Journalist who covered Clinton White House visits Columbia

By Stephanie Saviola

Author and journalist Nina Burleigh returned to her hometown of Chicago to talk about her career experiences with The Chronicle and several classes at Columbia.

Burleigh recently returned to the United States after spending seven months in Italy doing research for her new book about the Amanda Knox trial. Burleigh is still working on the research portion and once the book is published, it will be her fifth one.

“The research was hard because no one spoke English over there, contrary to belief,” Burleigh said. “I took Italian classes and worked with a translator and I’ve learned what it’s like to work in a country where the concept of  freedom of speech doesn’t exist. They do certainly have legal right to free speech, just not as extensive as ours.”

Burleigh was a Washington correspondent for Time and People magazines during the Clinton administration before transitioning into an author. She spent the first several years of her career as a freelance writer.

“I got lucky,” Burleigh said. “The economy was similar [when I graduated college] to what it is today.”

After years of freelancing, Burleigh was offered a contractual position around the time of former President Bill Clinton’s first election. In Washington, she made a name for herself through several articles regarding Clinton’s personal and political life.

“I learned that there is a point where the rigid rules are bendable, not breakable,” Burleigh continued. “It’s a challenge of personality to get people to talk to you, some people have it, some people don’t.”

Burleigh is a journalist first, but rather than writing hard news stories, she has found a niche with interesting twists and takes on news stories. While working in Washington, Burleigh started  writing a book that would later be published as “A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Mary Meyer.” The book is a biography of the life and controversy surrounding one of John F. Kennedy’s alleged mistresses: Mary

Pinchet Meyer.

“I’ve been really lucky that I have been able to write about things I am interested in,” Burleigh said. “I just follow my curiosity while keeping in mind what the market wants.”

In 2003, Burleigh’s second book was published, “The Stranger and the Statesman,” about philanthropist James Smithson, who founded the series of Smithsonian museums in Washington.

“I thought I was going to write fiction for a long time, so that was pulling me to the side, but I did hope I was going to write books,” she said when asked if this was the career path she had hoped for.

Burleigh was offered a staff position at People Magazine in New York in 2006.

“Nina did freelance work for me 20 years ago when I was an editor at the American Bar Association,” said Stephanie Goldberg, a journalism professor at Columbia. “The story she wrote was part of a package that became a finalist in the Lisagor competition. It was readily apparent that she was uncommonly talented and destined for greater things.”

The writer continues to work on her books, but hopes to get back into news writing and sometimes misses working in Washington.

“I really do like the news business,” Burleigh said. “I’m addicted to it.”

Burleigh is married to photographer Erik Freeland and the pair have two children. When Burleigh was working in Italy, she brought the entire family with her.

“He’s very involved,” Burleigh said. “If he wasn’t, I couldn’t have had children.”

When the author is not working on her books, she teaches a master’s class at Columbia University in New York, where she and her family reside.