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The Jewish Klansman and the Evangelical

The wild life of McCandlish Phillips and his most famous subject

Adam Chandler
April 10, 2013

Yesterday, the obituary of Times scribe McCandlish Phillips ran with the headline “McCandlish Phillips, Who Exposed a Jewish Klansman, Is Dead at 85.”

Phillips’ whole story is fascinating; I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to share a newsroom with the likes of Gay Talese and David Halberstam and still be considered the most stylistically distinct person in the room. That Phillips was an evangelical Christian only adds to the mystique and perhaps, with a certain connective fervor, led him to his most famous subject: Daniel Burros, a Jewish member of and recruiter for the Klan and a leader in the American Nazi Party.

Mr. Phillips’s most renowned article appeared on Page 1 on Sunday, Oct. 31, 1965, under the headline “State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origin.” It was a rigorously reported profile of Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon of the New York State Ku Klux Klan, a chief organizer of the national Klan and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party.

Mr. Burros, the article went on to document, was also a Jew — a former Hebrew school student who had been bar mitzvahed at 13.

The article remains a case study in a reporter’s perseverance in the face of intimidation. It is also a case study in the severe, unintended consequences that the airing of fiercely guarded truths can have for the guardian: despite threatening to kill Mr. Phillips if the article went to press, Mr. Burros, in the end, killed only himself.

Daniel Burros fits one of those oft-mythologized patterns of illness and instability. High IQ (154), failed to acculturate, rejected from West Point, thrown out of the army, heavy paranoia, high temper. In a profile of Burros in the Jewish Press, it was said that Burros used to bring knishes to the Nazi Party meetings and trumpeted their virtue as Jewish food. According to legend, Burros was listening to Richard Wagner when he killed himself.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.