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OBITUARIES / Gilbert A. Harrison, 1915 - 2008

Editor of New Republic helped launch new talent

January 14, 2008|Patricia Sullivan | The Washington Post

Gilbert A. Harrison, former editor and publisher of the New Republic magazine who ran the influential Washington-based weekly for 20 years, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 3 at Hospice of the Valley in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 92.

Harrison published an intellectual, liberal but nondoctrinaire journal of opinion, politics and arts that was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He was considered an excellent "pencil editor" -- someone who could mark up and improve a writer's work -- and was skilled at identifying and hiring talented journalists before they were known commodities.

The magazine, founded in 1914, was considered for most of the 20th century the leading liberal political magazine in the nation.

One anecdote, indicative of the magazine's power in its heyday, recounted Harrison writing an editorial calling for a Democratic Party challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The next morning, his doorbell rang, and there stood Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy with the New Republic under his arm and a light in his eye.

Asked about it in 1970, both men pooh-poohed the idea that the editorial had pushed McCarthy into the 1968 presidential race. But McCarthy said, "I did used to talk to Gil quite a bit about it."

Through his 20 years at the magazine, Harrison collected writers including John Osborne, who wrote the "White House Watch" column during the Watergate era; Richard Strout, who penned the TRB column; literary editor Doris Grumbach; and theater critic Stanley Kauffmann. Investigative reporter James Ridgeway became nationally known when he revealed in the magazine that General Motors had hired private detectives to tail consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Harrison received the prestigious George Polk Award for magazine writing in 1963.

Harrison bought the New Republic in 1953. He sold it in 1974 to Martin H. Peretz for $380,000. Harrison expected to stay on as editor-in-chief until 1977, but differences between owner and editor quickly arose, and he left after a few months. Peretz sold two-thirds of the magazine's ownership to two financiers in 2002.

In 1969, Harrison bought Liveright Publishing, a book publisher that had launched William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson and whose backlist contained works of Eugene O'Neill, Robinson Jeffers, Sigmund Freud and Theodore Dreiser. He sold that company too in 1974.

Harrison was born in Detroit, grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA. He moved to Washington in 1941 to become chairman of the Division of Youth Activities at the Office of Civilian Defense. He joined the Army during World War II and was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter and report from Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped.

After the war, he attended Balliol College at Oxford University but left to work in Berlin under Gen. Lucius Clay during the Russian blockade and Berlin Airlift.

Harrison helped found the American Veterans Committee as a liberal alternative to the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He became the committee's national chairman.

In 1951, he married Ann Blaine, heiress to the International Harvester fortune and great-granddaughter of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the horse-drawn reaper. They settled in Washington.

His wife died in 1977. Harrison then moved to Scottsdale.

Harrison wrote two biographies: "A Timeless Affair: The Life of Anita McCormick Blaine" (1979); and "The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder" (1983), which received respectful reviews. He also edited several books, including "Gertrude Stein's America" (1965) and "The Critic as Artist" (1972).

Survivors include four children and five grandchildren.

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