fb-pixel

Robert Levey, whose Globe reporting ranged from racial inequities to restaurants, dies at 81

Upon retiring from the Globe in 1992, Mr. Levey noted that during a 30-year Globe career he had been “an education reporter, a magazine editor, a lifestyle reporter, a national roving reporter, and a restaurant critic.”
Upon retiring from the Globe in 1992, Mr. Levey noted that during a 30-year Globe career he had been “an education reporter, a magazine editor, a lifestyle reporter, a national roving reporter, and a restaurant critic.”

When Robert Levey arrived in the Globe’s newsroom in 1962 after a couple of years as a Holyoke newspaper reporter, he found a Boston school system rife with inequities for poor children and students of color.

There was no shortage of racism in the Globe’s newsroom, too, he wrote in a 1982 first-person piece, recalling “how stunned I was when veteran reporters from the Globe, Herald, and Record would hear of a violent death” and first call police to ask the race of the person who had died. Black people “aren’t news,” he was told by the reporters, who used the n-word instead.

Advertisement



Mr. Levey, who lived in Brookline and was 81 when he died June 23 of complications following a series of strokes, won awards for a series he wrote about Boston’s troubled school system in 1964 — a decade before a federal judge ordered the city to use busing to desegregate its schools.

In a 1967 article under the headline “School integration still largely a myth,” Mr. Levey wrote that “if the nation were capable of casting aside its collective blinders for a moment,” everyone would realize that Black children were enduring “a segregated education and are being damaged by it in ways that defy reclamation.”

“Bob said what he saw,” recalled his wife, Ellen Goodman, a former Globe columnist and an author. “He said what he saw when he covered civil rights for the Globe, and he said what he saw when he covered food for the Globe. That’s who he was.”

Upon retiring in 1992, Mr. Levey noted that during a 30-year Globe career he had been “an education reporter, a magazine editor, a lifestyle reporter, a national roving reporter, and a restaurant critic.”

Among the accolades the Globe Sunday Magazine received while he was editor was a national award for an article about a 12-year-old Black girl from Dorchester whose disappearance and murder public agencies had treated with indifference.

Advertisement



Mr. Levey achieved a different kind of prominence in his last job at the Globe, as the restaurant critic “at a time when Boston cuisine was really starting to come out of the dark ages,” said Benjamin Taylor, a former Globe publisher and longtime friend. “He celebrated food and wine in a really fun and friendly and intelligent way that I think raised the standards of restaurants in Boston.”

But persuading colleagues “that the Eating Beat has had its difficult aspects” turned out to be a tough sell, Mr. Levey wrote in 1992.

Aside from the perhaps inevitable weight gain, he faced quandaries ordinary diners never consider.

“I won’t miss the nightmare of deciding how many stars to award the restaurant I was rating,” he wrote. “In the darkness of the night I would actually torment myself with the sometimes bewildering question: ‘Is it 2½ or 3 stars?’ "

Mr. Levey was so adept at recounting anecdotes that “on golf trips, people would think up funny stories and jokes to tell, and they would whisper them to Bob to tell them because he told them better than anybody else,” said Robert Turner, a former deputy editor of the Globe’s editorial pages and op-ed columnist.

An able singer who played guitar and piano, Mr. Levey seemed to have “this great metronome inside his head that good musicians and comics have,” said John Koch, a former Globe arts editor. “He would wait a beat and deliver the punchline, and you’d be on the floor.”

Advertisement



Robert Levey was born on Feb. 15, 1939, and grew up in Winthrop and Brookline, graduating from Brookline High School.

His father, Maurice Levey, was a printer in Boston, and his mother, Dora Seckman, was a homemaker.

Mr. Levey attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst and left before graduating, beginning his reporting career at the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram.

After moving to the Globe, he covered schools and civil rights in his early years, including standing not far from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963. At the end of the decade, Mr. Levey was a Nieman Fellow.

In Boston, however, his reporting that featured Boston’s Black leaders, such as Thomas Atkins, Kenneth Guscott, and Paul Parks, sometimes “struck some of my white colleagues as suspect,” he wrote in 1982. " ‘Which side was I on,’ they seemed to say.”

Occasionally, he found racist notes in his mailbox, which “was depressing,” he added. “I spoke up a bit about it, but didn’t get anywhere.”

Mr. Levey’s first marriage ended in divorce.

“Throughout all the years and all the changes, he really was a steadfast and loving presence always,” said his daughter, Jennifer DeCristoforo of Yarmouth, Maine.

He and Goodman married in 1982. They had attended Brookline High together, but were in different classes then.

Advertisement



In 1991, Mr. Levey’s 30-year-old son, Gregory, died in Amherst after setting himself afire in a protest, leaving his driver’s license taped to a nearby sign that was inscribed with the word “peace.”

The tragedy “colored the whole rest of his life,” said Turner, his colleague and close friend.

Mr. Levey “was always very empathetic. Tremendously empathetic,” said Goodman, who added that he “had an unusual capacity for honesty and friendship.”

“He insisted on candor and integrity of communication,” said Steve Crosby, a friend for decades and a traveling companion who formerly chaired the state Gaming Commission.

“Bob was the kind of friend who you could go to anytime about anything,” added Crosby, a former dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “He was at once tremendously vulnerable and open and blunt and courageous about his own issues or his friends'.”

Mr. Levey was honest when writing about himself, too.

As the Globe’s restaurant critic for eight years, his only act of deception was disguising his identity so chefs wouldn’t lavish special attention on his meal. Now and then to his consternation, a dining companion would accidentally blurt out his name.

That wasn’t the biggest challenge of eating for a living, though.

“Until you are a full-time restaurant reviewer, you will never face the uncomfortable logic of having to go out to a restaurant tonight whether you like it or not,” he wrote when he retired. “Nor can the amateur relate to the concept of feeling that you are constantly behind in your eating. So it is with some relief that I come to the moment when it is time to hang up the fork. "

Advertisement



A memorial service will be announced for Mr. Levey, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves a stepdaughter, Katie Goodman of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a brother, Norman of Durham, N.H.; a granddaughter; and a step-grandson.

Along with his love of family and of music — particularly performances, compositions, and songs by Chet Baker, Mozart, and James Taylor — Mr. Levey loved visiting Chebeague Island in Maine, “where he was a friend and neighbor of lobstermen and fishermen,” Crosby said.

Mr. Levey also “quite adored” his grandchildren, Cloe and Logan, Goodman said.

As Mr. Levey’s health was failing, he knew his granddaughter, who also is a writer, would be heading to college.

“Bob’s daughter, Jenny, said, ‘Bob, tell Cloe what’s the most important thing about being a good writer,’ " Goodman recalled. “Bob said, clear as a bell, ‘Tell the truth.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.