As I’ve written here before, Walter Cronkite was a nightly presence in our house, just as he was in millions of others during the 60s and 70s. (I have always wondered if the years since would have seemed quite so barking mad if he’d been there every night to tell us about them.) Historian Douglas Brinkley recently published a biography titled Cronkite, and I can’t recommend it enough. The outlines of Cronkite’s anchorman years, from the early 50s to the early 80s, are pretty well-known, yet riveting anyhow in Brinkley’s telling. But the stories of his life after leaving the CBS Evening News in 1981 are the most interesting of all.
Late in life, Cronkite made an unlikely friendship with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. In 1987, Hart and Stephen Stills had been hired to score a sailing documentary Cronkite was producing. They bumped into one another at the studio one day, and Hart asked to hear Cronkite’s narration so he could write the music around it. At the end of the day (on which Stills failed to show), the two men ended up having dinner. A mutual interest in sailing and environmentalism cemented their friendship. When the Dead played shows in New York that year, Cronkite and his wife Betsy attended. After that, Cronkite and Hart occasionally sailed together. And not only that: “We played drums together a lot,” Hart said. “I was amazed one time to see that he had twenty drums set up in his living room.” Hart believed that drumming had positive health effects for Cronkite; after Cronkite’s 1997 open-heart surgery, Hart brought him 17 different drums to play. “The music made him alive as he as losing his facility,” Hart said. “The music connected him to life and the world at large.”
Cronkite befriended another fellow sailor during this period: Jimmy Buffett. The two men met at the America’s Cup race in Australia in 1987 and remained friends for the rest of Cronkite’s life. “I’d have him as my guest at Madison Square Garden,” Buffett said of his New York shows. “I knew how to make him happy. I sat him by the showgirls.” When Cronkite worked CNN’s coverage of John Glenn’s 1998 space-shuttle flight, Buffett dropped by the anchor booth in Florida. Cronkite invited him to sit in for a while, on the air. “Son of a Son of a Sailor” became one of Cronkite’s favorite songs, and Buffett performed it at Cronkite’s funeral in 2009.
Cronkite had been an admirer of Rolling Stone‘s journalism since Hunter S. Thompson battled Richard Nixon, and in later life he befriended the magazine’s founder and publisher, Jann Wenner. He briefly collaborated with jazz pianist Dave Brubeck on a documentary project, and he got to know Andy Warhol a little. After Betsy Cronkite died in 2005, he spent the rest of his life in the company of Joanna Simon, sister of Carly Simon, a trained opera singer who’d been his New York realtor.
Any person as famous as Walter Cronkite moves in a celebrity-filled circle. Nevertheless, his musical connections are interesting. The Most Trusted Man in America was neither a marble monument nor a model of propriety: one of his producers affectionately called him a dirty old man, and he liked to recite obscene limericks in the same tone he used on TV every night. He was, in fact, an everyman as regular as the guy next door. If nearly everybody who watched him on TV liked him, the same seems to have been true of everyone who met him in the flesh.