Philip Merrill, 72; Passionate Publisher and Philanthropist

Philip Merrill is shown in 2001 after announcing his $10 million gift to the University of Maryland journalism school.
Philip Merrill is shown in 2001 after announcing his $10 million gift to the University of Maryland journalism school. (By John T. Consoli -- University Of Maryland)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Philip Merrill, 72, the publisher of Washingtonian magazine and the Capital newspaper of Annapolis who also had been a NATO diplomat and a philanthropist, disappeared June 10 during a lone sailing trip in the Chesapeake Bay.

He was presumed dead June 12, police said after searching without success for his body. His 41-foot sailboat, the Merrilly, was discovered abandoned in the bay about 20 miles from his home in Arnold, on the Severn River.

Mr. Merrill was the first person in his family to attend college and became a self-made millionaire with his media holdings, which at one time included the glossy Baltimore magazine. He once described himself as an "old-fashioned 19th-century entrepreneur" without a particular goal as a young man but with a singular wish to work for himself and no one else.

He was an aggressive and ambitious State Department intelligence analyst early in his career, but he detested bureaucracy and left government at age 34 to enter business. He borrowed money from friends and banks in 1968 to buy the Capital, a newspaper he described as barely profitable. "It cost several million, and I didn't have $10,000 in cash," he once said.

He continually struggled to finance the paper as he set about creating new editorial and business practices; some were progressive, such as including news coverage of weddings and the deaths of black residents. Meanwhile, he faced lawsuits by his initial partners for control of the paper and once traveled to Afghanistan to get power of attorney from an investor, which helped him win his legal battles.

He made local news the focus of the paper, putting national and world coverage deep inside. He hired young staff members, worked them hard for little pay and had a leading role in making the editorial page a forum for his intimidating personal style.

He once accused Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph W. Alton Jr., who ultimately went to prison on corruption charges, of orchestrating real estate deals for personal gain that amounted to "mass rape" of the Annapolis landscape.

Mr. Merrill's fist-pounding office manner and steaming temper went full boil when challenged on his opposition to slot-machine gambling in Maryland. Slots would lead to moral degradation and organized crime, he said.

On many other topics, his booming style was designed to test the reaction and substance of the person on the receiving end, friends and associates said.

The Capital became a great circulation success in Annapolis and by the late 1980s was reportedly worth at least $50 million.

Among his holdings, Washingtonian, which he purchased in 1979, brought him the most prestige. He often trumpeted the high income and education of its subscribers, saying the magazine was targeted at the "upper 10 percent" of the city's wealthiest society.

"This is unashamedly -- or, if you will, unabashedly -- an elitist magazine," he once said. He was not shy about including himself among the magazine's lists of the city's "who's who."

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