Russell Baker, acclaimed New York Times columnist and host of ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ dies at 93

Baker, author of The Times’ “Observer” column for 36 years, won two Pulitzers and praise as one of the finest 20th-century American writers.

By Alex Johnson

Russell Baker, whose droll observations on Washington and the world were a fixture in The New York Times for 36 years, and who won a large second following as the longtime host of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre,” has died, The Times confirmed Tuesday.

Baker, who was 93, died Monday at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, a suburb of Washington. His death was announced Tuesday by The Inquirer and Mirror newspaper in Nantucket, Connecticut, where Baker had a summer home, and confirmed by The Times on Tuesday night.

Image: Russell Baker
Russell Baker, seen here at a news conference in February 1993, became only the second host of “Masterpiece Theater” (now titled “Masterpiece”), succeeding the urbane Briton Alistair Cooke.Alex Brandon / AP file

The cause of death was wasn’t reported, but Baker had recently suffered a fall, his son Allen told The Sun newspaper of Baltimore, where Baker grew up and started his newspaper career in 1947.

Baker won two Pulitzer Prizes during a career that inspired literary critics to rank him among the finest and most important essayists of the 20th century.

The first, for commentary, was awarded in 1979; the second honored his 1982 autobiography, “Growing Up,” which swathed a piercing critique of Depression-era and mid-century America in the aw-shucks whimsy of a local boy from Baltimore, where he grew up.

Harrison Salisbury, the noted author and columnist, called Baker’s autobiography — one of 15 books he wrote — “the saddest, funniest, most tragical yet comical picture of coming of age in the U.S.A. in the Depression years and World War II that has ever been written.”

Baker’s many other honors included the George Polk Award for career achievement in 1998.

“Russell Baker looked like Gary Cooper and wrote like a dream,” Elizabeth Drew, the longtime Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, said Tuesday night. “He was sardonic and idealistic at the same time. His autobiography, ‘Growing Up,’ brought tears to the eyes. This is the time to reread it.”

In 1992, at the age of 67, Baker became only the second host of “Masterpiece Theater” (now titled “Masterpiece”), succeeding the urbane Briton Alistair Cooke in presenting mostly genteel British period dramas, mysteries and drawing room comedies.

“In America, if you’re not on television, you’re not an American,” Baker said at the news conference announcing his role on the program. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ and I thought this was the most honorable way to satisfy that lust to be on TV.”

In his preface to Baker’s 1991 book, “Conscientious Objections,” the writer and scholar Neil Postman likened Baker to “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,” Postman wrote.

Article originally posted by nbcnews.

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