Robert H. Estabrook, Post editorial page editor, dies at 93
By Adam Bernstein,
Robert H. Estabrook, who as The Washington Post’s editorial page editor was a forceful voice against the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s and later as owner and editor of a small Connecticut newspaper helped clear a teenager accused of killing his mother, died Nov. 15 in Salisbury, Conn. He was 93.
He had congestive heart failure, said his son-in-law, Bill Carroll.
In April 1953, Post publisher Philip Graham jolted many in the newsroom when he elevated Mr. Estabrook to one of the newspaper’s most visible jobs: running the editorial page. At 34, he was the youngest member of the editorial writing staff and had labored mostly in the shadow of editorial page editor Herbert Elliston, who had retired from the top job because of ill health.
Mr. Estabrook remained editorial page editor for eight years. It was, he once wrote, an era of “formidable extension of Soviet power, the rise of Asian and African nationalism, and the dawning of the space age.” He summed it up as “a time of violence and change, disappointment and challenge, fearsome threat and immense promise.”
The issue that largely defined Mr. Estabrook’s tenure was the anti-communist witch hunt fueled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). The editorial page had long been a pugnacious voice against what Mr. Estabrook called the senator’s “wild charges” and “ferocious assaults upon civil liberties.”
When McCarthy died in 1957, Mr. Estabrook wrote that “his monument is a noun that has come to be a synonym for reckless slander. His memory cannot be divorced from a trail of shattered careers and groveling agencies, of cultivated suspicions that set Americans blindly against Americans, of a humiliating debasement of America’s standing in the free world.”
In his history of the paper, journalist Chalmers Roberts called Mr. Estabrook an “indefatigable worker, a human vacuum cleaner in conducting interviews at home and abroad.” Yet, as Roberts wrote, he was a victim of Graham’s mercurial disposition.
Graham once defended Mr. Estabrook against an airline that threatened to pull its advertising account after being targeted in an editorial. But Mr. Estabrook’s mildly critical editorial against the Kennedy administration’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 led to a showdown with Graham. The publisher killed the editorial without telling Mr. Estabrook.
“Phil did not explain in any detail why he had pulled the editorial, but in a subsequent discussion I told him that when the newspaper changed its position on a major subject I felt it had an obligation to say why on the editorial page,” Mr. Estabrook later wrote in a memoir. “This seemed to incense him; I could almost see a mental curtain come down in his head. I was no longer persona grata.”
J. Russell Wiggins, who oversaw The Post’s news and editorial departments, talked Graham out of firing Mr. Estabrook and sent him instead across the Atlantic as the paper’s London correspondent. He remained there until 1965 and then relocated to New York to cover the United Nations.
Mr. Estabrook retired from The Post in 1971, a year after buying a weekly newspaper in northwestern Connecticut, the Lakeville Journal. There, he wrote scorching editorials about the 1973 state police investigation of the sexual assault and murder of Barbara Gibbons, a local resident whose 18-year-old son Peter Reilly was initially convicted of manslaughter.
A judge later overturned the conviction after new evidence surfaced, indicating that Reilly was not at home at the time of the killing. The crime remains unsolved.
Through the years, Mr. Estabrook was a relentless voice against the police investigation and what he called the “implausibility” of the son’s role in the killing.
“There is evidence that the police lied to him and also denied him food and rest in order to elicit the ‘confession,’ ” Mr. Estabrook wrote in one editorial. “There also are strong indications that what Reilly finally ‘confessed’ to may have been the result of suggestions repeatedly planted with him by the police.”
Donald Connery, a former Time Inc. journalist who wrote a book about the case, said Mr. Estabrook “drew a powerful spotlight on a wrongful arrest of a teenager.” Estabrook’s editorials spurred attention from celebrities living in the area, including the playwright Arthur Miller, who drew broader national media interest.
Ever since, Connery said, “the case has been cited in virtually every book about police interrogation methods and the need to fully record interrogations.”
Mr. Estabrook sold the Lakeville paper in 1986 but later became part of an ownership group that oversaw the paper and others in that region.
Robert Harley Estabrook was born in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 16, 1918. He was a 1939 history graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he was managing editor of the student newspaper and elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
After college, he spent three years as a reporter and editorial writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette in Iowa. In 1942, he married Mary Lou Stewart, who was playing flute in the Cedar Rapids symphony orchestra, where he played third trombone.
His wife died in 2010. Survivors include four children, John Estabrook of East Canaan, Conn., James Estabrook of Herndon, David Estabrook of Philadelphia and Margaret Carroll of Lynnfield, Mass.; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Mr. Estabrook arrived at The Post in 1946 after serving in Army intelligence in Brazil during World War II. He wrote an autobiography, “Never Dull: From Washington Editor and Foreign Correspondent to Country Publisher” (2005).