Russell Baker

Russell Baker (1925– )

Russell Baker is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, humorist, and television personality who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, first in 1979 for distinguished commentary, and then in 1983 for his memoir Growing Up. He also has received numerous other awards, including honorary doctorates from more than a dozen universities. MORE...

 

Baker was born on August 14, 1925, in Loudoun County, Virginia. His father, Benjamin, was a stonemason who died in a diabetic coma when Baker was five, leaving the family in poverty. Baker and his mother, Lucy Baker, moved to New Jersey to live with her brother. They were forced to live on the generosity of relatives until his mother remarried when Baker was a teenager.

Always an excellent student, Baker won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, but he left after one year to join the United States Navy Air Force in 1943. World War II (1939–1945) ended before he saw combat, so Baker returned to Johns Hopkins, graduated in 1947, and began a career as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun. From 1953 until 1954, Baker was the Sun's London bureau chief. In 1954, he returned to the United States and became the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the New York Times. He left this position in 1962 and began to write the acclaimed "Observer" column for the Times. The column appeared three times a week for more than three decades, making it one of the longest-running columns ever. In 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his "Observer" column. Baker married his wife, Miriam, in 1950. They have three children. In 1986, Baker returned to Virginia and settled in Leesburg.

Baker produced a variety of other writing while he worked for the Times. Six collections of short pieces, including some of the "Observer" columns, were published between 1964 and 1983. In 1982, Baker's autobiography Growing Up was published, and the first chapters deal with his boyhood in the mountains of rural Virginia. New York Times book reviewer Richard Lingeman described the book in a 1982 review: "Instead of being a grim tale of drunken stepmothers and battered stepfathers, Growing Up is touching and funny, a hopeless muddle of sadness and laughter that bears a suspicious resemblance to real life." The memoir won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1983. Two additional volumes of autobiography, The Good Times (1989) and Looking Back (2002), followed. He also wrote a children's book and a play, and frequently contributed to leading magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and the New York Times Magazine. Other works such as Washington: City on the Potomac (1958) and the fictional Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections (1968) were based on Baker's experiences in Washington.

As an editor, Baker compiled the best-selling volumes The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (1993), a collection of humorous literary pieces from two hundred years of American writing. He is also a noted book reviewer and literary critic. With co-author William Zinsser, Baker published Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir in 1995.

Baker hosted the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre from 1993 intil 2004.

Major Works

  • Washington: City on the Potomac (1958)
  • An American in Washington (1961)
  • No Cause for Panic (1964)
  • Baker's Dozen (1964)
  • All Things Considered (1965)
  • Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections (1968)
  • Poor Russell's Almanac (1972)
  • The Upside-Down Man (1977)
  • So This Is Depravity (1980)
  • Growing Up (1982)
  • The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams (1983)
  • The Good Times (1989)
  • The Norton Book of Light Verse (editor, 1986)
  • There's a Country in My Cellar (1990)
  • Russell Baker's Book of American Humor (editor, 1993)
  • Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (with William Zinsser, 1995)
  • Looking Back (2002)

Time Line

  • August 14, 1925 - Russell Baker is born in Loudoun County, Virginia, to Benjamin and Lucy Baker.
  • 1942 - Russell Baker wins a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University.
  • 1943 - Russell Baker joins the United States Navy Air Force, but World War II (1939–1945) ends before he sees combat, and he returns to Johns Hopkins University in 1945.
  • 1947 - Russell Baker graduates from Johns Hopkins University and embarks on a career as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun.
  • 1953–1954 - Russell Baker works as the Baltimore Sun's London bureau chief.
  • 1954 - Russell Baker returns to the United States from London and becomes the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the New York Times. He leaves the position in 1962.
  • 1962 - Russell Baker begins to write the acclaimed "Observer" column for the New York Times. The column appears three times a week for more than three decades, making it one of the longest-running columns ever.
  • 1979 - Russell Baker wins the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his "Observer" column in the New York Times.
  • 1983 - Russell Baker wins a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography Growing Up. The first chapters deal with his boyhood in the mountains of rural Virginia.
  • 1986 - Russell Baker returns to his home state of Virginia and settles in Leesburg.
Further Reading
Lingeman, Richard. "Suspiciously Like Real Life." Review of Growing Up, by Russell Baker. New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1982.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Hamm, J. S. Russell Baker (1925– ). (2014, July 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Baker_Russell_1925-.

MLA Citation:
Hamm, J. S. "Russell Baker (1925– )." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 14, 2009 | Last modified: July 30, 2014


Contributed by Jean Shepherd Hamm, a scholar from Rural Retreat, Virginia, who earned her doctorate of education from Virginia Tech.