The Man Behind The Story

Narrative Journalism Profiles

Charlie LeDuff sits on a wicker chair on the porch of his small Pleasant Ridge home. His gray cable knit sweater zips at the very top, pointing up towards his black goatee. His nose cuts away from his face, and angles down towards his mustache. His black hair is disheveled, and the wind blows through it as he sips on a brown liquid out of a mason jar. When he smiles, his face stretches over his angular cheekbones and sharp pointing chin — he is a Guy Fawkes look alike, and could very well be plotting a revolution.

On the street, leaves blow up against the fender of his 1972 refurbished Checkered Taxicab that his brother spray-painted matte black. He has been driving it to work for the last twenty years, and it frequents the roads from LeDuff’s home to his current workplace, Fox 2 News Detroit, where he works as a reporter. Somewhere tucked inside his green painted brick house, a Pulitzer Prize has been collecting dust. There is a child’s swing hanging from a tall oak for his daughter, and a black, shining Harley Davidson parked on his front walk. Even though he has moved to the suburbs, he hasn’t become stale. “I don’t get these people,” he says with a shrug.

LeDuff lived most of his life on Joy Road in Detroit. He grew up with a sister, three half brothers, an older stepbrother and an older stepsister, and has gone through a string of three dads. One day, on the notoriously busy street, his brother was hit by a car. “He’s got a curved spine now,” LeDuff says matter-of-factly, “18 degree curve.”

His older stepbrother died of an overdose, and his sister in an accident. “She went off with some strange dude,” he recalls. “He wouldn’t let her out of the car so she jumped out right into a tree. She was a prostitute, a good-time girl, a wild child, ya know, the kind of stuff you paint pictures out of.”

He shrugs off the memory and pulls out a pack of Winston Light 100’s, cups his hand creating a shelter for his lighter, sets the stick aflame, and breathes the tobacco into his lungs. He balances the cigarette between his index and middle finger, and blows a cloud of smoke into the autumn wind.

Despite LeDuff’s aloof, bad-boy attitude, he was a good kid in high school. He had no interest in drugs because of his sister, was the captain of the football and wrestling teams, and a good student. However, in his neighborhood he seemed to be one of the only ones thriving.

“I remember these two fathers on my street killed themselves. One blew his brains out, the other hung himself.” He takes another puff on his cigarette and leans his elbow on his worn jeans. “You try working in a factory. Can’t get the oil out of your skin, you always hear the same Leonard Skynyrd song playing in the same bar you always go to.” He shakes his head dismissively. “It takes a lot for a person to marry their life to a machine.”

After graduation, LeDuff went to the University of Michigan and majored in political science and economics. “I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to be, and I really didn’t give a shit.”

When he was 22, and a Michigan graduate, he decided to travel around the world. New Guinea, Berma, China, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain, England. He worked as a baker in Denmark, a bartender in Australia, and in a cannery in Alaska. “I was writing poetry.” He laughs at what seems to him a ridiculous idea. “I know, I know,” he says, “But the chicks dug it, ya know what I’m saying?”

LeDuff’s first published work was an obituary of a Russian man he knew who had come to America, and overdosed on pills. “He died sitting in front of the TV with his remote control still in his hand,” he laughs. “That’s just so perfect.” LeDuff published the obituary to raise money to send the man’s body home. He got $500 for the story. “He didn’t fly home first class, like he had imagined. He flew home as cargo. At least he got home, though!”

LeDuff met his wife, Amy, at a party in Detroit. She stood up, tripped over the floor, hit the stove, and landed flat on her back. “I was sitting there laughing, thinking, ‘Who is this asshole?’” He tosses his head back and laughs, then throws a fleeting glance towards the house. “Turns out I was the asshole,” he adds with a wink.

Amy moved to Alaska, and LeDuff chased after her. The two built and lived in a tree house, situated on the edge of a beach.  Inside the shack, they had an oil drum to burn wood for warmth. Killer whales swam by in the mornings, and they became fond of a raven living in a nearby tree, naming it Freddy. “Freddy woke us up every morning. Who needs an alarm clock when you’ve got a bird?” Amy worked on a radio show, and LeDuff wrote for Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. “That was the height of it all,” he muses. “If I died tomorrow, you wouldn’t have to cry for me.”

Despite his happiness, LeDuff wasn’t one to be complacent. He began looking for more jobs, and sent in fifteen resumes to different publications around the country. “I didn’t get shit, zero, nothin. Except…” he tries to stifle his laughter, “except from this one little paper they call The New York Times. They were the only people who called me back.” They told LeDuff he was “different” and that they were looking for different. LeDuff tried to act coy, telling the paper that he had a “long line of people” waiting on his response to their job offers, so the Times better get a move on. They then offered him $40,000 plus rent. He laughs sarcastically. “I thought, ‘Well, I believe I will do it, yeah.’”

LeDuff worked at a small desk near the elevator of the Times building in New York City. At first, he felt like a fish out of water. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m a fraud, how did I get this job? Every body is Ivy League, every body speaks different languages…’” But he soon gave up feeling intimidated by such a big job, and decided that he would just write it like he felt it.

One of LeDuff’s first articles for the Times was about a group of transvestite prostitutes living at the end of the pier by West Fourteenth Street. After more investigation, he wrote an article he titled “Shanty Town of the He-She’s”. They went down to shoot pictures for the article and ended up with these “stunning, cat-walk, fashion week style pictures of these trannies who shit in a bucket.”

The article provoked a strong reaction. A neighboring newspaper wrote an article in response to LeDuff’s about the slipping ethics at The New York Times. LeDuff was sitting at his little desk by the elevator when the head boss walked up to him, threw the rival paper’s story down in front of him and said, “Congrats, it took me 20 years to make this column.” LeDuff smiles at the memory with a glimmer of boyhood pride in his eyes. He is not one to do the expected: a fact he is acutely aware and proud of.

LeDuff had continued success at the Times, winning a Pulitzer in 2001 for his work on the series, “How Race is Lived in America”. But after what seemed to the public to be his prime, LeDuff felt as if he was fighting an up-hill battle. He was caught in a small scandal of plagiarism, and his relationship with Jayson Blair, notorious for his plagiarism, added to the suspicion of his work ethics. “I took a graph from another book,” LeDuff says, haphazardly. “I was in a rush. I apologized. And then all my shit came back around.” Investigators went through all of his work, picking apart every sentence to look for other traces of plagiarism: none of which was found. “No one goes to extremes like me, you know,” he leans forward, shaking a bony fist in the air.

Years later, in 2007, LeDuff wrote a satiric article about a Vermont candidate who wanted to secede from the Union. The man was dressed up as Ethan Allen, notorious farmer turned statesman, and on a horse. In the middle of the interview the horse took off and dragged the man through a nearby dump. “I came home, checked my email, and got a message from my boss about how the guy was a loser, and everyone I wrote about were losers. Then told me we needed to talk.” Amy was due to deliver their first child, and LeDuff was fed up with work. “‘You caught me at the damn wrong time,’ I said. ‘I resign!’”

So LeDuff went from international writer to a stay at home dad, changing diapers.  He did a spread in Vogue with his daughter, Claudette, while living in New York City. He decided that the city wasn’t the place he wanted his daughter to grow up. “She’s gonna be wearing a halter top and blue mascara. We gotta go home.” LeDuff’s family moved to a tiny metro Detroit suburb, and he found himself surrounded by stories: “Kwame, the economy, the car companies, boom boom boom, and I was in the middle of the biggest stories in America.” He wrote for two years at the Detroit News and then desired a change of pace.

LeDuff went to work as a reporter for Fox 2 News Detroit, in 2010. His switch from writing to TV was inspired by his resentment towards the plagiarism scandal at the Times. “Let me show you how I work.” LeDuff says with intensity. “People might say, ‘Oh, that’s weird shit man, this guy is crazy.’ But I got a methodology, and I want you to see it.”

His passion for his hometown roots coupled with his desire to report for the people results in hard-hitting, off-beat stories. “He is a very driven individual,” long time friend and photographer Steve Lengmick says. “When it comes to something he believes in, he will pursue it one hundred percent, relentlessly, regardless of the out come, he will go after it.” LeDuff shrugs at the comment, adding, “I’m either the nation, or I’m nobody.”

To many people, some of Charlie’s best attributes can be his worst, too. “He tells it like it is, doesn’t have a filter,” neighbor and co-worker Doug Tracey says. He recounts the first time he met LeDuff — he was wearing a raccoon hat and cowboy boots painted red white and blue. “He’s definitely a throw back from the 60’s or 70’s,” Tracey laughs.

Charlie LeDuff can be found on the pages of magazines and newspapers, and on the screens of televisions, broadcasting a story about a cat burglar with cat ears on his head and whiskers drawn on his face, or running around the streets of Detroit in his underwear pretending to be a bird to find out where all the pigeons have gone. He is willing to do the ridiculous if it means change for the city.

“I would describe myself the same as anyone else would, I suppose.” LeDuff says. “Sometimes I feel strong, sometimes weak, sometimes nervous, sometimes a liar, a phony. Sometimes I feel like a leader, sometimes gifted, sometimes lazy, sometimes safe, and other times I am scared. I feel youthful, I feel old: my bones crack and it scares me. I look at the video and wonder if I am losing my hair. I wonder what happened to that guy who was on top of the world. I wonder what growing old means, and how you are supposed to do it,” he leans back in the chair, sipping from the mason jar. “Sometimes I get scared of death, and sometimes I couldn’t give a shit if I lived another day.”

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