The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that Phil Tracy, who served as the Village Voice’s Albany correspondent in the early Seventies, has died at age 74.
Born in New York in 1942, Tracy was raised in Inwood and became active in the Civil Rights movement before entering journalism. He began his career at the Voice writing dispatches from the Bay Area in the late 1960s, and would later focus his sights on Albany, penning the acerbic State Secrets column for the “six of you who are following state politics,” as he put it in a column in 1974.
With a knowing tone, Tracy offered granular chronicles of New York’s power brokers and deadpan assessments of policy, like the failure of the newly passed “Rockefeller Laws,” draconian anti-drug measures that became a nationwide template for the disastrous mass incarceration of the 1980s. His column often focused on what he saw as the fecklessness and mendacity of New York’s pols, advising in one column of the state’s county leaders: “it doesn’t pay to deal with them as honorable men. All they understand is fear.”
Jon Carroll, who was at the paper for a time with Tracy, told the Voice that he remembers him as a classic New York character, with a pronounced borough accent and habit of talking out of the side of his mouth. With an encyclopedic knowledge of Albany and city politics, some of Tracy’s best stories, according to Carroll, were the ones about the goings-on behind the scenes in the corridors of power, the ones that never made it in to print.
“He was given to dry, sarcastic remarks,” Carroll says, “and his colorful descriptions of what was going on at city hall were always a joy.”
Tracy ultimately decamped for California, joining Carroll, who had been hired as editor of New West magazine. It was as a freelancer at that publication that Tracy and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Marshall Kilduff began working on an exposé of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. When the piece was published in 1977, Jones was still a well-regarded — and well connected — religious guru with close relationships in California politics.
From the Chronicle:
Kilduff, then a reporter at The Chronicle, was interested in finding out more. But Jones’ connections extended into the newsroom as well.
“The city editor at that time really liked Jim Jones,” said Kilduff, now on The Chronicle’s editorial board. “He’d been to the church and thought Jones was a good guy. And I couldn’t get him to do a story.”
So Kilduff approached New West and ended up teamed with Mr. Tracy. They began talking to people who had left the Temple. The story they finally published on Aug. 1, 1977, revealed the physical and emotional abuse of Temple members, with details provided by former members willing to be named and photographed. The article also detailed how, for months, New West had received a barrage of phone calls and letters from the Temple’s supporters — including California’s lieutenant governor at the time — urging the magazine to drop its investigation.
Jones, who had been tipped off to the article’s content, prepared to flee the U.S. for Guyana, along with many of his followers, before it was published. Other stories followed. Within a few months, Congressman Leo Ryan and three journalists, who had gone to visit the group and attempted to leave with defectors, would be murdered, and more than 900 of the group’s members would die in a mass suicide.
“Phil felt guilty about that, he felt that his stories had somehow precipitated it,” Carroll says. “That he was in some way the culprit.” The staff at the magazine all tried to reassure him, but Tracy carried that guilt. “We all said what you would say, which is that your job is to report, and you can’t know that crazy stuff like this is going to happen.”
After a stint as the editor of L.A. Weekly, Tracy ultimately left journalism, and Carroll thinks the Jones stories might have been the cause. “He was a tough guy, but underneath he was very kind of sentimental,” Carroll says, a romantic, and someone who cared deeply about the subjects he tackled.
You can read one of Tracy’s pieces, about the close of the Vietnam war, here.