Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Ed Bradley, Ellen Willis, Ron Porambo: R.I.P.

Filed under: In Memoriam   Tagged: , ,

Ed Bradley died this week, which you’ve probably heard about. Two others who will be missed: Ellen Willis, who was among many other things The New Yorker’s first pop music critic, and Ron Porambo, part of whose odd, brave, dark history was in Wednesday’s Toronto Star. I think it’s worth reprinting the whole story (see the Star for accompanying photo; Amazon link mine).
Ron Porambo, 67: Writer dabbled on dark side
New Yorker magazine hailed ex-Star reporter
Convicted killer, 67, died in jail in New Jersey
Nov. 8, 2006
By Bill Taylor, Feature Writer
Ron Porambo was better at writing than at living.
A journalist and author whose work was hailed by the New Yorker magazine, he was wedded to life on the wrong side of the tracks. After flirting for years with the underworld, he finally moved there for good and became a career criminal.
Porambo, 67, died Oct. 22 in New Jersey State Prison. He was serving 30 years to life for the 1983 murder of a drug dealer during a robbery. Porambo reportedly choked to death while eating an orange.
During his legitimate days as a reporter (though he “moonlighted” off and on as an armed robber), he wrote for the Toronto Star. This reporter worked with him briefly in 1979/80 on the tabloid Philadelphia Journal, where an editor once called him “a junkyard dog.” It wasn’t meant as an insult, nor did Porambo take it that way.
Perhaps it was because he saw himself as an underdog that Porambo could so readily identify with the downtrodden and fleetingly become their champion.
When No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark, his best-selling book on the 1967 race riots in Newark, N.J., came out in 1971, the New Yorker called it “probably the most moving and instructive book yet written on any of the bloody civil disturbances of the ’60s.” The book is to be reissued next year, the 40th anniversary of the riots. In it, Porambo probed civic corruption and the whitewashing of the 26 riot deaths. The official inquiry was, he wrote, “a calculated, disgraceful tragedy.”
The same might be said of the life Porambo chose to live. He never stayed long in one job, moving during the 1960s and ’70s from newspaper to newspaper between Tennessee and Toronto, good enough and plausible enough to find work almost wherever he chose.

In Toronto in the ’70s, he worked for the Star and the Globe and Mail, and as Global TV producer. But never long enough to be much remembered.

He lasted less than six months at the Philadelphia Journal. Skinny, with thick-rimmed glasses, a moustache and unkempt hair, he usually looked in need of a shower and it was said that he lived mostly in homeless shelters. He didn’t take kindly to editorial direction and would disappear for days. Sometimes he’d show up with a hard-hitting story from the parts of Philadelphia where most reporters tended, for safety, to go in pairs. Sometimes he’d be empty-handed, with neither an explanation nor apology.

“Don’t cross him,” Journal staffers warned each other. “He could be packing a gun.” How right we were.

Porambo didn’t so much quit as simply wandered off, again without explanation. Not long after, he was jailed for two years for pistol-whipping an elderly couple during a robbery. Casual crime, it turned out, had provided a second income, though his targets of choice were drug dealers who, he reasoned, were less likely to go to the police.

Ironically, he first went to jail because of his book. He was imprisoned for three months in 1973 for bribing a cop to give him photos of the Newark riot victims. His jail term didn’t hurt sales, nor did the two attempts on his life shortly after it was published.

The second one left him with two bullets in his legs.

He survived another shooting in 1983, which put three bullets in his head, affected his speech and made walking difficult. Police said he refused to co-operate in the search for the shooter. Born in Newark, the son of a baker who invented the “twister cruller,” a kind of doughnut, Porambo in the 1950s was a Golden Gloves champion boxer in New Jersey.

He was good enough to have fought a couple of times in supporting bouts at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He married a black woman, Carol Scott, such an unusual thing then that the New York Times put it in the headline of a profile of him when his book came out.

The couple had a daughter, who reportedly died in the 1990s, and a son. There’s no word on the family’s whereabouts.

One of his few enduring friends and a former colleague, Fred Bruning, told the Newark Star-Ledger: “Ron was a remarkable reporter, courageous and resourceful, but … flawed in a tragic way that no one, including Ron, understood.”

One story he freelanced to the Star in the ’70s was penned from behind bars at the Metro West Detention Centre. He was awaiting sentence after trying to hold up a parking lot attendant at Pearson airport with a toy gun. He was jailed for two years and deported to the United States.

“Each day is precisely like the one before it,” Porambo wrote. “A constant, unvarying succession of sights and sounds, punctuated by the guards who count their prisoners over and over and over again.”

He had no way of knowing that this would become his epitaph.


Ed Bradley was the epitome of good news reporting.

Wow—that’s an absolutely amazing story.

Fascinating. I have no idea how someone who could write a book like “No Cause For Indictment” (which I’ve never read) could be the same sort of man who could pistol-whip an elderly couple.

This is what comes of not paying writers enough. God help us if Bill Buford ever hits hard times!

A movie? A play? Who is working on the Porambo pitch? Let me know, I’ve got some great ideas.

Porambo worked for a [public television nightly news program in New York City called The 51st State. He covered Newark, and I was his supervisor.

The incident in which he was shot in the leg led us to lead the news program that night with a segment entitled “Our Man in Newark Has Been Shot.” We were wrong. Porambo had shot himself, looking for sympathy and building on the sc enario that the Newark cops were out to get him. No doubt they were, but we made the mistake of romanticizing his situation.

Porambo was very likeable, boyish, and tough.
He was a gifted reporter. We were all saddened when we learned that he had crossed the line into a life of crime.

Gary Gilson

Ron Porambo and I roomed together one summer in the basement of the house belonging to the Dean of Men at Rutgers. We hit it off immediately. He had strong opinions that he voiced at odd moments. Something was on his mind and he offered it. If it hadn’t been for those musings, I wouldn’t have learned that we had so much in common.

My most vivid recollection of Ron at that time says a lot about him. He came in fairly late one night with a cut in his right eyebrow and several bruises on his face. I asked if he had gotten into a fight. After a brief hesitation he said that he had had a fight in Philadelphia. It took a bit for it to occur t0 me that he had been in a boxing match. I was stunned that he had never told me that he had been fighting professionally.

Charles PianoMarch 22, 2007

It pleasures me to know there won’t be any Newark firefighters in hell with him.

Susan Melody CollinsDecember 11, 2007

he was my grandfather i dont know much about him but his book was wonderful.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree