William Claiborne, 77; told world’s stories at The Post

WASHINGTON — Shortly after 4 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1972, the telephone rang at William Claiborne’s home.

There was a crisis at the D.C. jail. Armed inmates had taken 11 guards hostage, and they eventually took D.C. Corrections director Kenneth L. Hardy as an additional captive.

They were demanding freedom. And they wanted Mr. Claiborne, a Washington Post reporter who had written about the city’s corrections system and the prison uprising at Attica, N.Y., as their go-between in negotiating with authorities.


In 10 minutes, a police car was waiting outside his home. Lights flashing, it sped through darkened streets to the massive jail complex near RFK Stadium.

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Through a peephole in a steel door, Mr. Claiborne saw a man holding ‘‘a snub-nosed revolver to a guard’s head,’’ he wrote in the next day’s edition of The Post. ‘‘I was scared.’’

For nine hours, Mr. Claiborne practiced shuttle diplomacy, moving ­between the inmates and law enforcement.

The standoff ended with the hostages being released unharmed in exchange for a promise of amnesty and an opportunity for the inmates to air their grievances before a judge.

In 1975, the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of nine prisoners on charges including ­attempted escape and armed kidnapping. The court found that a note offering amnesty signed by ­Hardy, the corrections official, was invalid because it was coerced.


For his stories about the jail, Mr. Claiborne, who died March 1 at 77 at a hospital in Kew, Australia, made the short list for the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. The articles made his reputation as a courageous journalist whose career would take him all over the world. For 32 years, he was on the Post news staff, but seldom reported from the nation’s capital. ‘‘Life in the home ­office,’’ he once wrote, ‘‘never suited me particularly well.’’

He directed Post bureaus in Toronto, Johannesburg, New Delhi, and Jerusalem and domestic ones in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. He joked of immersing himself so deeply in the Hollywood culture that he began pairing Armani jackets and Mickey Mouse T-shirts and signing off conversations with ‘‘Love ya, babe. Let’s do lunch sometime.’’

But he was a journalistic fireman, a rumpled veteran of conflict zones.

In Lebanon in 1983, colleague William Branigin recalled, Mr. Claiborne interviewed a US Marine whose unit was ­under fire from a Shi’ite Muslim militia post, then made his way across a no-man’s land to interview the Shi’ite militia leader. The result was a page-one story illustrating what Mr. Claiborne described as ‘‘Lebanon’s checkerboard of territorial sovereignty by gun.’’