“Michael, what do you think?” 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon asked his longtime producer, Michael Gavshon, during one of their daily gossip sessions. “Should I be going for Brian Williams’s job or Jon Stewart’s?”
It was February 11th—only 79 days ago—and the 73-year-old Simon was no doubt kidding, in that provocatively ironic deadpan of his, about the recent misfortune of the NBC News anchor and the imminent retirement of the Comedy Central star.
A few hours later Simon would be dead—not from a stray bullet or rocket-propelled grenade in one of the countless wars he covered over a 47-year career, but from a shockingly mundane traffic accident on Manhattan’s West Side Highway, where bad luck randomly caught up with him in the back seat of a chauffeured Town Car.
And so, on Thursday morning, Simon’s CBS News colleagues, along with admirers from rival networks, gathered at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall to celebrate his swashbuckling life as a television journalist and gimlet-eyed, occasionally heartbroken observer of the savage inanities of man.
Looming over the stage was a huge photo of the craggy, sun-dappled Simon, sporting a safari shirt appropriate to some exotic locale, probably in Africa, and grinning ear to ear. He is framed, near the top, by two dark blurry shapes—maybe a couple of errant fingers in the lens? Here was a man clearly happy in his work.
And yet, as the eulogists (notably his daughter, 60 Minutes producer Tanya Simon) made clear, Simon was an exquisitely complicated character who also treasured both the sacred and the profane.
He delighted in telling stories about human triumphs over adversity, the joys of spirituality, the ecstasy of music—and, lest anyone forget, the sheer pleasure of a dirty joke.
“Bob could be like a bratty teenager sometimes, and his arsenal of jokes was his way of making amends,” said 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager. “They ranged from off-color to way off-color.”
By way of illustration, Fager showed a video—not once but twice—of Simon, back to camera, strolling between whiskey barrels on an island off the Scottish coast while chatting up a master distiller with a sound-bite that didn’t make the final edit.
“Now just for a moment of serious reflection,” Simon tells the distiller in somber tones as they walk, “a guy I know, his wife came home and told him that her gynecologist said she couldn’t have sex for a month. And he said, ‘Well, what did your dentist say?’”
Another of Simon’s golden oldies (as recounted by Fager): “Young guy walks into a Catholic church, says ‘Father, I need to confess,’ and the priest says, ‘Fine, come with me to the confessional. What is it, my son?’ And he says, ‘Father, last night I made passionate love to the McGillicutty twins.’ And the priest says, ‘When was your last confession?’ ‘I’ve never confessed. I’m not even Catholic.’ ‘So why are you telling me this?’ ‘I’m telling everyone!’”
Laughter rose from the mourners, who included former and current CBS anchors Dan Rather and Scott Pelley; former CBS chief executive Howard Stringer; Simon’s 60 Minutes colleague Lesley Stahl; CNN’s Anderson Cooper; ABC’s Diane Sawyer and David Muir; syndicated daytime host Meredith Vieira and her husband, former CBS News producer Richard Cohen; and many other veterans of broadcast news, both behind and in front of the camera.
“Bob had an absolutely filthy mind,” another of his producers, Harry Radliffe, confirmed to the capacity crowd. But in an abrupt transition—literally—from the profane to the sacred, Radliffe talked of Simon’s spiritual side, a surprising aspect of his personality that drew him to stories about religion and, despite his self-identity as “a Jewish kid from the Bronx,” earned him the nickname around the 60 Minutes offices of “Christian correspondent.”
Indeed, another of the eulogists, Father Maximos Constas, a long-bearded, black-robed Greek Orthodox monk, memorialized Simon’s “spiritual nobility.”
Simon had befriended the monk while working on a 2011 piece on the Holy Monastery of Simonos Petras on Mount Athos in northern Greece, where the residents maintain a vow of silence.
“Bob was a noble man and in his own way a deeply spiritual man,” said Father Maximos, a native New Yorker. “Bob’s disdain for the mendacity of the political culture of Washington was certainly one of his more endearing qualities.” [In the early 1980s, Simon was briefly—and unhappily—CBS’s State Department correspondent.] He left all that behind...to roam the planet like a modern-day Diogenes in search of an honest man. He was on...a pilgrimage in search of the genuine...and when he found it, he shared it with the whole world.”
Veteran combat cameraman Norman Lloyd, meanwhile, told of covering the horrific carnage of the Vietnam War with Simon in the early 1970s. They were in the middle of a terrifying firefight between North and South Vietnamese soldiers when a truck filled with refugees trying to escape the violence hit a landmine and exploded; while women and children lay dead and dying in the road, Simon pulled Lloyd and their Vietnamese soundman to safety seconds before another lethal mine explosion—“and then he became my brother,” Lloyd recalled.
Producer Joel Bernstein recalled Simon’s generosity and hospitality to Bernstein’s wife, Toby, during a weekend visit to the Hamptons last summer. “Within a few hours, Toby rode on the back of a motorcycle, she drank a margarita, and she smoked a joint.”
Simon could be difficult, his colleagues said, but his occasionally prickly demeanor was softened by his ability to lampoon himself.
Gavshon recalled getting a contrite email last summer, when they were having one of their regular tiffs over one thing or another. “He wrote me, ‘I can only apologize and assure you that something like this will never happen again. As I told you last year, my New Year’s resolution is always to be less of an asshole in the coming year.’”
After a stirring performance of a Verdi aria by one of his favorite singers, bass-baritone Eric Owens—Simon was a passionate opera fan—his very pregnant daughter Tanya stepped up to the lectern.
She recalled the Wednesday night of his death, how they had just finished working together on a piece for that Sunday and were planning to have dinner at Shun Lee, when Jeff Fager called with the terrible news.
She talked about how her father and mother, Francoise, showed her around the world and instilled a sense of curiosity; how he brought back inexpensive gifts, namely “Do Not Disturb” signs stolen from various exotic hotels; and how he shared his love of books by giving her Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea; and how much he loved his 4-year-old grandson Jack, the only member of the family who was allowed, without harsh consequences, to wake him from a much-needed sleep.
“I’ve been staring all morning up at my dad’s picture,” she said, referring to the photo behind her. “I love how my dad is bathed in light. The picture has an almost heavenly, ethereal quality to it—although it turns out that my dad is simply standing between an elephant’s legs.”
Tanya went on to recall a French quotation that her father scribbled out and kept on a notecard on his desk: “It is better to die under the sun than to live under the rain.”