Michael Kernan, Post Style Writer for 20 Years, Dies

Michael Kernan, shown on Capri last year, also had two books published and wrote more than 100 articles for Smithsonian magazine.
Michael Kernan, shown on Capri last year, also had two books published and wrote more than 100 articles for Smithsonian magazine. (Family Photo)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005

Michael Kernan, a writer whose graceful versatility helped define the tone and literary flair of The Washington Post's Style section, died May 4 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Bennington, Vt. He turned 78 last Friday.

Plucked from his job as a reporter with The Post's Metro section, Mr. Kernan was named to the original Style staff in 1969. He wrote for Style for 20 years, and it is a mark of professionalism and skill that he never had a specialty. He wrote about candy bars, train trips, Nobel prize winners, film stars, sleds, old photographs and his own history of stuttering.

"He was a glorious writer who could make anything interesting," said Mary Hadar, former editor of Style. "He never talked down or showed off in his writing, but somehow he connected."

In his memoir, "A Good Life," Benjamin C. Bradlee, vice president at large and former executive editor of The Post, described Mr. Kernan as a "poet in newspaperman's clothing."

Besides his newspaper work, Mr. Kernan published two books and wrote more than 100 articles for Smithsonian magazine. For seven years, he wrote the "Around the Mall and beyond" column for Smithsonian.

At The Post, he was understated in both his writing and his demeanor. In a newsroom of sometimes volatile personalities, Mr. Kernan quietly went about his work with little fuss. He sometimes hurled papers to his desk and cursed aloud in sham tantrums designed, he said, to conform to the image of the temperamental writer.

Mr. Kernan wrote with a wry, supple voice, often enlivened by first-person asides, that subtly concealed the breadth of his research. Returning from his assignments, he tore pages from his notebook, spread them on his desk and began to write. He would leave a mistake in each story for his editors to remove -- making them less inclined to touch his favorite passages.

"You never saw him hurry," said Henry Allen, a Style editor who first met Mr. Kernan in 1970, "and you never saw him miss a deadline."

In 1969, Mr. Kernan spent a week at Dupont Circle, chronicling the colorful characters and changing events throughout the day and night. He managed to draw out Woody Allen in an interview when the filmmaker was reluctant to speak with reporters. In 1980, he went "undercover" as a waiter at an embassy party, going unnoticed by people who had known him for years.

In 1988, he wrote a meditation on pocketknives, recalling his ninth birthday, when he received his first knife. Sent to his room, he spent the day carving up the soft wood of his bedstead.

"I have no recollection of the rest of that birthday," he wrote. "It has disappeared, like the day after I nailed the living room rug to the hardwood floor with my carpenter set when I was 6."

Michael Jenkins Kernan Jr. was born in Utica, N.Y., on April 29, 1927. He grew up outside Clinton, N.Y., where his father was a stockbroker and state senator. His grandfather, Francis Kernan, was a U.S. senator in the 19th century.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1949, Mr. Kernan joined the Watertown Daily Times in Upstate New York.

"The Times covered a huge area of northern New York," he wrote in The Post in 1987. "There were dozens of hamlets hidden in the Adirondacks, Faulknerian retreats where strangers rarely intruded and usually regretted it when they did.

"We covered every one of these places."

From 1953 to 1966, he was an editor and reporter with the Redwood City Tribune in California, where he once performed as a circus clown for a story. In 1966, he moved his family to London for several months and worked on a novel.

He joined The Post as a city editor in 1967, but his writing quickly brought him notice and led to his assignment to the newly created Style section.

"He was one of the people who made it as great as it is," Allen said. "He and the others set a standard in the Style section that makes it the source of some of the best writing in America."

His final story as a staff writer, on June 18, 1989, was about looking through his family's photo albums. He was particularly drawn to the photograph of his family on a beach in Europe when he was 4.

"I don't know why I search through this picture so," he wrote, "lighting avidly on each bit of family paraphernalia as though I would find an insight in all this detail, this sheer miscellaneous multiplicity, the raw material of life unedited by pain or time."

Mr. Kernan won several awards for his journalism and the short stories he wrote in his spare time. In 1977, he published "The Violet Dots," a nonfiction account of a British soldier's harrowing experiences in the Battle of the Somme in World War I. A novel, "The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals," came out in 1994.

He wrote at least seven other novels that were never published.

After retiring from The Post in 1989, he moved from Washington to Baltimore. He wrote stories and columns on U.S. history, art and other topics for Smithsonian and other publications until he moved to Vermont in 2002.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Margot Starr Kernan of Bennington; three children, Nathan Kernan of New York City, Lisa Kernan of Los Angeles and Nicholas Kernan of Cheverly; a sister; and two grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company