By Adrienne Westenfeld—June 15, 2021
In 1979, up-and-coming television producer Joseph Lovett scored the opportunity of a lifetime. Just a few months into his stint at 20/20, ABC’s upstart television news magazine, Lovett was assigned a profile of James Baldwin, pegged to the publication of Baldwin’s nineteenth book, Just Above My Head. Lovett was “beyond thrilled” to tell the titanic American writer’s story—but it’s taken until 2021 for that interview to see the light of day. Buried by ABC at the time, the segment has resurfaced over four decades later, revealing a unique glimpse into Baldwin’s private life—as well as his resounding criticism about white fragility, as blisteringly relevant today as it was in 1979.
When Lovett received the assignment, he was excited to meet one of his heroes: “I had been reading [Baldwin] since I was a teenager. I thought he was brilliant and brave and speaking to the moment of history that we were all living in. I was thrilled; I was beyond thrilled.”
Lovett and his crew arrived early, woke Baldwin, shared breakfast with him, and rolled the cameras before Baldwin, a heavy drinker, had a chance to imbibe. “He hadn’t had a drop to drink and he was brilliant, utterly brilliant,” Lovett said. “We couldn’t have been happier. He was such an eloquent, masterful speaker, with such a great mind. It was such a privilege.”
Conducted by the late Sylvia Chase, the interview took place at 137 West 71st Street—the Manhattan apartment building Baldwin bought for himself and his family in 1965, following the success of his early books. It showcases rare footage of Baldwin relaxed and gregarious at home, surrounded by a large and close-knit family. In a private conversation with Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis Baldwin, in the kitchen of her apartment, Chase asked if she always knew that her son would be a wildly successful writer; Baldwin’s mother responded, “I didn’t think that. But I knew that he had to write.”
Read more at Esquire.