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Writer Remembered

Gloversville native Persico’s work, friendship recalled

Author died Saturday at 84

Thursday, September 4, 2014
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Joseph E. Persico, a Gloversville native and noted historian and author, died Saturday at age 84.
Joseph E. Persico, a Gloversville native and noted historian and author, died Saturday at age 84.

At a glance

A look at Joe Persico’s major works:

2013: "Roosevelt’s Centurions"

2008: "Franklin and Lucy"

2004: "Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour"

2001: "Roosevelt’s Secret War"

1995: "My American Journey: Colin Powell"

1994: "Nuremburg: Infamy on Trial"

1990: "Casey: From the OSS to the CIA"

1988: "Edward R. Murrow: An American Original"

1982: "The Imperial Rockefeller"

1977: "My Enemy, My Brother"

— Colin Powell didn’t need a second meeting. As soon as he and Joseph Persico shook hands for the first time, something told the general he had found his man.

“We had gone through numerous candidates and no one had clicked,” said the former U.S. secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was looking for a collaborator to write his autobiography in 1993. “I was actually getting a bit desperate. Then my agent said, ‘We have one more guy, this Persico guy,’ so I said, ‘OK, let’s meet him.’ Well, we hit it off pretty well. He became my collaborator, and it was one of the best choices I ever made in my life.”

A Gloversville native who split time between homes in Guilderland and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Persico died Saturday at the age of 84. Calling hours will be held tonight from 5 to 7 p.m. at the DeMarco-Stone Funeral Home at 5216 Western Turnpike (Route 20), and Persico will be buried in a private ceremony at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville on Friday.

Along with co-authoring Powell’s autobiography, “My American Journey: Colin Powell,” Persico produced several other biographies and nonfiction books, including “The Imperial Rockefeller,” on former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, “Franklin and Lucy: Mrs. Rutherfurd and the Other Remarkable Women in Roosevelt’s Life,” on U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and “Edward R. Murrow: An American Original,” on the pioneering broadcast journalist. His most recent book, “Roosevelt’s Centurions,” came out last year.

Powell heard of Persico’s death when he returned to his Washington, D.C., home after being away for the holiday weekend.

“I got an email from his wife, Sylvia, and I just had to sit down for a minute and let it rub in,” said Powell, reached at his home Tuesday. “I had just talked to him on the phone a couple of weeks ago so I didn’t expect it. He not only became my collaborator, but also a dear friend. For 21 years we stayed in touch. It’s a great loss.”

Syliva Persico and her husband were at the Glen Sanders Mansion in Scotia for a Sunday brunch just two weeks ago.

“He had been getting a bit weaker and weaker, but it was such a nice day we decided to drive over,” she said. “He loved going there. That was our last big outing. He started going downhill right after that.”

Persico, born in Gloversville on July 19, 1930, graduated from Albany State Teachers College (now the University at Albany) in 1951. He was drafted into the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, worked as a communications officer and eventually landed a job on Rockefeller’s staff. Persico worked with Rockefeller for 11 years, two when the former governor served as vice president under Gerald Ford.

In 1992, when Powell first met Persico, he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush.

“I got up to shake his hand and he wasn’t even looking at me,” remembered Powell. “Here’s this guy, with an old briefcase under his arm, with long hair and wearing a tattered jacket, and he’s walking into the Pentagon into the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he was looking around the room. He was checking out the color, setting the scene as he would write about it later. That impressed me. I thought, ‘this guy knows his business.’ ”

Powell also realized Persico was a good listener.

“We sat down and I told him how I wasn’t writing an expose,” said Powell. “I’m not mad, I’m not trying to get even with people. I could tell Joe understood that.”

Persico’s first book, “My Enemy My Brother,” about the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, came out in 1977, and Persico soon left politics to begin writing books full time. His book on Powell was on the New York Times best seller list for 20 weeks, and he also found success with “Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial,” “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918,” and “Casey: From the OSS to the CIA,” a biography of CIA director William Casey.

William Kennedy, a former Albany Times Union reporter and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his 1983 novel, “Ironweed,” got to know Persico in 1973 when Kennedy was writing an article on Rockefeller for New York Magazine.

“Joe had great access to the real interior workings of the government, including the secret government, and that experience served him very well,” said Kennedy. “He chose fascinating subjects to deal with, men like Murrow and Rockefeller, Powell and Casey, and I think he got that access because he got to the White House when he was working for Rockefeller. He was privileged in certain ways because of that, and that helped him write some wonderful books. He was a very engaging guy, very smart, and we got along very well.”

WAMC president Alan Chartock said he interviewed Persico for the radio station, in the studio, probably more than a half dozen times.

“He was here, on with us many times, and we loved him,” said Chartock. “He was a great and decent human being. He never took on airs, and always acted as if he was amazed at how much we thought of him. He was the kind of guy who got into your heart. When we heard he had died I was very upset.”

Chartock said Persico’s book on Rockefeller was one of his best.

“He knew Rockefeller like he knew the back of his hand,” said Chartock. “It was an incredible book and very insightful. It was loyal; he liked Rockefeller, but it was still very insightful.”

Albany’s Bernard F. Conners, a former FBI agent, author of “Don’t Embarrass the Bureau” and president of British American Corp., was a close friend of Persico for more than 50 years.

“He was an extraordinarily gifted writer, but he was also a charming gentleman, always exceedingly kind and thoughtful to everyone,” said Conners. “I relied on him through the years. He was a true friend, and I shall miss him greatly.”

 
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