Jayson Blair presumably wrote Burning Down My Masters’ House, a memoir, to share his many deceptions at the New York Times with a public hungry for insider dirt. There’s one problem: Blair was a truly sad and boring thief. He pilfered quotes from Associated Press copy, details from small newspapers, and datelines he didn’t deserve. When Times editors thought he was traveling, he was often holed up in his apartment, suffering from depression. Stephen Glass’ crimes were compelling because they involved his gonzo imagination; Blair’s involved only laziness or ennui.
But there is one strangely compelling thing about the book: Blair’s slippery persona. Every chapter seems to bring a different Blair: a sniveling liar; a cokehead; a crusader for racial justice. The fact that Blair believes he fully inhabits each of these roles is itself enlightening. Perhaps the best way to excerpt My Masters’ House, then, is move personality by personality, beginning with the most famous.
Blair as Liar
Page 1: His claim to fame. “I lied and I lied—and then I lied some more. … And these were no everyday little white lies—they were complete fantasies, embellished down to the tiniest detail.”
Page 69-73: Blair reflects on the June 2003 resignations of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, the top two editors at the New York Times: “I was no more responsible for their resignations than Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, was responsible for starting World War I. I knew the groundwork for their resignations had been set long before I began fabricating stories, but it was hard, as the catalyst, not to take responsibility for the entire situation.”
Page 128: Blair describes his habit of joyriding with the Times’ company car. He drove it to Maryland to visit a friend who had been raped; he took girls on weekend sightseeing tours of the five boroughs; he used to transport himself and friends to and from bars in wee hours.
Page 179: Eager to shirk “Portraits of Grief” duty, Blair tells an editor that one of his cousins died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Coincidentally, it turns out that someone with the last name “Blair” actually perished. Blair gets away with it.
Page 181: Blair’s first Times fabulism—inventing the last name of a day trader, “Andrew Rosstein,” for afeature story. “I wanted to make sure the story made it into the paper,” he writes, “and was not incorporated into one of the many other business stories running that day.”
Page 198: The Times dispatches Blair to cover a benefit at Madison Square Garden. Buzzed on cocaine and drugs, Blair loses his media credentials and has to cover it by watching it on television. He makes numerous errors, including misquoting Bill Clinton twice.
Page 253: Blair describes the Times’ “dateline toe-touch” policy, in which writers report a story from afar and then travel to the scene to scoop up a dateline. (It’s his most damning description of Times’ practices.) After a series of “toe-touches,” Blair gives in to a greater crime: the “dateline no-touch” policy, in which he submits datelines from cities he never visited.
Page 264: Blair offers a new excuse for his inventions. He was do-gooding. He had visited a man in prison, taught at an inner-city school, and visited his girlfriend’s childhood weekend home in Morris, N.Y. Also, he was tired.
Blair as Addict
Page 165: Blair admits to spending between $500 and $1,000 per week on cocaine. When he needs money, he sells his stash at a profit to fellow “coke fiends” at the Times. He declares, “Call her by any name: Star-Spangled Powder, the All-American drug, blow, bouncing powder, or Carrie—cocaine was the woman for me.”
Page 199: A cocaine dealer gulls Blair into paying $500 for white powder that turns out to be Alka-Seltzer. Blair snorts it anyway.
Page 202: Blair says that he “performed, or received, a sexual favor for drugs.” He offers few details as to the former.
Blair as Mental Patient
Page 20: His deceits exposed, Blair contemplates suicide in the bathroom of a Greenwich Village cafe: “In a quick flash, I saw an image of myself hanging from the door hinge, the life gone out of me, the pain dissipated.” He takes off his belt and wraps it around his neck. Then he remembers his girlfriend, a Times staffer named Zuza Glowacka, and changes his mind.
Page 31: Blair checks into the Silver Hill Hospital, surrendering his belt and shoelaces at the door.
Page 265: Blair locks himself in his apartment and begins hearing voices. “My mind was again racing, wild thoughts speeding through, and for the first time came the sounds, the noises, that would wake me up at night only to disappear soon after.”
Page 257: Blair strolls through the Times newsroom wearing a Persian head wrap and fake fur, with a Kermit the Frog doll balancing on one shoulder. He says later, “Perhaps I was crying out for attention.”
Blair as Literary Antihero
Page 45: Blair begins reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and fancies himself as the protagonist.
Page 176: On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, Blair’s friend reads aloud from E.B. White’s Here Is New York. Blair writes, “I was still not prepared for the possibility of annihilation.”
Page 180: Shaken by the terror attacks, Blair invites a Times staffer back to his hotel room. She reads him passages from The Hobbit until he falls asleep.
Page 225: A romantic evening for Jayson and his girlfriend Zuza: “We would spend late nights reading Emerson and Dostoyevsky, and talking about race relations and the immigrant experience.”
Page 228: Blair tells Zuza that he loves her. She responds by reciting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Page 282: Blair picks up a copy of David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, then passes out for hours.
Page 286: Blair turns to Edgar Allan Poe in order to elucidate his own deterioration—”Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence …”
Page 287: The Italianate Blair. His mood swings, he tells us, were “the closest I felt to the ferry ride in Dante’s Inferno, with its ‘endless night, fierce fires and sharmming cold’; with its delusions, its grandiosity, the hallucinations and horrid images and thoughts, all seemingly conspiring, for me, and against me, intertwined, at the same time.”
Blair as Gary Coleman
Page 22: Blair meets the actor Gary Coleman.
Page 183: Blair rejects Coleman: “People often make some version of this mistake when they meet me. … They think I am ’Webster’ or Gary Coleman, and that I will just laugh at their stupid jokes as they drive their trucks over me. I was never a doormat. I was never passive-aggressive. I was straight-up aggressive, if anything.”
Blair as Crusader for Racial Justice
Page 12: On Gerald Boyd—”As the first black managing editor of the paper, Gerald always seemed to me take a special interest in not promoting the careers of minorities over others in the newsroom in order to protect his standing. … I had watched him devour the careers of more blacks than he saved.”
Page 15: Blair dislikes the Times Book Review. After the sectionpans a black colleague’s book, Blair says, “I guess you can’t write a book that talks about the foul odor of white people when they are wet and expect a good review in the Times.”
Page 123: Blair raises hell about the Times’ coverage of the Puffy Combs trial, after a story draft refers to Combs’ lawyers as “gangstas in suits.”
Blair as Media Critic
Page 136: Blair reels off some blind gossip items about Times employees. The most intriguing: “the correspondent who was caught by the Secret Service having sex with a White House press aide in the bathroom on Air Force One.”
Page 136-38: Blair says public relations officers will trade sex for mentions in Times news stories. Blair himself takes home a 23-year-old flack from an Internet company. At a critical moment in the evening, she asks him for a favor. Her company’s name winds up in many of Blair’s stories.
Page 216: The Gray Lady’s Sept. 11 coverage wins multiple Pulitzers. Blair is disgusted by the paper’s award-trolling and refuses to attend the gala celebration. “I wonder whether they ignored the blood on those Pulitzers as they danced the night away,” he writes.
Page 289: Blair says the Pentagon’s heroic story about Jessica Lynch was “as fake as anything I had ever written.” He neglects to mention that his own Jessica Lynch stories, filled with phony details and lies, were as fake anything he had ever written, too.