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Kurt Luedtke, former Free Press editor and Oscar-winning writer, dies



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Kurt Luedtke, the former Detroit Free Press executive editor who went on to win an Academy Award for his “Out of Africa” screenplay, has died. He was 80. 

Luedtke, after a long illness, died Sunday at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, his wife confirmed. 

A native of Grand Rapids and the son of lumber broker Herman Luedtke and Virginia Luedtke, he received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University then entered the University of Michigan Law School.

After Brown, he enrolled in a fast-track summer law program at U-M. But the burgeoning civil rights movement was gaining traction. “He simply felt he had to be there,” recalled his wife of 55 years, Eleanor.

He went to the South to witness that moment in history, writing several pieces on a freelance basis, and then enrolled in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He was picked up as an intern at the Miami Herald, and later promoted.

His colorful reporting on Florida’s organized crime figures attracted attention. A story he wrote in the Dec. 15, 1964, Herald began: “Murph the Surf and two beach boy pals somberly told a New York judge Monday they are innocent in the fabulous Star of India jewel theft.”

At the Free Press, which he joined in 1965 as a general assignment reporter, his upward trajectory in newsroom management was swift. As a protégé of executive editor Derick Daniels, Luedtke helped create Action Line, a reader interactive feature that filled one-quarter of the front page for 14 years beginning with its debut in 1966. Many U.S. papers ran similar features in the 1960s and ‘70s, but none did so as prominently, for so long, or as well. 

Its logo said Action Line “solves problems, gets answers, cuts red tape, stands up for your rights.”  It did so with neither fear nor favor, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. One item, for example, came from a divorced woman complaining that she wanted to remarry, but the divorce decree on file had never been signed by a judge. Action Line acted and responded: “You’ve got your signed divorce decree, no thanks to your lawyers.”

Action Line was not phased off the front page until 1980. It is said to have boosted the newspaper’s circulation by 10,000. Luedtke’s work on the column fueled a dramatic rise in his fortunes.

Luedtke had become an assistant city editor by the time the city’s 1967 civil disturbance broke out on Sunday, July 23. He was working that day as the city began its descent into five days of violence and destruction that laid bare Detroit’s long-ignored racial inequities and tensions. 

The next morning, he showed up in the Free Press general manager’s office asking for a larger news hole to cover the maelstrom. The general manager was reluctant. Luedtke was arguing with him when publisher Lee Hills appeared in the doorway. “I have no idea how Hills knew where we were, or what we were talking about,” Luedkte later said.

Luedtke argued that the story might be the biggest event to hit the city since World War II. The general manager made his case for keeping space tight. Hills simply said: “Sometimes there are more important things than money,” then walked out. The news got the space it needed. At one point, Luedtke, out in the street with other reporters during the unrest, ended up during the middle of the night on the city’s west side, on his stomach, dodging bullets.

The Free Press coverage was widely viewed as more urgent and dramatic than the Detroit News coverage. Many newspapers ran photos looking at rioters from behind police lines. Photographer Ira Rosenberg’s shots in the Free Press were mostly from amid the uprising, looking at the police lines.

It was Luedtke’s byline on a July 31 account of the Algiers Motel Incident in which police killed three young African Americans at a Woodward Avenue motel. A detailed story by reporter Barbara Stanton appeared inside. The killings would become a gruesome symbol of the disturbance’s brutality and would be the subject of a book by author John Hersey.

Many assumed that the 43 people killed in the uprising were troublemakers. Reporters Stanton, Gene Goltz and William Serrin were assigned to investigate the circumstances of every fatality, even interrupting a family gathering at a funeral home to get permission for a private autopsy. They conducted more than 300 interviews in five weeks.

They filed their stories and passed their notes to Luedtke, who came in on a Saturday morning armed with two large black coffees and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes to assemble the team’s reporting into a comprehensive piece headlined simply:  “The Forty-Three Who Died.” It ran on Sept. 3, 1967, and told the world that few of those who died were rioters, and: “A majority of the riot victims need not have died. Their deaths could have been — and should have been — prevented.” The piece was part of the package that won the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 1968.

Luedtke became the hands-on newsroom manager after that, even before gaining a title that reflected his role.  By June 1970, he was running the newsroom with the title of assistant to the executive editor and had hiring and firing power. In 1973, he succeeded Daniels as executive editor, the top editorial job at the paper. He was 33.

Luedtke was widely known for his keen and quick eye for talent, his creativity, his high standards — but also for his blunt, often funny way of dealing with reporters and editors. He smoked a lot. He enjoyed liquid lunches. Some of his comments and behavior would have gotten him in trouble in the #MeToo era.

Tom Fox, president and CEO of the National Catholic Reporter, had been a high-school All-American who entered Stanford University on a football scholarship. The haze caused by cigarettes got to him when he took a job as a Free Press reporter.

“The newsroom was just filled with smoke,” Fox recalled. “There was nowhere you could hide. One morning, I got up the courage to walk into his office. I asked him: ‘Do you think we could have a non-smoking section to the newsroom?’ I thought that was a very reasonable request. I didn’t say a non-smoking newsroom. He looked at me and said: ‘Fox: I’m not running a goddamn airline here.’ “

Reporter and columnist Laura Berman said: “Kurt fostered an atmosphere of creative tension. The Free Press was a creative place, where evocative, compelling, witty writing was sought and rewarded. It was also a tense place, where much was expected.”

Clark Hoyt worked as a Free Press reporter and editor, later becoming public editor at the New York Times. He recalls Luedtke as intensely creative and intensely demanding.

“Kurt had a great sense of story,” said Hoyt. “I remember he would have meetings in his office every Monday with the department editors. And you’d better come in with really good story ideas. You needed to be thinking ahead, and you needed to be thinking creatively.” 

Luedtke was also noted for asking provocative questions of people at key points in their lives.

Bill Mitchell had been a clerk in the Washington Bureau of the New York Times when he applied for a job at the Free Press and met with Luedtke.

“We had lunch. And he asked me: ‘What you have to decide for yourself is whether you want to spend the next chunk of your life here.’ It had me thinking of a job possibility in a way I couldn’t have possibly imagined. It didn’t occur to me to ask the deeper question. And, of course, that’s the most important thing: You might be qualified for a job, but unless you’re comfortable at the place you’re landing, it’s not going to work.”

Luedtke left the newspaper in 1978, somewhat spooked at the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a business he had pretty much conquered in his 20s. The idea did not appeal to him.

“I got the best job that I could possibly get in journalism when I was relatively young,” he told reporter Diane Haithman, a former Free Press reporter who wrote a profile in the Orlando Sentinel. “I was kind of running the editorial part of the Free Press when I was 30 and was named executive editor when I was 33. … When I was 38, I could literally look forward to 27 more years of it and then retirement. And I thought: Good Lord, that’s impossible!”

Upon quitting, he had few prospects and little money. And then, he ended up in Hollywood.

Luedtke wanted to find work writing screenplays, something he knew nothing about. A few friends, including former Free Press reporter Tom DeLisle, who worked as a television writer, counseled against trying to make the leap.

“If I had known what the odds were of writing for Hollywood … I wouldn’t have touched it with a proverbial 10-foot pole,” Luedtke later said. “Good Lord, Kurt, you’re not a fool — you’d have better odds of becoming a neurosurgeon.” 

He went west and prowled futilely among movie studios seeking assignments. He was within days of leaving Los Angeles when a friend gave him an idea. Luedtke had been thinking of writing a novel about a liquor warehouse owner whose life is almost destroyed by a reporter relying on an anonymous source. Instead, Luedtke pitched the unwritten novel as a screenplay. Orion Pictures took an option on the idea for $20,000. The result was “Absence of Malice,” starring Paul Newman, Sally Field and the late Wilford Brimley, as a Justice Department official who almost steals the movie with his classic chewing out of every character in the tale.

Luedkte was nominated for an original screenplay Academy Award for the 1981 film, a rarity for a first-time screenwriter. The film, partially shot in the Miami Herald newsroom where Luedtke worked before coming to the Free Press, is still widely regarded as one of the best newspaper movies ever produced. The young screenwriter formed a lifelong friendship with “Absence of Malice” director Sidney Pollack.

But what to do next?

Luedtke had long admired the author Isak Dinesen, the pseudonym of Karen Blixen, who wrote “Out of Africa” and other world literature classics. Countless directors, including John Huston, had come up short in their attempts to turn her stories into a film. Luedtke turned a collection of her work into a script for a movie starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. It won seven Oscars in 1986, including best adapted screenplay for Luedtke, best picture, and best director for Pollack.

There were numerous other screenwriting jobs. Luedtke worked on Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” but abandoned the project after he and Spielberg clashed about the ending. He worked on “Rain Man” — also with Pollack — but the project was passed to director Barry Levinson, who went with another version of the screenplay. He also worked on “The Bridges of Madison County.”

When Pollack was enlisted to produce a network TV drama about a Washington lobbyist, the pair made numerous research trips in Pollack’s plane between Detroit and Washington before abandoning the project.

Luedtke pointedly chose to remain in Birmingham, refusing to move to southern California.

“Kurt hated Hollywood, I mean, hated the place,” said Judy Neuman Beck, a longtime friend. “He just didn’t like the phoniness.” His wife, Eleanor, was told by friends in Los Angeles: “He must be really good because he does this from Detroit.”

Asked once by a friend why he didn’t continue to write movies, his reply was: “I don’t wanna.”

Oddly enough, with all his success and the fact that he had won an Oscar and could claim a serious portion of a Pulitzer Prize, he had an old-money attitude about not calling attention to himself.  

“I never heard Kurt, in any situation, at any time, brag about any of his accomplishments. It was more like, ‘OK, I won an Oscar’ He was secure about who he was,” Neuman Beck said.

Friends say Luedtke mellowed a lot in his later years. He survived cancer twice. He and Eleanor would spend winters at Longboat Key, Florida, and summers in Glen Arbor, Michigan. He learned to apologize to those he offended in his brash, younger years and agreed to slow down his electric scooter when a doctor told him: “More tortoise, less hare.” 

Luedtke was often called upon to talk about free speech. He did so while accepting an alumni award at Brown in 1987.

“I was for 15 years a journalist, a vocation in which you’d think you would learn a lot. I learned three things: The accused you’ve never met is more guilty than the one you’ve talked to. Truth and accuracy are not the same. Things are never, ever, as they appear to be.” He stressed the importance of listening to all points of view, especially unpopular ones.

He went on to say: “Nowhere is the willingness to listen more important than at a university, and nowhere is our failure more apparent than at the university whose faculty members or students think that it’s legitimate to parade their own moral or political purity by shouting down the unpopular views of the day.”

Luedtke is survived by Eleanor, whom he met and married when both were at the Miami Herald. She later went on to top public relations and marketing positions at Hudson’s, the University of Detroit and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She also wrote commissioned histories for the Sisters of Mercy, the Country Club of Detroit, Comerica Bank and the Detroit Zoo.

In accordance with Luedtke’s wishes, there will be no funeral service.

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