AT SAN FRANCISCO'S STACEY'S Bookstore a crowd has gathered around the tall, bespectacled figure of author David Halberstam. The book lovers have come not to hear the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist speak about his latest dissection of American politics and culture but about the murder of an ex-Idaho governor. "It's a defining book for a great reporter," Halberstam, 63, tells the audience.
He is not being immodest. Big Trouble, a sprawling social history centered around the 1905 assassination, isn't Halberstam's book. It was written by J. Anthony Lukas, his friend and Harvard classmate who committed suicide in June after a lifelong battle with clinical depression. Bereft, Halberstam and other Lukas friends—among them Washington Post literary critic Jonathan Yardley, author Nicholas Le-mann and historians Patricia Limerick and Alan Brinkley—devised a unique tribute: They conducted the book tour Lukas didn't live to make, a six-week swing that ended with Halberstam's San Francisco appearance Nov. 20. "It was the right thing to do—a book shouldn't be orphaned," he says of Big Trouble, which hit the Los Angeles Times bestseller list on Oct. 26.
The book was only three months from publication last June 5 when Lukas, 64, strangled himself with the belt of a robe in his Manhattan apartment. To many his suicide was incomprehensible, for Lukas had lived a life writerly undergraduates imagine only in their beeriest dreams. An ace reporter, he had won two Pulitzers and nursed passions for pinball, baseball, jazz and, not least, book editor Linda Healey, his wife of 15 years. "He had gotten everything he had always wanted and more," says Halberstam. "This amazing, rich textured life, the love of an uncommon woman. Yet there was always the darker side."
Though aware of his black moods, not even Lukas's closest friends fathomed he would take his own life. "We thought part of being a man is to work through your problems on your own," says Yardley. "Only after Tony's death did I understand the foolishness of that point of view." Lukas himself had sought treatment grudgingly 10 years ago, rarely taking his antidepressants despite a worrisome family history.
Lukas's mother suffered from manic-depression and killed herself when he was 8; two other relatives also ended their own lives. A predisposition to depression is often inherited, and though statistics vary, perhaps seven of 10 people who commit suicide are clinically depressed. "He was swimming underwater with a brutal genetic disorder, an enormous undertow," says Halberstam. Most friends dismiss the idea that Lukas killed himself because he was despondent over the quality of Big Trouble, as some obituary writers speculated. "He was unhappy with every book he wrote at the stage of completion," says Lemann, 43. Like depression, suicide may also have genetic roots. "It's wired into some people," says Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
That circuitry may well have been in place when Jay Anthony Lukas was born in Manhattan to Edwin, a lawyer, and Elizabeth Lukas, an actress who slit her throat in her psychiatrist's garden in 1941. A decade passed before Tony and his brother Christopher, now 62, learned the details of her death.
After graduating from Harvard in 1955, Lukas worked for The Sun in Baltimore, then joined The New York Times in 1962. His first Pulitzer, in 1968, was for a piece on a murdered Connecticut teenager who had forsaken affluence for drugs and squalor in New York City. Driven, Lukas could become so absorbed in his work "that he didn't show much interest in other people's lives," Yardley says. (He could also be touchy: After Yardley mildly criticized Lukas's 1971 book on the '60s counterculture, Lukas didn't speak to him for eight years.)
By 1972 Lukas had left the Times and cofounded More, a journalism review. He wrote a book about Watergate and in 1985 published Common Ground, a study of school desegregation in Boston that won Lukas the National Book Award and a second Pulitzer. His contribution to 1993's Birth of a Fan, a collection of baseball essays, contained Lukas's only known written rumination on his childhood loss. In it he revealed that, to cope, he had created a "surrogate family"—his essay's title—that included Joe DiMaggio and the nearly invincible New York Yankees. "If I couldn't control my environment," he wrote, "they surely dominated theirs."
On June 5, Tony Lukas sought final control, leaving a wife and friends to ponder his stark denouement. Halberstam says the Big Trouble book tour was therapeutic. "When someone dies so unexpectedly there is enormous rage, pain and frustration," he says. "With this, it allows you to work it out a little, to feel you participated in some way to keep his memory alive."
ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City and ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ in San Francisco
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