T.D. Allman, Assertive Globe-Trotting Journalist, Dies at 79

T.D. Allman, a free-spirited journalist who challenged American mythmaking in pointed, personal reporting over five decades on topics as varied as the Vietnam War and contemporary Florida, died on May 12 in Manhattan. He was 79.

His death, in a hospital, was caused by pneumonia, his partner, Chengzhong Sui, said.

In March 1970, as a 25-year-old freelance journalist, Mr. Allman, accompanied by two other reporters, walked 15 miles over the mountains in Laos to report for The New York Times about Long Cheng, a secret C.I.A. base that was being used to fight the communist Pathet Lao revolutionaries and their allies, the North Vietnamese.

“At the end of the paved runway were three Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopters,” Mr. Allman reported. “Their presence is believed to be one of the reasons the United States tries to keep Long Cheng secret. The Jolly Green Giants are regarded as proof that the United States bombs not just the Ho Chi Minh Trail but northeastern Laos as well.”

Those words were typical of a style in which Mr. Allman, in colorful reporting from all over the globe — for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Esquire, National Geographic and other publications — combined close observation with sharp conclusions that often pointed the finger at U.S. misdeeds or at others abusing power.

His career took off after he made specialties of reporting in Laos and Cambodia toward the end of the Vietnam War, stringing for The Times and The Washington Post from the war’s peripheries and reporting on American bombing raids that killed peasants and destroyed rice paddies but that had no military import.

A dispatch for Time magazine on a massacre by U.S.-allied Cambodian government troops made it into a Library of America’s “Reporting Vietnam” volume. In The New York Review of Books in 1970, Noam Chomsky, always partial to engaged reporting, called Mr. Allman “one of the most knowledgeable and enterprising of the American correspondents now in Cambodia.” In 1989, Harrison E. Salisbury, a renowned Times war correspondent, called Mr. Allman “bold and brassy” and “remarkable.”

Mr. Allman would go on to ride in the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s small plane across the desert, watch the Soviet president Boris Yeltsin strip in front of a crowd in Siberia, meet the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in his bunker, trek with farm laborers dodging death squads in El Salvador and, in April 1989, witness the uprising in Tiananmen Square in Beijing from his hotel balcony.

He could exasperate editors with his strongly held opinions and his prodigal ways with an expense account. But he brought back reports that were observed and felt.

“Tim was good on the ground in dodgy republics as he covered their leaders like Arafat, Sihanouk and Qaddafi,” the former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter recalled in an email, referring to Norodom Sihanouk, the former king and prime minister of Cambodia. “He spent a good amount of time in Haiti, at which point we worried that we had lost him to the spirits down there. Regardless of the hardships, he always returned with rich, operatic epics that were memorable. And expensive.”

Mr. Allman had a second career as a book writer, focusing on American foreign policy and on Florida, where he was born. Here the reviews were mixed, with critics sometimes citing him for overwriting.

Reviewing his book “Miami: City of the Future” in The Times in 1987, the critic Michiko Kakutani noted that his writing could be “portentous and melodramatic” at times but wrote: “It is in the passages grounded in the specifics of reportage and history that ‘Miami’ proves most illuminating. Mr. Allman introduces us to an eclectic gallery of Miami personages.”

The Central Europe scholar Timothy Garton Ash, however, was dismissive of Mr. Allman’s 1984 diatribe against American foreign policy, “Unmanifest Destiny,” calling it “fat, rambling and passionate” and “an exercise in American self-flagellation.”

And Mr. Allman’s 2013 history of Florida, “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State,” which set out to puncture myths Floridians tell themselves about the ugly racial and economic history of their state — from massacres of Native Americans to white supremacy to sleazy land grabs — was vigorously attacked by Florida boosters.

Mr. Allman explained his approach to an interviewer: “I never go into a story with preconceived notions. Whether it was Laos, where my career started, whether it was Miami, Colombia or the Middle East. I just go and experience the place. This is how I operate.”

That practice was in evidence in a March 1981 cover article for Harper’s Magazine about repression and insurgency in El Salvador at the height of U.S. support for the far-right regime there. Mr. Allman allowed his sensibilities to guide his reporting, opening himself to what he saw and heard, to evocative effect.

“However diligently one searched for significance,” he wrote, “one found only terrorized, hapless people — abused, barefoot women with no food or medicine for their malnourished children; landless, jobless, illiterate men and boys fleeing for their lives from the ‘security forces’ of their own national government; mutilated bodies beside the road.”

When he suddenly encountered the peasant insurgents he had been seeking, he wrote, “The rustling of the trees became a rustling apart from the trees.”

There were many other such situations in which Mr. Allman blithely put himself in harm’s way.

“I admired him for his courage and his quick tongue,” Jonathan Randal, a former Washington Post correspondent, said in an email, describing Mr. Allman as “funny, irreverent, insightful, opinionated.”

“He cultivated a kind of foppish screwball persona to go along with his acerbic pen.” Mr. Randal said.

Timothy Damien Allman was born on Oct. 16, 1944, in Tampa, Fla., to Paul J. Allman, a U.S. Coast Guard officer and later an instructor at a maritime school, and Felicia (Edmonds) Allman, an antiques dealer. He was 5 when the family moved to Glen Mills, Pa., where Mr. Allman grew up and attended schools.

He attended Harvard College, where he “didn’t do anything but smoking, drinking and writing, and didn’t learn anything,” his partner, Mr. Sui, recalled him saying.

After graduating in 1966, he joined the Peace Corps largely to escape the draft. Mr. Allman was assigned to a village in Nepal, which was his initiation into a world of “hardship and suffering” that he had known nothing about, having grown up as a “middle-class American,” Mr. Sui said.

With the Vietnam War still raging when Mr. Allman left the Peace Corps, he was hired by an English-language newspaper in Bangkok. American reporters noticed him, Mr. Sui said, and his career was launched.

He was proud of that period in Indochina, Mr. Sui said, where “he went into the killing fields in a jeep” and saw “people buried alive.”

Mr. Allman went on to report from more than 80 countries. His last project was “In France Profound: The Long History of a House, a Mountain Town, and a People,” a book to be published in August about his house in the southwest of France, the village in which it is situated and the deep connections he discovered there with France’s immemorial past.

In addition to Mr. Sui, who met Mr. Allman more than 20 years ago while Mr. Sui was completing a Ph.D. at Columbia University, Mr. Allman is survived by a brother, Stephen, and a sister, Pamela Allman. He lived in France and New York.

“He was a man of tremendous courage,” Mr. Sui said. “He would definitely face it. T.D. doesn’t yield. He’s not a negotiator. And he had the best charm.”

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