For more than 50 years, travel section readers loved Jay Clarke’s crisp, detailed writing about far-flung corners of the world or the unexpected destination just outside their doorways. Leave it to Clarke to expose Florida as a wine-making hub. Who knew that the first wine made in America was produced from native muscadine grapes by French Huguenots near present-day Jacksonville in 1562-64?
Clarke knew and reported as such in just one of the countless stories he filed for the Miami Herald — this one in 2011. He may have retired from his full-time position as the Herald’s travel editor in 1999, but stripping Clarke of his passport to world adventures would have been unthinkable. He still was writing for the paper through November, including a piece on Christmas theme parks in Florida.
“He was the globetrotter of globetrotters,” said Rick Sylvain, a former travel editor at the Detroit Free Press and recently retired public relations executive at Disney World. “There was this Herald guy I knew by his byline reporting from every corner of the globe and he seemed to be in a new locale every week.”
Such dedication made it a treat for other papers, often reliant on wire stories for features, to find just the perfect copy. They would get it from a proud Miami native, born to a French mother and an American FBI father who was in on the raid of gangster Al Capone’s Miami Beach home during the Depression years. So what if Clarke didn’t like seafood, colleagues tease. He was steeped in South Florida, and he was a window for anyone who wanted to see the world.
Clarke, who earned the Marco Polo designation from the Society of American Travel Writers, the association’s highest honor, died Friday at age 88 after battling a heart condition and complications. “Herald travel writing and the Society of American Travel Writers lost a true icon,” Sylvain said. “Jay was a special man, always had a twinkle in his eye.”
Clarke was born Julio (pronounce the J as in jewelery) Marion Dougan Clarke in Jacksonville, on Oct. 6, 1927. The last of four children, Clarke moved with his family to Coral Gables in 1928, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Miami in 1950. His studies were interrupted for the 18 months Clarke served in the U.S. Army in 1946.
Jane Wooldridge, the Herald’s current business editor who served under Clarke as assistant travel editor before succeeding him for the top position, called Clarke “an iconic figure and a mentor to many people.” He was, she said, “known for his extremely kind heart and generosity.”
Clarke elevated the profession of travel writers after he started at the Herald in 1957. He worked through a number of editing positions before becoming the paper’s travel editor in the late 1960s.
“He was really kind of a new breed when he started doing travel journalism,” Wooldridge said. “Travel was not a very journalistic pursuit; it was not dealt with in a serious way. Jay brought a sharp journalistic eye so while he was always trying to be very fair in his assessment of any travel situation, he would also say when something wasn’t up to snuff.”
In Miami, where cruising is one of its major industries, Clarke was the first travel writer to detail its myriad pleasures and sometimes rocky seas.
“Jay was one of those travel writers that you never really knew what he was thinking. Did he like the prime rib, did he not like it? Was he having a good time?” said Tim Gallagher, retired vice president of public relations for Carnival Cruise Lines/Carnival Corp.
That, however, is what made Clarke so skilled at his job.
“I remember on the per-inaugural of the MS Tropicale, the first new ship Carnival ever built and introduced from the Port of Miami in January 1981, we had some neon lights behind plexi [glass] malfunction. There was a lot of smoke but little fire. Nonetheless, Jay rushed to the radio room to file a story via the overseas operator (no SAT phones then). Some of my bosses were not too happy but I said, ‘Hey, these folks are journalists; if they see an event occur that they think may be news we have to expect and respect that they will cover it,’” Gallagher said.
From Clarke’s 2010 feature on European river cruises: Sometimes we sat on deck and watched the passing scenes as our river cruiser, the Viking Spirit, rolled along the Danube past onion-steepled churches, medieval castles and monasteries, hills layered with vineyards, small villages, people of the country at work or at play.
Other times we settled in the cozy, windowed lounge, where we could sip coffee or cocktails and chat with fellow passengers as we sailed. Unlike big ocean-going ships, we were always close to shore — no binoculars needed.
“Jay was the best travel writer in the country. He never wrote travelogues but as a letter to a friend,” said Joseph McManus, a retired Miami city planner, and his teacher wife Barbara McManus. The two world travelers in Boca Raton became close friends with the Clarke family when they lived in Coral Gables. “He provided the personal touch to his writing and he was also an excellent piano player.”
Everyone still talks of Clarke’s joyful romps through jazz standards on the piano at parties, travel industry events or in some hotel lobby in Faraway, U.S.A.
For Clarke, it was all labor built on love. “It was not work for him. Whether he was in a small town in the middle of the U.S. or whether it was as far and wide as you can, Jay genuinely loved travel,” Wooldridge said. As Clarke noted in his bio, he had visited all 50 U.S. states, traveled to all seven continents, visited more than 110 countries, been aboard more than 140 passenger ships, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than 100 times. He had visited France more than 30 times.
“Getting old is not bad when you're young, but when you're already old, it's a bear. Body parts that used to function decide not to work, or at least not to work well. You never took pills before? Now you do, and how!” Clarke wrote in notes he shared with his family. “Still, old age has some rewards. Knowing what life was like in an earlier age, looking back at life's successes, remembering the high spots.”
Said Sylvain: “Jay was the consummate pro, devoted to his craft. He’s seen more of the world than most people see in 10 lifetimes.”
Clarke is survived by his wife Patricia and children Anne, Dougan and Paul; grandchildren Rose Patrice, Grayson and Colton; and his brother Jacques. A memorial Mass will be at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Augustine Church, 1400 Miller Rd., Coral Gables. Donations in Clarke’s honor can be made to the Coral Gables Music Club, St. Augustine Women’s Emmaus and the Miami Archdiocese Council of Catholic Women.
Jay Clarke was the globetrotter of globetrotters…the consummate pro.
Rick Sylvain, retired travel editor at Detroit Free Press and Disney PR executive.