Sid Yudain, founder of Roll Call, dies at 90

October 22, 2013

Sid Yudain, a former Hollywood reporter who brought the same company-town approach to Washington journalism when he launched the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1955, died Oct.­ 20 at his home in Arlington. He was 90.

He had a secondary malignancy of the liver from metastatic cancer, his wife, Lael Yudain, said.

After working in Hollywood, Mr. Yudain arrived in Washington in 1951 to work for Rep. Albert P. Morano (R-Conn.) as press secretary. With an initial investment of $90, Mr. Yudain published Roll Call from Morano’s office for three years before he could afford office space and move out on his own.

He wanted Roll Call to have the style of a folksy, small-town newspaper, complete with birth and death announcements, corny jokes and the upcoming week’s menu at the congressional cafeteria. In the early years, at least, he studiously avoided almost all coverage of head-scratching legislative matters.

“When I came to Congress it just seemed that this was the most important community in the world, probably,” he said in a 2005 interview with the paper he founded. “And it had no community newspaper, nothing.”


Sidney Yudain, founder of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, in 1980. (Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post)

With a staff that included his sister as business manager and a few modestly paid assistants, Mr. Yudain put out a weekly paper that looked at the human side of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers. Later publications, such as National Journal and The Hill, came along to provide the same kind of close-up coverage that Mr. Yudain had helped launch.

Some of Roll Call’s contributors were high-ranking officials, including then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.), who reported on his recuperation from a heart attack. Then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon once called Mr. Yudain to stop the presses so he — Nixon — could write an obituary of a Capitol Hill doorman.

It was a gentler, more easy­going time on Capitol Hill, Mr. Yudain often recalled, with after-hours cocktails and frequent parties at which he would pull out his saxophone and play jazz tunes with musically inclined members of Congress.

“It just seemed logical to bring everybody together and let the people know who’s who in which office, in the office next door to theirs, in the office down the street,” Mr. Yudain said in 2005. “I thought we needed to get a more human spirit there, a more human aspect to the thing.”

Mr. Yudain was credited with discovering Mark Russell, the piano-playing political satirist who has been a fixture in Washington for decades.

“He gave me a professional life,” Russell said Tuesday in an interview. “I was the emcee at a strip joint on L Street called the Merryland, going nowhere. Someone came in and said, ‘Sid wants to see you.’ ”

In 1958, Mr. Yudain arranged for Russell to work at the Carroll Arms Hotel, a Capitol Hill spot favored by politicos. Russell later wrote a humor column for Roll Call and worked on new routines at Mr. Yudain’s weekly Sunday parties.

“He saw the Hill as a friendly neighborhood, and Roll Call was the neighborhood paper,” Russell said. “The offices moved around like a floating craps game. One of them, I remember, you had to crawl through the window because the door was jammed.”

Mr. Yudain sold Roll Call in 1986 and wrote his final column in 1988. Now owned by a media group that publishes the Economist magazine, Roll Call comes out four times a week and offers more incisive coverage of Congress, politics and legislative dealmaking than it did in its early days. Its alumni include Nina Totenberg of NPR, Ed Henry of Fox News, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post and Jim VandeHei, a former Washington Post reporter and a founder of Politico.

Sidney Lawrence Yudain was born May 6, 1923, in New Canaan, Conn. His parents were immigrants from Russia.

He and several of his brothers, who also became journalists, began writing and printing neighborhood newspapers as children.

While serving in the Army in California during World War II, Mr. Yudain formed a newspaper at his base. After the war, he stayed in Los Angeles, where he wrote for a variety of publications and interviewed such stars as Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Lana Turner.

Mr. Yudain’s survivors include his wife of 40 years, Lael Bairstow Yudain of Arlington; two children, Rachel Kuchinad of New York and Raymond Yudain of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.

Toward the end of his tenure at Roll Call, Mr. Yudain grew a bit rueful about the changes he had seen in Washington. The world of Congress, he said, had lost some of its zest.

“They had to be raconteurs, thinkers, statesmen, showmen,” he said in 1985. “Now a person only has to comb his hair the right way and say what someone has written for him. . . . They know the issues, but they’re not interested in Congress as an institution.”

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