On a Saturday evening in May 1992, George Lardner Jr. was at work in the Washington Post newsroom when his telephone rang. An investigative reporter and self-described chronicler of “sin and corruption,” he hurried to his desk to take the call.
It was his daughter Helen, crying as he had never before heard her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, panicking. “What happened?”
“It’s Kristin,” his daughter replied. “She’s been shot . . . and killed.”
“Kristin? My Kristin? Our Kristin?” Mr. Lardner later recalled thinking. “I’d talked to her the afternoon before. Her last words to me were, ‘I love you Dad.’ Suddenly I had trouble breathing myself.”
Mr. Lardner responded to the death of his youngest daughter in the only way he knew how: like an investigative reporter. In the weeks and months after her funeral, he traveled to Boston, where 21-year-old Kristin had been an art student, in a quest to understand the events that led to her murder, in broad daylight on a Boston street, by a troubled and abusive former boyfriend.
The resulting piece of journalism, a 9,000-word account published in The Post’s Outlook commentary section six months after Kristin died, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The citation recognized Mr. Lardner’s “unflinching examination of his daughter’s murder by a violent man who had slipped through the criminal justice system.”
The Pulitzer is the most prestigious prize in journalism. When the award was announced, Mr. Lardner said he would “give anything not to have written” the story that won it.
Mr. Lardner, who retired from The Post in 2004 after devoting four decades to covering events including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the Watergate affair and its aftermath, bank malfeasance and assorted high-profile trials and scandals, died Sept. 21 at a hospice center in Aldie, Va. He was 85. The cause was complications from several strokes, said his daughter Helen Lardner.
Mr. Lardner descended from a long line of writers. A great-uncle was the celebrated humorist Ring Lardner, whose sons included Ring Lardner Jr., the Oscar-winning screenwriter. George Lardner’s father was a golf columnist for outlets including Bell Syndicate.
George Lardner Jr. joined The Post in 1963 and quickly distinguished himself with his determined reporting and elegant writing. He was a junior Metropolitan desk reporter when Kennedy was shot in Dallas and penned an atmospheric piece published two days after the president died.
“A shroud of rain fell over Washington yesterday. It took up where tears had stopped,” the article began before describing a black stole draped over the pew at St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church where Kennedy had prayed and a bereft shoe shiner “mechanically” going about his work.
Kennedy’s death would preoccupy Mr. Lardner for decades as he rose through The Post’s national reporting ranks. He followed his reporting to the National Archives, where he physically examined the shirt and tie Kennedy had worn in Dallas for evidence of the bullet’s trajectory, and investigated theories challenging the “lone gunman” conclusion supported by the 1964 Warren Commission.
During the presidential primaries of 1984, Mr. Lardner unearthed the details that Democratic candidate Gary Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado, was one year older than he had claimed and, also contrary to Hart’s version of the events, that Hart, and not his relatives, had proposed changing his surname to Hart from Hartpence as he set out on his political career. Those revelations helped spur further questions about the credibility of Hart, who ultimately lost the nomination to former vice president Walter Mondale.
“George was the personification of the dogged reporter, and that Gary Hart anecdote to me was always the ultimate example,” Robert G. Kaiser, a former top editor at The Post, said in an interview. “I remember saying, ‘How did you do this, how did you figure this out?’ He said, ‘I just looked up the records.’ ”
Mr. Lardner always said that his account of his daughter’s death, which he later expanded into the book “The Stalking of Kristin” (1995), was the most important story he ever wrote. He set out on the project, he said, when a police lieutenant asked him, “You’re a reporter, aren’t you?”
“I was sort of shame-faced,” Mr. Lardner later recalled. “I only had the vaguest idea what had happened to my own daughter.”
He delved into his daughter’s existence in Boston, finding a self-portrait in which the budding artist depicted bruises on her body, and into the life of her killer, Michael Cartier, who had a long history of violence against animals and women. He interviewed Cartier’s parents and found that his daughter had obtained restraining orders against him.
“The book’s most important lesson is that Kristin did everything right,” journalist and author Tina Rosenberg wrote in a review for the New York Times.
“Mr. Lardner refutes the wide-spread belief that the courts offer effective protection to battered women, and that only women who fail to report domestic violence or drop charges continue to fall victim,” the review continued. “Unlike many battered women, Kristin was educated, sophisticated and free of the need to worry about children, with the time and resources to make the law work for her. Most important, she was a member of the class of people who believe the law when it promises to protect them. ‘The Stalking of Kristin’ reveals the tragic error of that trust.”
Leonard Downie Jr., who was The Post’s executive editor when Mr. Lardner received the Pulitzer, remarked that “the doggedness you saw in that story was not unique to the murder of his daughter. That was George. That was who George was.”
“His Pulitzer Prize,” Donald E. Graham, former publisher and chairman of The Post, wrote in an email, “was the only occasion when such an award was hideously sad. Everyone who knew him at the Post admired him more than we can say.”
George Edmund Lardner Jr. was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 10, 1934. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1956, later continuing his studies there with a master’s degree.
He began his reporting career with the Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts, then worked for the Miami Herald before joining The Post. From 1964 to 1966, he penned the local column Potomac Watch.
He later covered events including the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969 — when U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) drove off a bridge in an accident that killed passenger Mary Jo Kopechne — as well as the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration.
After retiring from The Post, Mr. Lardner was a scholar in residence at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, writing extensively about presidential pardons.
Mr. Lardner’s wife, the former Rosemary Schalk, died in 2007 after five decades of marriage. Survivors include four children, Helen Lardner of Ashburn, Va., Edmund Lardner of Washington, Charles Lardner of Lancaster, Pa., and Richard Lardner of Burke, Va.; a sister; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Lardner said his life was never the same after Kristin’s death and, although it was painful to write about her murder, it was “comforting at the same time.”
“It kept Kristin with me,” he told the Boston Globe. “I still think of her running down the stairs, arms flung out, ready to give me a big hug. I think of our last phone conversation, just the day before she was killed, the one that ended with, ‘I love you, Dad.’ ”