The world lost one of its most optimistic souls this month, 64-year-old David Applefield. David was a wanderer in the modern Jewish tradition – mythical, timeless, endlessly in motion, driven to the path least traveled. His friendship was one of the great gifts in my life.
I met David in Oslo in December of 2011, in the lead-up to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was given jointly that year to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee – also from Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The citation recognized “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
I was accompanying Johnson Sirleaf as her long-time advisor. David was on assignment for the Financial Times, which had printed a special commemorative section for the occasion, bound with an embossed golden seal.
David was the special representative for the FT for the Middle East and Africa, a job he had held for more than a decade. These pull-out reports were the bread and butter of the paper, and for David, his ticket to travel, sometimes to the most remote parts of the world, and often to Africa.
David didn’t seek the glory of a reporter’s byline, the urge to glimpse his name in print day after day. That was a job he could have easily claimed, given his extensive writing and publishing credentials. Instead he chose the freedom that permitted him to pursue his ceaseless curiosity for new countries, cultures, people, places, food, wine, art, friendships, you name it — all on his own terms.
David was born in New Jersey and educated in the United States before he left on an adventure to Paris where he remained for the next 35 years. He did anything and everything: studied, taught, wrote, authored, published, consulted and fundraised.
In Paris, he married his beloved Julia Alvarez. They had three children – Alexandre, Anna and Ernesto.
David’s was a romantic life, in the spirit of the American expatriate writers who ventured to Paris before him – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and more who went abroad to become better listeners, astute observers and master storytellers.
David had many clients over those years, from newspapers to the U.S. government, African heads of states, and corporate executives. But he avoided conventional jobs, maintained a fierce independence in his work, and never stuck himself in an office.
He chose to travel light. In that way, there would be no reprimand when he suddenly decided to take a field trip to a village in Sierra Leone to arrange for seven children to travel to France for cardiac surgery to fix a hole in their hearts; or to deliver to Guinea Bissau its first operable fire engine, courtesy of a Massachusetts fire department that met with David’s persuasive activism.
It was in the lobby of the Oslo Grand Hotel where I first encountered David, passing out his FT commemorative to anyone and everyone he could corner. Although it was sub-zero outside in the Nordic winter, his button-down shirt was drenched in sweat. His tousled hair, round glasses, constant smile and childlike exuberance reminded me of the character Tom Hanks played in the movie Big, where a 13-year-old boy gains an adult body but keeps his adolescent mind.
After that first encounter, I couldn’t lose David. And I tried. He was everywhere, like a bad date who you keep running into — at the Nobel pre-press conference, the ceremony at City Hall, on the balcony of the hotel for a candle-lighting, and at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I managed to finally ditch him when we both attempted to crash the banquet of the Nobel Laureates hosted by the Royal Family. Neither of us had an invitation for this ultra-exclusive event. David tried the journalist trick. “I just need to take one picture, and I am out.” It didn’t work. I was a bit more creative. “I have to bring Madam President her speech, please.” I got in.
But once I was inside the ballroom, with all the splendor and majesty, the elegant dresses and multitude of tuxedos, I felt bad that I had abandoned David, this curiosity-of-a-person I barely knew. I left before the formal remarks and went to find him.That’s when I let down my barriers, the ones we put up to avoid taking on the burden of other people’s stories. I opened myself up to the beautiful soul that is David.
Then David introduced me to his mother, Janet, a Holocaust survivor, from Nowy Targ, Poland, who managed to stay alive when so many others perished. She had the help of good Samaritans and the wits and resiliency of a young child. After the war, she left for the Unites States where she married, had three children – David, Deb and Jon – and dedicated her life to educating American students about the Holocaust.
David was so proud of his mom. But I knew well that the pride David held for her came with a self-imposed burden – to make worthy her suffering and sacrifice. This was because my grandmother, Manja Pakter Kroner, was a Holocaust refugee from Berlin, and I too lived to make her proud. She has been the voice inside my head since her death in 1987.
David and I soon became good friends, and partners in many projects and adventures. I could be found schlepping his FT Special Reports around the world. David and I shared a passion for Africa, where he first visited in the early 1990s. David found inspiration on the continent – “so much hope and potential,” he would tell me. I lost count of the many partnerships, projects and initiatives he supported there.
In 2014, after two dozen publishers had turned down my memoir, David agreed to take it on, with his one-man publishing house, Kiwai Media, and his good friend, playwright John Strand, as my editor. The book, Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President was released in May 2016 and earned high acclaim.
Through David I learned to channel my grandmother’s wisdom into my writing, to deliberately access the voice inside my head, the voice I turned to for solace and direction. In doing so, he set me free.
In 2019, David moved back to his native New Jersey to challenge the Republican incumbent for New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District. After decades of trying to change the world, he wanted to come home to address the political dysfunction that had become his America. He felt an urgency, and no one could talk him out of it, including me. And he had the adventure of his life.
The day after losing the Democratic primary, David passed away while shooting baskets with his eldest son Alexandre in Red Bank, New Jersey. We lost him much too soon, still so full of that boyish exuberance. But I take comfort in knowing that if he had chosen to write a novel based on his remarkable, eclectic life, that he might just have conceived such a poetic close for his unforgettable main character.
K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson
Former colleagues of David’s who shared comments
David was my friend and one of the best and smartest partners I ever had. I will miss him forever.
– Mark Furlong, Forbes Media
David was an inspiration to us all. The passion he put into each and everyone of his projects is already dearly missed by myself and the rest of the Concordia community.
– Matthew Swift, President and CEO, Concordia
This is truly a tragic loss for many – especially in Africa.
– Rose Whitaker, President and CEO of The Whitaker Group