Cramer was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. And he worked his ass off. He had the gift and the work ethic, too.

Even before he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Middle East coverage at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979, Richard Ben Cramer (1950–2013) made his presence known. He began his career at the Baltimore Sun in the early ’70s, and in the afterglow of Woodward and Bernstein, an enterprising young reporter could fancy themselves a star—in relative terms, of course. Cramer wasn’t interested in having a radio show or being a talking head on TV. He wanted to be famous for his byline.

In the cloistered world of journalism, Cramer carried himself like a star and nobody really held it against him because of his self-deprecating and generous demeanor—Cramer was nothing if not a real charmer. Cramer wasn’t movie-star handsome, yet women loved him. He was a man of big appetites—thick, rare steaks, full-bodied red wines, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and five cups of black coffee the next morning. He wore linen suits and Panama hats and had the most disarming accent, dese-and-dose guttural, the flat A’s from his native Rochester mixed with an Eastern Shore drawl he picked up during years of reporting in Baltimore.

But underneath all that wooly shit Cramer was an Apollonian kind of dude. He had big ambitions—it’s no wonder his most famous magazine piece was a 15,000-word profile of Ted Williams—aka “the best hitter that ever lived.” In fact, most of his subjects—from President George H. Bush to musician Jerry Lee Lewis—are hugely ambitious men. Go big or go home.

Before turning fully to the world of the glossy magazines, Cramer wrote long pieces for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine, including an immersive profile of an African American family that ran close to 20,000 words. He also profiled senator John Glenn on the campaign trail in 1984.

After Cramer made the leap from newspapers to magazines, he moved on to books. By the time of his death, Cramer had left behind two formidable, satisfying—nonfiction tomes: What It Takes, his exhaustive study of the 1988 presidential campaign; and The Hero’s Life, a tough-minded, unflattering portrait of Joe DiMaggio.

Although the stylistic influence of Tom Wolfe shows up in Cramer’s prose—and these early longform pieces show a writer still not in full command of his talents—his voice is never imitative. Rather, it is a blending of different styles and techniques into something unmistakably his own.

“There’s no difference between the stories he would tell you at dinner and the stories he wrote,” says Tony Barbieri, a colleague from his days in Baltimore. “If you knew Richard and spent any amount of time listening to his stories, when you’re reading that book, you’re hearing his voice.”

Cramer was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. “It was a gift, his ability to interview people,” says Tom Horton, Cramer’s friend and colleague at the Baltimore Sun. “And he worked his ass off too. Nobody is so gifted that people tell them everything right up front. He had the gift and the work ethic in pursuit of the story. He had a huge capacity for listening to people’s stories and talking to people.”

Adds another colleague, Mark Bowden, “He exemplified the respect for the people that he wrote about. He liked people and not in a shallow way—he liked people for who they were even if they were not altogether like him. Even if there were things about them that you wouldn’t encourage in a person. He had an appreciation for humanity, and I think that it came through in his writing. People pick up on that – people realize when you’re genuinely interested in them and not judging them and people warm to you. A lot of Richard’s ability to get close to these people was just that he was a careful observer. He noticed things about them. He would ask better questions than most reporters would ask.

“He would say – I know what makes this person controversial and I know what makes him popular, I know who their backers are and where their money comes from, but what makes them move? What makes them get up in the morning and do this every day? What is the source of that? Where does that motivation come from? What It Takes is a testament to it. I think Richard liked people so much so he would embrace in a way subjects of his reporting and he was more than fair, but he could also be really tough.”

Such was the case with Jerry Lee Lewis, the subject of Cramer’s first freelance magazine piece. It appeared in Rolling Stone in 1984, shortly before his debut in Esquire profiling William Schaefer, the mayor of Baltimore. Both stories featured some of Cramer’s best writing up to that date—he took to the larger canvas of magazines immediately—and launched his post-newspaper career. While the story “Can the Best Mayor Win?” about the eccentric Baltimore mayor Schaeffer rankled Schaeffer and caused a big hullabaloo within the world of Baltimore politics, Cramer’s far tougher story about Lewis—which all but convinces you he is guilty of murdering his wife—barely made a ripple.

At Rolling Stone, it was just another really good piece in a long line of really good pieces. Nobody from the magazine freaked out and the story came and went without any controversy. Lewis—who died in 2022 at the age of 87—certainly didn’t give a shit. But holy smoke, what a story! Cramer’s reporting morphs into a kind of detective story in which we all know who the murderer is—Cramer is sly, funny, and observant. He lets Lewis and his enablers hang themselves, though there is no question where the author’s sympathies lie.

Lewis might not have cared about being exposed so thoroughly by a reporter—he was the kind of egotist beyond such concerns as shame or guilt. Cramer, however, didn’t blink from telling the story before him. There was no premeditative intent on his part to write a hatchet job, but he pulled zero punches in his telling. Cramer showed nerve and moxie in taking on an American legend. But then again, he was a man of grand ambition and why not start with taking on another one of his kind? They are now both gone, but the story still speaks for itself. Beautifully. Make yourself comfortable, you’re in for a wild ride.

—Alex Belth

Richard Ben Cramer 'Portrait' by WBYK

CLICK HERE to purchase a copy of the book, or read an excerpt from the story below.

Was the rock legend’s fifth wife murdered, and did the man known as “the Killer” do it? A literary whodunnit by one of the greats of artful and hard hitting narrative journalism.

The killer was in his bedroom, behind the door of iron bars, as Sonny Daniels, the first ambulance man, moved down the long hall to the guest bedroom to check the report: “Unconscious party at the Jerry Lee Lewis residence.”

Lottie Jackson, the housekeeper, showed Daniels into a spotless room: Gauzy drapes filtered the noonday light; there was nothing on the tables, no clothes strewn about, no dust; just a body on the bed, turned away slightly toward the wall, with the covers drawn up to the neck. Daniels probed with his big, blunt fingers at a slender wrist: it was cold. “It’s Miz Lewis,” Lottie said. “I came in … I couldn’t wake her up …” Daniels already had the covers back, his thick hand on the woman’s neck where the carotid pulse should be: The neck retained its body warmth, but no pulse. Now he bent his pink moon face with its sandy fuzz of first beard over her pale lips: no breath. He checked the eyes. “Her eyes were all dilated. That’s an automatic sign that her brain has done died completely.”

Matthew Snyder, the second ambulance man, had barely finished Emergency Medical Technician school. He was 20, blond, beefy, even younger than Daniels, and just starting with the Hernando, Mississippi, ambulance team. Even rookies knew there wasn’t anything uncommon about a run to Jerry Lee’s to wake up some passed-out person. But Snyder saw there was something uncommonly wrong now, as he caught the look of worry and excitement from Daniels over at the bed. “Go ahead and check her over,” said Daniels, and Snyder restarted the process with the woman’s delicate wrist. He saw, up on her forearm, the row of angry little bruises, like someone had grabbed her hard. He saw the little stain of dried blood on the web of her hand. He shook his head at Daniels: no pulse.

Lottie knew it was wrong too. She was a stolid, hardworking Black woman who’d taken care of Jerry Lee since before he moved down here from Memphis—more than ten years, that made it. She was crying as she moved down the hall and knocked at the door with the iron bars.

The Killer was there within seconds. If he’d been sleeping on the big, canopied bed, he must have been sleeping in his bathrobe. For now, he came into the hall, with the white terry cloth lapels pulled right across his skinny chest, and he looked surprised to find Lottie in tears. Then he looked a silent question into Sonny Daniels’s eyes.

“Mr. Lewis, your wife …” Daniels averred his gaze. He said: “I just checked her over in there …”

Still, he didn’t meet the question in Jerry Lee’s hard eyes. He saw the two bright red scratches on the back of Jerry Lee’s hand, like a cat had gouged him from the wrist to the knuckles. When Daniels looked up at last, his own eyes grew, his whole face seemed to grow larger, rounder, younger.

“Mr. Lewis,” he said. “I’m sorry. Miz Lewis is dead.”

The autopsy that cleared Jerry Lee Lewis called Shawn Michelle Lewis, 25, “a well-developed, well-nourished, white female, measuring sixty-four inches in length, weighing 107 pounds. The hair is brown, the eyes are green …” It hardly did her justice. She was a honey-blonde with a tan, small and full of bounce, with a grin that made everybody smile and had turned male heads since junior high.

“Everybody liked her. She was like the stepchild of the club. Everybody looked out for her,” says Mike DeFour, the manager of DB’s, a fancy nightclub in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dearborn, Michigan, where Shawn Michelle Stephens worked as a cocktail waitress. DeFour treated his waitresses, “the DB’s girls,” like family—he loved them all, took care of them, saw to it that they made good money—even the new girls, like Shawn, who had started part time about four years ago. “Some of the girls I gave nicknames to. Shawn was ‘Little Buzz’ because she was always buzzing around, you know, half buzzed …

“No, not like that. Drugs weren’t a big problem. You know, a hit on a joint or two, no problem. It was around. Or a shot from a bottle of schnapps—OK, I’d look the other way.”

Shawn loved working there. The money was great—sometimes $150 a night. But it wasn’t just that: It was upscale, crowded with people who dressed and threw money around. It was something more for a girl from Garden City, Michigan, a suburb of little boxes built for the autoworkers of the Fifties. There, more was the stuff of dreams.

But somehow, in Garden City, Shawn never seemed to get much more. Her mother’s divorce had only made it harder. Shawn had been in and out of jobs, mostly waitressing, since she graduated in 1975. She dreamed of marrying Scott, her boyfriend, but his parents were strict, and they never thought much of Shawn. So DB’s was fine for the moment—great, in fact. She loved the people. It almost wasn’t like work. The musicians took them to parties after hours—great parties. One DB’s girl, Pam Brewer, took up with J.W. Whitten, the wiry bantam of a road manager for the Jerry Lee Lewis band. Pam flew off to Memphis, and when she came back the next year, she was soon to be Mrs. J.W. Whitten, traveling with the band, flying in Learjets and shopping from a limo! That’s when it happened to Shawn.

Jerry Lee, performing for a week at the Dearborn Hyatt, picked Shawn out from among the girls. Pam Brewer set it up: She told Shawn that Jerry Lee wanted to take her to a party in his suite. It wasn’t like Shawn had been looking for it. In fact, the first time she’d seen Jerry Lee, she’d told her mother: “Mom, he’s a lonely man, and he’s about your age. You ought to come and try to meet him …” Instead, it was Shawn who went. “I always thought Shawn’d be good for Jerry,” says Pam. “She was so cute, petite, and he likes little women. And she was so much fun to be with. I introduced them. I thought she was flexible enough to understand his moods.”

Jerry Lee wasn’t showing his moods the night of that first party. A great party, Shawn told her friends. Actually, it was just a few drinks in his suite. A couple of other women were already up there. Jerry Lee played piano and sang, while Pam’s little Chinese shih tzu dog sat up with him on the stool. Shawn knew she was looking good in her jeans, cowboy boots, and a huggy little white rabbit jacket. And Jerry Lee treated her so nice! He’d turn away from the keyboard as he’d slow down his rhythm for a snatch of a love song. She felt him sing straight to her. It was February 1981. Shawn was 23.

Alex Belth is the editor of Esquire Classic, the magazine’s digital archive, as well as the editor of The Stacks Reader, a website dedicated to preserving great journalism from the Golden Age of magazines. He’s been a contributor to Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, and The Daily Beast, and created Bronx Banter, one of the original New York Yankees blogs, which the Village Voice called a “New York City treasure.” In a previous life, he worked in film post production for the likes of Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers.