Written by Robert D. McFadden
Russell Baker, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose whimsical, irreverent “Observer” column appeared in The New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers for 36 years and turned a backwoods-born Virginian into one of America’s most celebrated writers, died Monday at his home in Leesburg, Virginia. He was 93.
The cause was complications from a fall, according to his son Allen Baker.
Baker, along with syndicated columnist Art Buchwald (who died in 2007), was one of the best-known newspaper humorists of his time, and The Washington Post ranked his best-selling autobiography, “Growing Up,” with the most enduring recollections of American boyhood — those of James Thurber, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain.
In a career begun in a rakish fedora and the smoky press rooms of the 1940s, Baker was a police reporter, a rewrite man and a London correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, and, after 1954, a Washington correspondent for The Times, rising swiftly with a clattering typewriter and a deft writer’s touch to cover the White House, Congress and the presidential campaigns of 1956 and 1960.
Then, starting in 1962, he became a columnist for The Times and its news service, eventually composing nearly 5,000 “Observer” commentaries — 3.7 million insightful words on the news of the day — often laced with invented characters and dialogue, on an array of subjects including dreaded Christmas fruitcake and women’s shoulder pads. The columns, which generated a devoted following, critical acclaim and the 1979 Pulitzer for distinguished commentary, ended with his retirement in 1998.
To a generation of television watchers, he was also a familiar face as the host of “Masterpiece Theater” on PBS from 1993 to 2004, having succeeded Alistair Cooke.
Baker wrote 15 books, including many collections of his columns, and “Growing Up,” a 1982 memoir of his Depression-era youth, his inspirational mother and America between the wars. It earned him his second Pulitzer, the 1983 prize for biography. Besides his two Pulitzer Prizes, he won two George Polk Awards, for commentary in 1978 and career achievement in 1998, and many other honors.
After his retirement from The Times, Baker wrote for The New York Review of Books on politics, history, journalism and other subjects. A collection of 11 of those essays, on revered public figures, was published in 2002 under the title “Looking Back.”
Earlier, he wrote for Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal and other publications. From 1985 through 1994, he served on the Columbia University Pulitzer Prize board, selecting winners of the nation’s most prestigious awards in journalism, literature and the arts. He was its chairman in 1993 and 1994.
‘Ballet in a Telephone Booth’
But it was as a columnist that Baker made his name. Based at first in Washington, he recalled that he had to feel his way in the new genre of spoof and jape. “Nobody knew what the column was going to be,” he told writer Nora Ephron. “I didn’t. The Times didn’t.”
But soon he was doing what he called his “ballet in a telephone booth,” creating in the confined space of 750 words satirical dialogues, parodies and burlesques of politicians and the whirling capital circus — then stoking the fires of the anti-war and civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard M. Nixon from office in 1974.
That year, Baker moved from Washington to New York, and his column changed. His topics grew more varied, less tied to news events and more to the trappings of ordinary life. His writing, admirers said, matured into literature: an owlish wit, sometimes surreal, often absurdist, usually scouring dark corridors of paradox, always carried off with a subtext of good sense.
He wrote of Francisco Franco’s dying and going straight to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. In another column, a pseudonymous Sykes tells of awakening one day to find that he has someone else’s feet. Sykes conceals the shame from his wife and colleagues. Doctors are no help. Finally he confides to an editor, who signs him to a three-book contract. The feet become television celebrities. Hollywood wants Sykes’ life story for a Robert Redford movie.
In 1975, after The Times’ food editor and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne reported in gastronomic detail on a $4,000 31-course epicurean repast for two, with wines, in Paris, Baker wrote “Francs and Beans,” describing his own culinary triumph after coming home to find a note in the kitchen saying his wife had gone out.
“The meal opened with a 1975 Diet Pepsi served in a disposable bottle,” he wrote. “Although its bouquet was negligible, its distinct metallic aftertaste evoked memories of tin cans one had licked experimentally in the first flush of childhood’s curiosity.” And on to a “pâté de fruites de nuts of Georgia”: “A half-inch layer of creamy-style peanut butter is troweled onto a graham cracker, then half a banana is crudely diced and pressed firmly into the peanut butter and cemented in place as it were by a second graham cracker.”
Two years later, he conceived “A Taxpayer’s Prayer”:
“O mighty Internal Revenue, who turneth the labor of man to ashes, we thank thee for the multitude of thy forms which thou has set before us and for the infinite confusion of thy commandments which multiplieth the fortunes of lawyer and accountant alike. …”
His targets were legion: the Super Bowl, Miss America, unreadable menus, everything on television, trips with children, the jogging craze, the perils of buying a suit, loneliness and book-of-the-month clubs. He struck poses of despair that resonated with harried readers: of his endless effort to read Proust, of lacking the gene for resisting salesmen, of boredom with dull dirty books.
Stylistically, the “Observer” examined the American scene with plain phrases that echoed Twain as they skewered the pompous. But his voice could be haunting, as in a 1974 column on older poor people in a supermarket: “Staring at 90-cent peanut butter. Taking down an orange, looking for the price, putting it back.”
“Old people at the supermarket are being crushed and nobody is even screaming,” he wrote.
Baker occasionally hammered at uncaring government or big business, but frontal attacks were not his stock in trade. “What Baker does,” Ronald Steel wrote in Geo magazine in 1983, “is punch holes in vast bubbles of pretension, humanize the abstract and connect the present with what one predecessor, Walter Lippmann, once described as the ‘longer past and the larger future.’”
A subversive among the sober editorial voices of The Times, Baker could be tongue-in-cheek one day and melancholy the next, then folksy, anguished, lyrical or acid. He once wrote a Jonathan Swift-like satire on the advantages of public hanging, arguing that a society pleased with capital punishment might do well to cut off thieves’ hands and notch the noses of incurable double parkers.
His column ran on three weekdays a week from 1962 to 1972, then switched to a schedule he likened to the “metronomic” rhythms of “Chinese water torture: Friday Sunday-Tuesday, Friday Sunday-Tuesday.”
After 1988, the column ran on Tuesdays and Saturdays. He cut back to one a week in July 1997 and retired “Observer” on Dec. 25, 1998.
His last column, “A Few Words at the End,” on Christmas, “a day on which nobody reads a newspaper anyhow,” spoke of his love affair with newspapers.
“Thanks to newspapers,” he wrote, “I have made a four-hour visit to Afghanistan, have seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight, breakfasted at dawn on lamb and couscous while sitting by the marble pool of a Moorish palace in Morocco and once picked up a persistent family of fleas in the Balkans.”
Lanky and laconic, Baker was reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s reporter in the 1948 movie “Call Northside 777.” He had a rumpled, tired look, as if he had pored over old court records all night under a dim bulb and come to the prison, still skeptical, to see the wrongly convicted man. Ephron saw him as “extremely low-key, terribly nice, often on the verge of being embarrassed, particularly by praise of any sort.”
He had kindly blue eyes with droopy lids and an unruly thatch of sandy-gray hair that fell over his forehead like a country boy’s. He liked to flop in a chair, put his foot up on a radiator and talk about practically anything. His voice was gravelly but soft, a faded echo of rural Virginia: perfect for the barbed lash or the awful oxymoron.
And he was as devilish in person as in print. A fellow Times columnist, Tom Wicker, recalled that Baker, talking once to college students, was asked, “What courses should a journalism school teach?”
He replied: “The ideal journalism school needs only one course. Students should be required to stand outside a closed door for six hours. Then the door would open, someone would put his head around the jamb and say, ‘No comment.’ The door would close again, and the students would be required to write 800 words against a deadline.”
The Making of a Newsman
Russell Wayne Baker was born into poverty Aug. 14, 1925, in Loudoun County, Virginia, and spent his early years in Morrisonville. “It was primitive,” he recalled. “No electricity.” When Russell was 5, his father, Benjamin Rex Baker, a stonemason who was often out of work, drank moonshine one night, sank into a diabetic coma and died, leaving his wife and three children destitute.
Russell’s strong-willed mother, Lucy Elizabeth Robinson Baker, was forced to give up an infant daughter to childless in-laws and took the boy and his younger sister to live with her brother in Newark, New Jersey. The uncle, a $35-a-week butter salesman, was the family’s only wage earner in the Depression, although Lucy Baker eventually found work as a seamstress and Russell sold magazines door to door.
When Russell was 11, the family moved to Baltimore, where he attended high school. He was popular, a member of the track team and a promising writer, winning a senior essay contest with “The Art of Eating Spaghetti.”
He entered Johns Hopkins University on a scholarship in 1942 but left the next year to join the Navy. He took pilot training but never went abroad during World War II and left the service in 1945.
Returning to Johns Hopkins on the GI Bill, Baker graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1947. He wanted to be Ernest Hemingway but had no real idea what to do. Then a friend who worked part time for The Baltimore Sun told him about a job. It was not much, but he took it: $30 a week as a night police reporter.
For two years, he phoned in robberies, fires and mayhem, and slept late. He helped organize the Newspaper Guild at The Sun and became a tenacious unionist.
In the summer of 1948, he churned out a novel about a reporter in love. He had just broken up with Miriam Emily Nash, a native of Camden, New Jersey, whom he had met after the war. The novel wound up in the attic, but he married Mimi, as she was called, in 1950. She died in 2015 at 88.
Baker is survived by three children, Allen, Michael and Kasia, as well as four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is also survived by two sisters, Doris Groh and Mary Leslie Keech.
By 1950, Baker had become a rewrite man, taking phoned notes from legmen (reporters at the scene) and banging out stories on deadline. He found he was hooked on journalism, and his skills — speed, accuracy and style — earned him a plum in 1952 when The Sun sent him to London as a correspondent. He later became The Sun’s White House correspondent, and his work in the capital caught the eye of James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of The Times, who hired him in 1954.
His first Times assignment was the State Department. He found it boring. Congress, with its preening VIPs, was better grist. Readers devoured Baker articles peppered with wry observations that captured the feel of Washington. He was soon drawing top assignments: presidential campaigns in 1956 and 1960, trips by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and others that showcased his lucidity.
Taking a New Direction
But he was still restless. Trying to keep out of a rut, he wrote “An American in Washington” (1961), a guide to the capital, detailing the techniques of name-dropping, the importance of lunch and advice on how to talk endlessly without saying anything. Critics and readers were delighted, but ennui sat naggingly on his shoulder.
One day he found himself on a bench outside a closed meeting of a Senate committee, wondering why, at 37, he was “waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.” He was near the end. In 1962, The Sun tried to lure him back with a column, but The Times made a counteroffer, and he accepted.
The column idea was vague. He had in mind casual essays like E.B. White’s in The New Yorker, cast in “plain English” with “short sentences,” in contrast to what he called The Times’ “polysyllabic Latinate English.”
Soon the columns began to roll out of his typewriter: on the foibles of politicians, bureaucrats, military contractors. Spoofing a plan to haul nuclear weapons around the country on railroad cars, he proposed a system of mobile Pentagons, complete with little secretaries of defense and presidents who would crisscross the country to confuse the enemy.
During the Pentagon Papers case — a test of government secrecy versus the public’s right to know the truth about the Vietnam War — Baker wondered in print how long officials intended to suppress the “Miles Standish papers,” saying their disclosure might jeopardize national security.
Many Baker columns were collected in books, including “No Cause for Panic” (1964), “Baker’s Dozen” (1964), “All Things Considered” (1965) and “Poor Russell’s Almanac” (1972). He wrote a novel, “Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections” (1968), about an election being thrown into the House of Representatives and chaos enveloping America. Some reviewers called it all too real.
After moving to New York in 1974, Baker took up topics as varied as death and dishwashing, neuroses and the new math. He was often hard-pressed for ideas, but something always seemed to turn up, or down. One day, as the deadline approached, a potato fell past his window. The column the next day was headlined “Potato Mashes Man.”
His 1979 Pulitzer — the first to a humorist for commentary — was given for 10 columns on tax reform, inflation, the short life of trends, loneliness, fear, Norman Rockwell and other subjects. More collections were published: “So This Is Depravity” (1980) and “The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams” (1983).
After the success of “Growing Up,” Baker produced a sequel, “The Good Times,” in 1989, about his days as a young reporter. Although a best seller only briefly, it was hailed by critics. Writing in The Times, Frank Conroy, whose memoir “Stop-Time” had also found wide acclaim, called “The Good Times” splendid but complained, “It would certainly make life easier for book reviewers if Russell Baker could manage to write something bad once in a while.”
As the host of “Masterpiece Theater,” Baker once did a riff on snooty British clubs and recalled that Art Buchwald had invited him to join a club he was starting, the American Academy of Humor Columnists.
“What’s the purpose?” Baker asked.
“To keep other people out,” his colleague replied.
(With Liam Stack inputs)