press’s bureau in Saigon in February 1950, becoming the first American correspondent in Vietnam after World War II.

After checking into the Continental Hotel as he arrived, a bicycle bomb exploded at the cafe across the street, killing scores of French soldiers, according to The AP.

The following year, in 1951, Topping briefed a young congressman who was on a fact-finding visit to Saigon and who sought him out: John F. Kennedy.

Topping had intended to remain in Vietnam for a month, but he and his wife ended up staying for two years.

Assignments in London and a divided Berlin followed, until he was hired in 1959 by The Times, which eventually sent him to Moscow. He was with a vodka-drinking Nikita Krushchev in the Kremlin on the night in 1962 that the Cuban missile crisis ended.

He once recalled what it was like to live in Russia during the crisis with a wife and four young children. "People in Moscow were absolutely paralyzed with fear that there was going to be a nuclear war," he told public access cable TV host Harold Hudson Channer in 2005.

When he would go at night to the cable office to file his stories, before leaving home he would "just peek into where my kids were sleeping and I think, ‘My God, there is a possibility that an American missile might be crashing through the roof.’"

At another point, he realized the Soviets were spying on him and his wife when the bugged lighting fixture above their bed in Moscow exploded.

In 1963 he became the newspaper’s chief correspondent for Southeast Asia. He covered the United States’ war in Vietnam, as well as the 1965 coup in Indonesia and its aftermath that led to the genocide of 750,000 people.

During his decadeslong career, he interviewed Fidel Castro, Kennedy, Zhou en-Lai and other major figures. He reported out of nearly two dozen countries, including South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand and El Salvador.

All the while, he and his wife were raising a family. They had five daughters, born around the globe: in London, Berlin, and even Vietnam. The fifth was born in New York.

"All he ever wanted to be was a journalist," said one his daughters, Rebecca "Robin" Topping, a reporter and editor at Newsday who was born in Berlin. "It was his calling and he carried it out with great courage and an iron will. But his staff and his family loved him most for his kindness, humility and strength in the face of any challenge."

Topping’s wife recalled that raising a family overseas while working as journalists amid international upheaval was an exhilarating but often harrowing experience.

"It was a matter of just keeping our heads above water," Audrey Topping said. "We were just trying to survive."

After 20 years as a foreign correspondent, Seymour Topping returned to the U.S. in 1966 and climbed the ranks at the Times, serving as foreign editor, deputy managing editor and managing editor. He was among top editors who decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Topping belonged to a Times triumvirate that included Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, metropolitan editor and later deputy managing editor, and that transformed and modernized The Times. It became a four-section paper, with special weekly sections like "Style" that broadened the paper’s readership — and its revenue, Hoge said.

Rosenthal and Gelb were "brilliant journalists and highly creative people" but also "volatile," Hoge said. "Top," as the staff called him, was equally talented but also a critical, calming influence in the newsroom, he said.

Topping "was steady, he was completely dependable, he was completely credible, and he was relatively ego-free, which is remarkable in a newsroom," Hoge said. "I don’t know anybody that I worked with who ever was critical of Seymour Topping."

Toward the end of his career at The Times, Topping oversaw journalistic quality at the company’s 32 regional newspapers in 11 states.

He retired from The Times in 1993 and joined Columbia University.

Topping was born in Harlem in 1921, the son of immigrants. His family later lived in Queens. He once said he knew by the age of 8 he wanted to be a journalist. He was fascinated with China by high school, where he was valedictorian at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx.

He graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, went into the military and was sent to the Pacific as an infantry officer.

When the war ended, he didn’t go home. Instead he stayed in the Philippines, where he met some foreign correspondents and got hired as a stringer for the International News Service, a subsidiary of Hearst Newspapers, which sent him to China, he wrote in "On the Front Lines."

Six months later he joined The AP, and was reporting for them when he landed the scoop on Mao’s triumph.

"Top was a wonderful husband and father, a noble gentleman and my beloved partner in life and our journalistic adventures around the world," Audrey Topping said.

Besides his wife and daughter, Topping is survived by three other daughters, Karen Cone of Redmond, Washington, and her husband, Jeffrey Cone; Lesley Topping of Brooklyn and her husband, Randy Ostrow; and Joanna Topping of Pound Ridge and her husband, Robert Delaney. He is also survived by Robin Topping's husband, Kevin Kearon; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

His daughter Susan Topping of Salida, Colorado, died in 2015.

Funeral services will be private. There will be a memorial service at a later date.

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