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Obituaries

Asa Baber, 66; Brought Male Perspective to Playboy Column

June 20, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Asa Baber, whose long-running "Men" column in Playboy magazine addressed an array of issues from a distinctly male perspective and earned him a controversial reputation as an apologist for men at a time when it was unfashionable to be one, has died. He was 66.

Baber died Monday in a Chicago hospital after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. His last Playboy column ran in the June issue. Launched in April 1982, Baber's column became one of the magazine's best-read features, offering his sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant essays on issues such as sports, sexuality, divorce, male-bashing, employment, personal identity and personal values.

A ruggedly handsome, fit and charismatic man with steely eyes, Baber was a former Marine captain who served in covert operations in Laos in the early 1960s.

He frequently drew on his own experiences for his 850-word essays -- writing about his angry father, the breakup of his first marriage and the loss of custody of his two sons.

In the process, Baber became known as a champion of men's liberation. "He was a pioneer in saying there were men's issues, and he also told men not to hide from their issues," Arthur Kretchmer, who recently retired after a long career as Playboy's editorial director, said this week.

"We're living in the post-rabid phase of feminism, especially in publishing," Kretchmer said. "But Asa was doing the column when a certain kind of radical feminism was at its peak and men were thought of as worthless."

In writing his unapologetically male magazine column in the 1980s, Kretchmer said, Baber drew a lot of fire, some internally. "Women who worked at the magazine hated the column or were embarrassed by the notion that a man would stick up for men, would go out of his way to say that men had character, men had virtues, men had their own sets of needs and that men were also asked to make sacrifices by the culture that they lived in that were minimized by the women's movement: going to a job every day, serving in the military...."

Baber's column, Kretchmer said, "helped a lot of guys deal with things that men think of as weaknesses: depression, the pain of divorce, the pain of unemployment, the pain of rejection."

In one column, Kretchmer recalled, "He said the first lesson all boys should be taught is how to deal with rejection, because to be a man you've got to expose yourself many times: You've got to ask for everything, from work to love, and you will be rejected."

Although his often politically incorrect views kept him from being invited to speak on several college campuses, Baber received his share of invitations from TV talk shows.

"We men are not the enemy," Baber told Oprah Winfrey's audience a decade ago. Observing that many women are angry at men and that their rage is destructive, he asked, "Aren't we all supposed to be in this together?"

Baber was born June 19, 1936, in Chicago and grew up on the city's South Side. Sent to a prep school at the age of 14, he earned a bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1958.

After serving in the Marine Corps from 1958 to 1961, he completed his graduate work at Northwestern University and attended the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. He taught English and theater at Robert College in Istanbul from 1963 to 1966 and English at the University of Hawaii from 1969 to 1974.

Drawing on his Marine experience as a specialist in interrogation and counterinsurgency, Baber wrote a novel, "The Land of a Million Elephants," which was published by Morrow in 1970.

After returning to Chicago in 1975, he started writing for Playboy, which had serialized his novel and published two of his short stories.

A 1978 Playboy article, inspired by the breakup of his first marriage, led Kretchmer to suggest that Baber start writing a column about men.

"Asa's piece on divorce quoted from a source who said that one thing the women's movement has done is, it eradicated male virtues," Kretchmer told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "It's put feminine virtues -- sensitivity, communication, etc. -- up front and run male virtues into the ground,"

In his article, Baber quoted Principia College professor Paul O. Williams, who said that "women, in redefining their role in society, have begun to redefine, or mis-define, manhood."

In proposing the column to Baber, Kretchmer told him: "You'll find a voice and write about male virtues and what guys can be, in light of what women are asking them to be."

Baber's column, Kretchmer said Wednesday, "was phenomenally well-read and Asa had a large following." A collection of Baber's Playboy columns, "Naked at the Gender Gap: A Man's View of the War Between the Sexes," was published in 1992 by Birch Lane Press. "He was everybody's idea of a man," Kretchmer said. "He tried as hard as he could to not live by any rules that he didn't subscribe to at the same time, taking care of all his responsibilities."

"His life and the column were that lesson."

In his final column in Playboy's June issue, Baber expressed his pride in having spoken up for men "before it was fashionable," and he said he was planning to write a book about dying, a subject that scares men to the point that men "will do almost anything to avoid thinking about it or preparing for it."

"I am here to urge you to be a little more brave, a tad more courageous and self-controlled, and to take some private time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and ask yourself how you plan to spend whatever time you have left...."

Baber, who was divorced twice, is survived by sons James and Brendan; and a sister, Dorothy.

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