Out of these Gulf War dispatches, revised and expanded, would come a much heralded gem of a book: Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War (1993). All this was a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Mike had never before written anything remotely like these dispatches, with their full sensory reports of the sights and sounds and smells of war. “I don't know what it was, but my reporting faculties had never been engaged like that,” Mike told me years later. “I was just seeing everything—even the tiniest thing—large and in Technicolor. I think it was partly the fear, partly the sheer excitement of being there and bearing witness, and partly my growing anger at what Saddam Hussein had done.”
I first met Michael Kelly in the fall of 1991, a few months after he had returned from the Middle East. As an editor then at The New York Times Magazine, I'd been a faithful reader of the New Republic dispatches and the GQ profiles, and had been recruiting him with more than a little ardor. We met for lunch at a hotel restaurant a couple of blocks from the Times building, and right off the bat there were two surprises.
For one thing, given the courageousness of his war reporting and the gusto with which he'd dismantled a series of political eminences, I was expecting a much larger man (even with his thick mop of curly brown hair, Mike was all of five-six). For another, given the fire in his writing voice, I was taken aback by how soft-spoken he was in person. Although the words tumbled easily out of his mouth in complete sentences, even complete paragraphs, the volume was that of a man speaking in church. For all his heroics and journalistic success, there was not an ounce of swagger or self-importance about him as he spoke of his work and his life.
Journalism was in his blood, he said. His mother, Marguerite Kelly, had for many years written a column on parenting for The Washington Post, called “Family Almanac”; his father, Tom Kelly, was a longtime reporter for The Washington Daily News (now defunct) and had written a book on The Washington Post. Mike's round, puckish face (which to me instantly registered Cagney, but with spectacles) lit up when he talked about his parents and growing up with three sisters in a rambling Victorian house a few blocks from the Capitol. The house was a hubbub of activity, he said, with his sisters' friends dropping by, and neighbors coming and going, and, after sunset, newspaper people and other writers gathering in the family parlor for marathon sessions of food, drink, and talk. “It was good talk,” Mike said. “It was about politics and politicians and stories and writing. I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a reporter.”
His mother, who was from New Orleans and reflected it in her approach to life, had an internal clock that was untethered to conventional conceptions of time. “If you're invited to my mother's house for dinner at, say, eight P.M., odds are you won't sit down to eat till after eleven o'clock,” Mike told me. “But you don't care, because you're having too much fun.” A decade later, in one of his Washington Post columns celebrating family life, called “Growing Up With Mr. Fixit,” he paid equal tribute to his father's eccentricities.
My father, Tom Kelly, is seventy-eight, and he has four grown children, and they have had their ups and downs. And over all the years, for every up, my father has been there to say how splendid (and how deserved) was this particular up; and for every down, he has been there to say how splendid (though not at all deserved) was this particular down.
An insane love, a failed grade, a lost job—there is nothing that befalls one of his children in which my father is not able to find “a marvelous experience.”
At lunch Mike admitted that despite many years of Jesuit schooling, he wasn't much of a student. Unlike most of his journalistic peers, who could boast of brand-name colleges on their résumés, he had attended a state school, the University of New Hampshire. “I don't remember much about it because of all the drinking and partying I was doing there,” he told me. “I edited the campus newspaper and may have written a piece now and then.”