Michael Arkus, Reuters legend
Wednesday 3 August 2022
Michael Arkus was never happier than when he was travelling, playing with grandchildren, using his photographic memory to absorb a new language and beginning a career as Fidel Castro’s favourite gringo.
Michael and I met in the Fleet Street newsroom in 1969. I visited him during a trip to Israel and met Rivka Schreiber, who later became his wife. In his usual manner, he complained of Israeli authorities as we ate our way through Tel Aviv.
He spent from 1960 to 2002 at Reuters - in Cuba, France, Israel, Brazil, New York and elsewhere - but never fitted into the bureaucracy. In New York, he parsed copy, criticised colleagues as a quality control editor and angered management, whom he called an “unearned authority.” He was fired.
Joan Gralla, then on the financial desk, had high praise for his work. “Sitting quietly behind his terminal in his blue jeans and often a slightly rumpled T-shirt, Arkus was doubtless the sole individual to ever read the entire file - every day. Mike’s integrity was limitless - just like his laser-like ability to nearly instantly see where a story fell down.”
Well before his departure, Michael did not endear himself to Reuters. In 1994, he wrote a series of stories on Singapore’s caning of an American teenager. He wrote of the physical effects of the beating and quoted local newspapers reporting “pieces of skin and flesh fly at each stroke.” Reuters was not amused but Michael did not stop. Although he would not admit it, I wondered if he thought of his then young son Danny.
After he left Reuters, I was bureau chief at the United Nations and helped him get some work in the UN public information department. Never to ignore us, he said: ”What are you writing? What does it mean? Why are they doing this?” As soon as he could he resumed travel.
He once told the Huffington Post he had visited 276 of the 321 countries and territories listed worldwide by the Travelers' Century Club. Some of his adventures can be read here https://muckrack.com/mike-arkus/articles.
Michael’s book, Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, covers the 1960s at the height of the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro has disappeared. The word is out: find Fidel. Michael, on his first solo posting, is pursuing his daily practice of decamping to the beach where he bumps into Fidel. They talk, they swim and Michael has a SCOOP. From pitfalls to pratfalls, Michael navigates an island he calls part tropical Monty Python, part Kafka. Some evenings are spent with diplomats, complete with party games, toga parties, and liquor heists at the British ambassador's residence.
Michael liked to understand what people were saying. He was fluent in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew and studied Greek and Latin at Oxford University. In fact, Rivka once said he sounded like King David when he first spoke Hebrew in Israel. Along the way he taught himself some Serbo-Croatian and Turkish.
He lived in Manhattan with two children: Natalie, 41, the mother of four, who holds a doctorate at Harvard in mathematical biology; Daniel (Danny), 40, father of two, a business consultant and graduate of St Andrews University. Visiting their apartment, I was astounded at the number of dogs and cats, some living on a balcony. Rivka picked up stray cats from around the world. Their apartment now has only one dog and nine cats, Danny says.
Michael felt close to long-time Reuter journalist, Brian “Digger” Williams and visited him and wife Aliki in Athens. After Digger died in 2015, Mike arranged a touching farewell and Aliki came to New York and stayed with me. So we haggled. I wanted elegant sandwiches at the memorial and Michael said I was over the top.
Danny Arkus said that while his Dad was treated for cancer over the past five years he was “able to do the things he loved - travel and spend time with his grandkids.”
Miss you Michael.
You were a legend in our time. ■