Nora Sayre, a cultural historian, essayist and film critic who wrote acutely observed analyses of America in the 1950s and '60s, died of emphysema Wednesday in New York. She was 68.
Sayre came of age in the 1950s as the only child of writers whose circle included many of the leading Hollywood writers and literary figures of the period. Observing their struggles with the social and political dislocations of the McCarthy era led her to focus on the culture of the Cold War years in her own writing.
She wrote four books: "Sixties Going on Seventies" (1973), "Running Time: Films of the Cold War" (1982), "Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s" (1995), and "On the Wing: A Young American Abroad" (2001).
She also was a frequent contributor of book reviews to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, where her last published piece ran earlier this month, and other publications, including the Nation and Esquire.
Known for her chain-smoking and irascible personality, Sayre grew up among New York's literary illuminati of the 1930s and '40s. The critic Edmund Wilson was a family friend, as were James Thurber, E.B. White, Graham Greene and Dorothy Parker.
Her father, Joel, was a staff writer for the New Yorker and a sometime screenwriter who wrote the 1935 movie "Annie Oakley" for Barbara Stanwyck. He also co-wrote the 1939 classic "Gunga Din." Her mother, Gertrude, was a reporter for the New York World whose career was hindered by frequent mental breakdowns.
"My own parents were totally apolitical," Sayre told The Times in a 1982 interview, "but many of their friends were not, and when the McCarthy era hit the film industry, my parents and I saw a number of our friends' careers destroyed.
"That was the background I grew up against, and I guess I just naturally became interested in taking myself back to a state of mind I no longer hold, in an effort to understand that era and identify the various forms that fear took in those days."
After graduating from Radcliffe College in 1954, Sayre moved to London, supplied with introductions from Wilson to such writers as Arthur Koestler, author of "Darkness at Noon," the celebrated novel about the Moscow show trials, and his lover, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.
She roomed for 10 months with Tyrone Power and Mai Zetterling in their Kensington Court flat. She hung out with Donald Ogden Stewart, the blacklisted writer and friend of Ernest Hemingway, and photographer Walker Evans. Thurber, in town for the summer, hired her as a researcher to look into the Loch Ness Monster. She was propositioned by Cyril Connolly, the leading literary critic of the day. Her vignette of Connolly, a huge man with a voracious appetite, racing around a dinner party to consume other guests' desserts is memorable.
"Sayre has a gift for gentle satire, for presenting the reader with comic monsters while never slipping into mere malice," reviewer Evelyn Toynton wrote of "A Young American Abroad," which was filled with Sayre's portraits of Connolly and other personages.
"Previous Convictions" examined the same period but combined documentary history with personal reflections. Her depiction of Wilson, the formidable critic, "as a gentle, attentive friend to lonely little Nora is so uncharacteristic it alone is worth the price of the book," reviewer Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in the Nation.
Sayre, a film critic for the New York Times from 1973 to 1975, examined the effect of the Cold War on Hollywood filmmaking in the '50s in an earlier work, "Running Time." Considered essential reading for students of the period, it described the intricacies of blacklisting and how pressures from the House Committee on Un-American Activities affected themes, content, relationships and the bottom line in Hollywood.
Her previous book, "Sixties Going on Seventies," was a compilation of magazine articles on such major cultural and political events as the student strikes at Harvard and Yale and the rise of the Black Panther Party. Called "shrewd, personal and readable" by the New Yorker, it was nominated for a National Book Award.