Columbia Journalism School Announces 2022 Tony Horwitz Fellow

August 24, 2022

Columbia Journalism School is pleased to announce the 2022 Tony Horwitz Fellow, Robert W. Fieseler, ‘13 M.S.

Fieseler is a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association "Journalist of the Year" and the acclaimed debut author of Tinderbox – winner of the Edgar Award and the Louisiana Literary Award, shortlisted for the Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Fieseler is presently working on his second queer history book, a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. He graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia Journalism School in 2013 and was awarded the Alumni Award in 2021. He lives with his husband and two kittens in New Orleans.

His Fellowship project, “One Dead in Fort Meth,” is a feature story about a transient clubhouse and low-level drug market called Fort Meth, which sprang from the ruins of a New Orleans furniture store called Frankie and Johnnie's. For decades, Frankie and Johnnie's enjoyed local renown--powered by Italian pitchman Frankie Tripani’s “Furniture Magic” and his “Special Man” financier’s adage to all customers, “Let‘em have it with no problems!” For New Orleanians recently bankrupt or on welfare, Frankie offered something for nothing, a fantastical world in which $50 down could furnish an entire home through store credit. Frankie died in 2012. The business shuttered. Today, its former building is a three-story, 31,000 square foot structure in and around which a rotating band of more than 50 intravenous drug users and indigent persons live and eat and make love and engage in turf warfare. 

“It’s the Third-World-ification of the United States,” said neighbor Skylar Fein. “I don’t know another way to say it that’s politically correct, but I feel that the building is a kind of hole in the ground through which the Third World is pouring.” On July 16, 2020, emergency units pulled the naked, rotting remains of a young man from the structure. But it wasn’t until 2021 that the body was identified through DNA as that of 23-year-old Nicholas “Wolf” Sperry--a proverbial lost boy from upstate New York known, in the end, only by his street moniker. Oddly, Fort Meth and its environs still seem riddled with the curse of Something for Nothing. The furniture store, which once offered that American promise, ceded it to the unhoused residents, who transcend their lives another way. “One Dead in Fort Meth” will explore this true story of decay--a picture of American downfall not in the future but today.

The fellowship honors the late Tony Horwitz (1958-2019), a 1983 graduate of the Master of Science Program who won the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting in 1995 while at The Wall Street Journal and authored more than a half dozen books including the New York Times Best Sellers "Confederates in the Attic," "Blue Latitudes," "Baghdad Without a Map" and "A Voyage Long and Strange." In its second year, the fellowship is open to Journalism School graduates from the last ten years and supports reporting projects “that bridge divides and promote equality and understanding.”

See here for more information on the Tony Horwitz Fellowship.