Gilbert Harrison, 92; Longtime Editor of New Republic
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Gilbert A. Harrison, 92, former editor and publisher of the New Republic magazine who ran the influential Washington-based weekly for 20 years, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 3 at Hospice of the Valley in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mr. Harrison published an intellectual, liberal but non-doctrinaire journal of opinions, politics and arts that was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He was considered an excellent "pencil editor" -- someone who could mark up and improve a writer's work -- and was also skilled at identifying and hiring talented journalists before they were known commodities.
"He was an old-fashioned gentleman who treated everybody as if they were part of the literary set," said Walter Pincus, a Washington Post reporter who worked for Mr. Harrison at the magazine. "You really had to read it when Gil had it, if you were part of the liberal left."
The magazine, founded in 1914, was considered for most of the 20th century as the leading liberal political magazine in the nation. One story, indicative of the magazine's power in its heyday, recounted Mr. Harrison writing an editorial calling for a Democratic Party challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The next morning, his doorbell rang, and there stood Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy with the New Republic under his arm and a light in his eye.
Asked about it in 1970, both men pooh-poohed the idea that the editorial pushed McCarthy into the 1968 presidential race. But McCarthy said, "I did used to talk to Gil quite a bit about it. . . ."
Through his 20 years at the magazine, Mr. Harrison collected writers such as John Osborne, who wrote a White House Watch column during the Watergate era; Richard Strout, who penned the TRB column; literary editor Doris Grumbach; and theater critic Stanley Kauffmann. Investigative reporter James Ridgeway became nationally known when he revealed in the magazine that General Motors had hired private detectives to tail consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Mr. Harrison, who told Pincus that "an editor's job is to put a writer's own words in the best form possible," himself received the prestigious George Polk Award for magazine writing in 1963.
Mr. Harrison bought the New Republic in 1953. He sold it in 1974 to Martin H. Peretz for $380,000. Mr. Harrison expected to stay on as editor-in-chief until 1977, but differences between owner and editor quickly arose, and he left after a few months. Peretz in 2002 sold two-thirds of the magazine's ownership to two financiers.
In 1969, Mr. Harrison bought Liveright Publishing, a book publisher that had launched William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson and whose backlist contained works of Eugene O'Neill, Robinson Jeffers, Sigmund Freud and Theodore Dreiser. He sold that company, too, in 1974.
Mr. Harrison went on to write two biographies: "A Timeless Affair: The Life of Anita McCormick Blaine" (1979), about his wife; and "The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder" (1983), which received respectful reviews. He also edited several books, including "Gertrude Stein's America" (1965) and "The Critic as Artist" (1972).
Mr. Harrison was born in Detroit, grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles. He moved to Washington in 1941 to become chair of the Division of Youth Activities at the Office of Civilian Defense. He joined the Army during World War II and was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter and report from Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped.
After the war, he attended Balliol College at Oxford University but left to work in Berlin under Gen. Lucius Clay during the Russian blockade and Berlin Airlift.
Mr. Harrison had helped found the American Veterans Committee as a liberal alternative to the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He became the committee's national chairman.
In 1951, he married Ann Blaine, heiress to the International Harvester fortune and the great-granddaughter of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the horse-drawn reaper. They settled in Washington.
His wife died in 1977. Mr. Harrison then moved to Scottsdale.
Survivors include four children, David Blaine Harrison of San Francisco, James Louis Harrison and Eleanor Anne Harrison, both of Denver, and Joel McCormick Harrison of New York; and five grandchildren.