Don Moser, editor of Smithsonian magazine, dies at 81


As editor of Smithsonian magazine, Don Moser sought out articles that aimed to explain the full reach of human experience. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
December 31, 2013

During his 20 years as the top editor of Smithsonian magazine, Don Moser brought millions of readers with him as he followed the whims of his own curiosity. He seldom had an overt presence in the pages of Smithsonian, but his interests, tastes and quiet guiding hand helped the monthly magazine become one of the country’s most popular publications.

Mr. Moser, who ran Smithsonian from 1981 to 2001, died Dec. 8 at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 81.

He had Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Penny Moser, said.

Smithsonian magazine was launched in 1970 as a coffee-table reflection of the intellectual aspirations of the Smithsonian Institution. Its first editor, Edward K. Thompson, had been one of Mr. Moser’s mentors at Life magazine.

Together, they brought some of the DNA of the fabled weekly picture magazine to Washington and threaded it into the pages of their new publication. Smithsonian soon became renowned for its exceptional photography, but Mr. Moser broadened its scope and made it a canvas for colorful storytelling in both pictures and words.

“At Smithsonian, you get to cover everything from Motown to Mars,” he said in a 2001 interview with the magazine. “You have terrific writers and photographers to work with. And you have wonderful readers, who tend to think of themselves as part of the family, which indeed they are.”

He sought out articles that aimed to explain the full reach of human — and often animal — experience. There was only one kind of journalism he would not tolerate: “He was adamantly opposed to celebrity coverage in any way, shape or form,” Kathleen Burke, a senior editor at the magazine, said Tuesday.

“He didn’t settle for the expected,” added Jim Doherty, another longtime Smithsonian editor, “so that’s why we had stories on square dancing, stagehands, truck stops, innovative teachers or professors, wildlife and science.”

Mr. Moser’s eclectic vision found a warm reception among readers, and the magazine’s circulation rose to about 2.2 million under his tenure. (It is now 2.1 million.) He assigned stories on everything from solar eclipses to antique watches to impressionist painting, and he instituted a policy that every letter or e-mail should get a personal response.

“Don ran the magazine in the independent tradition of H.L. Mencken at the American Mercury and Harold Ross at the New Yorker: his subjective judgment, and his alone, determined what would run,” John P. Wiley Jr. wrote in Smithsonian in 2001, when Mr. Moser retired. “In choosing what ideas to commission, the aim always was to surprise the readers: present them with a story they had seen nowhere else and were unlikely to see in the future.”

He convened no focus groups or committees to tell him what to publish. To maintain the elusive blend of stories, photographs and essays in the magazine, he turned down many more submissions than he accepted.

When he scrawled the letters “FMD” across a manuscript, it had no chance of appearing in print. The letters stood for “fatal middle distance,” or a story with weak reporting, poor focus and a lack of engagement with the subject.

“He was a connoisseur of good writing,” Doherty said. “He appreciated something he called ‘loft,’ or reaching an emotional crescendo.”

Mr. Moser often had to push back against curators at some of the Smithsonian’s museums, who thought the magazine should showcase their collections or highlight the work of their scientists. He insisted that the magazine maintain its independence as a distinct journalistic voice and not be public relations mouthpiece for the museums.

“A magazine is a democracy ruled by a dictator,” he half-jokingly told the alumni magazine of his alma mater, Ohio University, in 2002. “The editor has the last word.”

Donald Bruce Moser was born Oct. 19, 1932, in Cleveland. His father was a draftsman with a metal manufacturing company.

After attending Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, for two years in the 1950s, he worked as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service and served in the Army. Once, when he was with the Forest Service in Wyoming, he spent a winter’s day rescuing a cow moose that had fallen through the ice of the Snake River. He and other rangers were able to reunite the cow with its calf standing on the bank.

Mr. Moser graduated as an English major in 1957 from Ohio University, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He then studied fiction writing at Stanford University with novelist Wallace Stegner and attended the University of Sydney on a Fulbright fellowship. In 1962, he published a book of his photographs and writings about Olympic National Park in the state of Washington.

Mr. Moser joined Life magazine in 1961 as a military affairs writer, became Los Angeles bureau chief in 1964, then moved to Hong Kong, his base for covering the Vietnam War. Some of his reporting was reprinted in the Library of America anthology “Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1969.”

After Life folded in 1972, Mr. Moser wrote a novel for young readers, “A Heart to the Hawks,” articles for National Geographic magazine, and books on travel and nature for Time-Life. He joined Smithsonian as an editor in 1977, then took over the top job four years later.

Like the magazine he edited, Mr. Moser had many interests, including astronomy, archaeology, birding and rescuing abandoned animals. He traveled widely on fishing expeditions, always releasing whatever he caught.

In recent years, he and his wife of 37 years, Penny Ward Moser, lived mostly in Sag Harbor, but they maintained a home in Washington. Other survivors include two brothers.

Co-workers recalled Mr. Moser as a soft-spoken, unflappable boss who never panicked. He had a gruff “fish eye” glare for anything that didn’t meet his standards, but he regularly visited staff members in the hospital, encouraged them to take long and adventurous vacations, and welcomed their children at the office.

“He was this profoundly decent guy who would give you months off to care for your newborn,” Burke said. “His editors would have walked to the ends of the earth for him.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.