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Russell Baker

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Russell Baker
Russell Wayne Baker

(1925-08-14)August 14, 1925
DiedJanuary 21, 2019(2019-01-21) (aged 93)
EducationJohns Hopkins University
  • Journalist
  • writer
  • narrator
Notable workGrowing Up
AwardsPulitzer Prize (1979, 1983)

Russell Wayne Baker (August 14, 1925 – January 21, 2019) was an American journalist, narrator, writer of Pulitzer Prize-winning satirical commentary and self-critical prose, and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Growing Up (1983).[1] He was a columnist for The New York Times from 1962 to 1998, and hosted the PBS show Masterpiece Theatre from 1993 to 2004. The Forbes Media Guide Five Hundred, 1994 stated: "Baker, thanks to his singular gift of treating serious, even tragic events and trends with gentle humor, has become an American institution."[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Loudoun County, Virginia,[3] Baker was the son of Benjamin Rex Baker and Lucy Elizabeth (née Robinson).[4] At the age of eleven, as a self-professed "bump on a log," Baker decided to become a writer since he figured "what writers did couldn't even be classified as work."[5] After leaving school, he took a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1942, studying for a year before leaving to join the Navy as a trainee pilot. He left in 1945, continuing his degree in English at Johns Hopkins University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1947.



Shortly after leaving college, Baker took a job at The Baltimore Sun as a night police reporter, working his way up to be sent to London as a correspondent for the paper in 1952, and then White House Correspondent shortly thereafter.[3]


After covering the White House, United States Congress, and the United States Department of State for The New York Times for eight years, Baker wrote the nationally syndicated Observer column for the newspaper from 1962 to 1998; initially oriented toward politics, the column began to encompass other subjects after he relocated to New York City in 1974. During his long career as an essayist, journalist, and biographer, he was a regular contributor to national periodicals such as The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Saturday Evening Post, and McCalls. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993.[6]


Baker wrote or edited seventeen books. Baker's first Pulitzer Prize was awarded to him for distinguished commentary for his Observer columns (1979) and the second one was for his autobiography, Growing Up (1982); he is one of only six people to have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for both Arts & Letters (for his autobiography) and Journalism (for his column). He wrote a sequel to his autobiography in 1989, called The Good Times. His other works include An American in Washington (1961), No Cause for Panic (1964), Poor Russell's Almanac (1972), Looking Back: Heroes, Rascals, and Other Icons of the American Imagination (2002), and various anthologies of his columns.[7] He edited the anthologies The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993).

Baker wrote the libretto for the 1979 musical play Home Again, Home Again, starring Ronny Cox, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Barbara Fried, choreography by Onna White, and direction by Gene Saks.[8][9] After an unsuccessful tryout at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, the show closed in Toronto and never made it to Broadway. "That was a great experience," Baker said in a 1994 interview with the Hartford Courant. "Truly dreadful, but fun. I was sorry [the show] folded because I was having such a good time. But once is enough."[10]

Television host and narrator[edit]

In 1993, Baker replaced Alistair Cooke as the regular host of the PBS television series Masterpiece Theatre. "That's talking-head stuff," he said. "Television is harder than I thought it was. I can't bear to look at myself. I fancied that I was an exceedingly charming, witty and handsome young man, and here's this fidgeting old fellow whose hair is parted on the wrong side."[11]

In 1995, he narrated the Ric Burns documentary The Way West for The American Experience on PBS.[12][13]

Personal life and death[edit]

In 1950, Baker married Miriam Nash, who died in 2015. The couple had four children, Allen, Kasia, Michael, and Phyllis.[1][3]

Baker died at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on January 21, 2019, after complications following a fall.[3] He was 93.


Neil Postman, in the preface to Conscientious Objections, described Baker as "like some fourth century citizen of Rome who is amused and intrigued by the Empire's collapse but who still cares enough to mock the stupidities that are hastening its end. He is, in my opinion, a precious national resource, and as long as he does not get his own television show, America will remain stronger than Russia." (1991, xii)

Awards and honors[edit]

  • 1978 – George Polk Award for Commentary
  • 1979 – Pulitzer Prize Winner in Commentary
  • 1983 – Pulitzer Prize Winner in Biography
  • 1993 – Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement[14]
  • 1998 – George Polk Award for Career Achievements
  • Baltimore City College Hall of Fame [15]


  1. ^ a b Campbell, Colin (January 22, 2019). "Baltimore-raised Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker dies at 93". The Baltimore Sun. Baltimore, MD. Retrieved January 22, 2019.
  2. ^ Terry Eastland, ed. Forbes Media Guide Five Hundred, 1994: A Critical Review of the Media (1994) p 275
  3. ^ a b c d McFadden, Robert D. (January 22, 2019). "Russell Baker, Pulitzer-Winning Times Columnist and Humorist, Dies at 93". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 23, 2019.
  4. ^ Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, vol. 2, R. Reginald, 1979, pg 805
  5. ^ "Russell Baker Takes on the 20th Century," The Washington Post, October 3, 1982.
  6. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 9, 2011.
  7. ^ "Russell Baker," Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com
  8. ^ Lawson, Carol (April 14, 1979). "'Home Again, Home Again' Closing Out of Town". The New York Times. New York City.
  9. ^ Suskin, Steven, Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway's Major Composers, Fourth Edition, New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2010.
  10. ^ "Russell Baker Speaks His Mind," The Hartford Courant, March 16, 1994
  11. ^ Rizzo, Frank (March 16, 1994). "RUSSELL BAKER SPEAKS HIS MIND". courant.com. Retrieved January 23, 2019.
  12. ^ The Way West at imdb.com.
  13. ^ Gary Edgerton, Ken Burns's America: Packaging the Past for Television. Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2001.
  14. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  15. ^ "Baltimore City College Hall of Fame Members". Baltimore City College Hall of Fame.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Host of Masterpiece Theatre
Succeeded by