Rus­sell Baker, au­thor and NY Times colum­nist is dead at 93

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL -

LEESBURG, Va. — Rus­sell Baker, the ge­nial, but sharp-wit­ted writer who won Pulitzer Prizes for his hu­mor­ous col­umns in The New York Times and a mov­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of his im­pov­er­ished Bal­ti­more child­hood and later hosted tele­vi­sion’s “Mas­ter­piece The­atre,” died last week on Jan. 21 at the age of 93.

Allen Baker told The As­so­ci­ated Press that his fa­ther died from com­pli­ca­tions after a fall.

In his later years, Baker lived in Leesburg, Va., not far from the ru­ral Loudoun County com­mu­nity where he was born. His fam­ily later moved to New Jer­sey and Bal­ti­more.

Ami­able and ap­proach­able, but also clear-eyed and street smart, Baker en­joyed a decades-long ca­reer as re­porter, colum­nist, critic and on-air per­son­al­ity.

Baker won Pulitzers in 1979 for the “Ob­server,” the Times col­umn he wrote for 35 years, and in 1983 for his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy “Grow­ing Up.”

The Great De­pres­sion and World War II shaped Baker’s early life. He be­gan his ca­reer as a re­porter in 1947 and rose to be­come a na­tional New York Times re­porter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in 1954.

He cov­ered Congress, the mil­i­tary and State Depart­ment dur­ing the Eisen­hower and Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tions be­fore tir­ing, he would re­call, of wait­ing for politi­cians to come out of meet­ing rooms and lie to him. He drew upon those ex­pe­ri­ences for his col­umn, writ­ing as a cu­ri­ous and wide-eyed out­sider who could leave an ad­ver­sary buried un­der the weight of com­mon sense.

“On tele­vi­sion we see Pres­i­dent Rea­gan in a cave. It is the Mam­moth Cave, one of Amer­ica’s great caves. The TV news reader says the Pres­i­dent has come there to cre­ate ‘a photo op­por­tu­nity.’ Here is Pres­i­dent Rea­gan on tele­vi­sion again. He is look­ing at a bald ea­gle. The Pres­i­dent and the ea­gle are in the same room en­joy­ing ‘a photo op­por­tu­nity,’ ac­cord­ing to the TV news voice,” Baker wrote in 1984.

“His en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy has been char­ac­ter­ized by a re­luc­tance to do any­thing that would cre­ate dif­fi­culty for the busi­ness com­mu­nity. It is en­tirely pos­si­ble to de­fend this po­si­tion with per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment. The Pres­i­dent of the cave and the ea­gle, how­ever, is not de­fend­ing a sen­si­bly thought-out pol­icy; he is be­ing used to de­ceive us into think­ing that he is what he, in fact, is not.”

Baker didn’t ask to be called a hu­morist.

Dur­ing a 1994 speech in Hart­ford, Conn., he said his goal for the “Ob­server” was to ren­der the fed­eral govern­ment, pol­i­tics and diplo­macy ac­ces­si­ble through plain, easy-to-read lan­guage. It was to be more widely ap­peal­ing than the “High-Church, poly­syl­labic” writ­ing com­mon in The New York Times.

“Well, as I soon dis­cov­ered, in those days if you wrote short sen­tences and plain English in the Times, ev­ery­body nat­u­rally as­sumed you were be­ing funny,” he said in the speech.

Baker’s tar­gets in­cluded his own pro­fes­sion. “Those who ex­pected me to have some­thing to say had ob­vi­ously never heard the clas­sic def­i­ni­tion of a news­pa­per man: ‘A man with noth­ing on his mind and the power to ex­press it,’” he said dur­ing the Hart­ford speech.

He wrote a sec­ond au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “The Good Times,” to fol­low “Grow­ing Up.” The first fo­cused on his child­hood, the sec­ond on his early jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer. Baker would even­tu­ally write, edit or con­trib­ute to more than 15 other books, col­lec­tions and as­sorted works — in­clud­ing a mu­si­cal play and chil­dren’s book.

Baker was born in 1925 to stone­ma­son Ben­jamin Baker and school­teacher Lucy El­iz­a­beth Baker. He mar­ried Miriam Emily Nash in 1950 and had three chil­dren: Kath­leen, Allen and Michael.

Ben­jamin Baker died of un­treated di­a­betes when his son was 5. Lucy Baker strug­gled through the Great De­pres­sion as a sin­gle mother liv­ing in Bal­ti­more.

Rus­sell Baker re­mem­bered his mother as a key in­flu­ence driv­ing him to suc­ceed.

“She would make me make some­thing of my­self whether I wanted to or not,” he wrote in “Grow­ing Up.”

Baker served in the U.S. Naval Re­serve from 1943 to 1945 and was trained as a pi­lot dur­ing World War II. He grad­u­ated from Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in 1947 and be­gan his jour­nal­ism ca­reer that year as a po­lice re­porter with The Bal­ti­more Sun.

He be­came the news­pa­per’s Lon­don bureau chief in 1953.

Baker took over as “Mas­ter­piece The­atre’s” host in 1993, suc­ceed­ing Alis­tair Cooke, and re­mained un­til 2004. Baker’s on-air com­men­tary for pub­lic tele­vi­sion fo­cused on pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal per­spec­tives on fea­tured works along with his­tor­i­cal con­text. He also pro­vided in­sights into the orig­i­nal au­thors’ ap­proaches and de­tailed lib­er­ties taken to adapt the lit­er­a­ture for tele­vi­sion.

He wrote long-form re­views and other ar­ti­cles for The New York Re­view of Books dur­ing his years fol­low­ing the Times. He told a re­porter for the Times Union, lo­cated in Al­bany, New York, in 2002 that the as­sign­ments were more re­ward­ing dur­ing his re­tire­ment than the “hyped-up” work of col­umn writ­ing, when “you’re sweat­ing it out wor­ry­ing if they’ll read past the sec­ond para­graph.”

His fi­nal col­umn ran on Christ­mas Day, 1998. An As­so­ci­ated Press story at the time de­scribed it as a quiet adieu.

“He apol­o­gized for talk­ing about him­self,” the story read, “re­mem­bered warmly a pope, a cou­ple of pres­i­dents and his Uncle Allen, and con­cluded he had said enough for the time be­ing.”

/ AP-Alex Brandon

Writer Rus­sell Baker pon­ders a re­porter’s ques­tion dur­ing a New York news con­fer­ence where he was pre­sented as the suc­ces­sor to host Alis­tair Cooke for the PBS se­ries “Mas­ter­piece The­atre.” Pulitzer Prizewin­ning au­thor and hu­morist Baker has died at age 93. Allen Baker told The As­so­ci­ated Press that his fa­ther died on Mon­day, Jan. 21 from com­pli­ca­tions after a fall.

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