The Atlantic

Russell Baker: ‘When Writing Is Fun, It’s Not Very Good’

Falling potatoes, reading lists, and humor critiques: a wide-ranging conversation with the legendary New York Times columnist, who died this week at 93
Source: Richard Howard / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

When Russell Baker imagined his own death for The New York Times in 1979, it was because he’d just experienced something delightfully unsettling while taking a walk near his apartment on 58th Street. There he was, about to reenter the building, when something huge splatted on the sidewalk at his feet.

It was a raw potato. And for a deadpanning humorist on deadline, the potato was a gift. Somebody had chucked the thing off the roof of the 48-story apartment building across the street. “After a certain age most people probably speculate occasionally on the manner of their ultimate departure, but the possibility of becoming a potato victim was one that had never occurred to me, and I did not like it,” Baker mused in his next column. “On a slow-news day, it might merit a paragraph or two on the Associated Press wire: ‘Potato Mashes Man.’ ”

The truth was, Baker was tickled by this ridiculous brush with death. “If it had hit me, it would have killed me,” he later told the writer Hal Gieseking. “And I was delighted. Here’s a column. What a way to die!”

Baker, who died this week at 93, was the longest-running columnist in the history of The New York Times. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1979, for commentary, and was so beloved that he made the cover of Time magazine that year. He won a second Pulitzer, in 1983, for a biography about his Depression-era childhood, Growing Up. In the early 1990s, he became the host of Masterpiece Theatre. He announced the end of his “Observer” column at the Times on Christmas Day 1998. He’d been writing it since 1962. (“Don’t make too much of it,” he joked in an interview soon thereafter with The Baltimore Sun, where he’d started his career as a police reporter. “It’s only daily journalism.”)

About six years ago, I was working’ archive, rereading Baker’s columns from the 1970s and ’80s, and I got to wondering what he was up to. When I found him in the phone book and realized he lived a short drive away from me, I dialed. Had I reached Russell Baker the writer? Might he consider an interview?

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