William Warner; Wrote Classic On Chesapeake

William W. Warner won a Pulitzer Prize for
William W. Warner won a Pulitzer Prize for "Beautiful Swimmers," which was his first book. (The Washington Post)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

William W. Warner, 88, a retired Foreign Service officer whose first book, "Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay," was a national bestseller and winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, died April 18 of complications of Alzheimer's disease at his home in the District.

Mr. Warner was nearing 60 when he published "Beautiful Swimmers" in 1976. The book is an elegantly written, scientifically accurate exploration of the Chesapeake Bay blue crab and of the lives and lore of Eastern Shore watermen, who for more than three centuries have depended on C allinectes sapidus (Greek and Latin for "savory beautiful swimmer").

Reviewing "Beautiful Swimmers" in The Washington Post, Larry McMurtry noted the book's "high particularity" -- a particular animal, a particular place, a particular way of life. "The prose of 'Beautiful Swimmers,' " McMurtry wrote, "has grace, wit and clarity, on top of a real strength of feeling; were one not inclined to read the book to find out about crabs and watermen, one would still read it merely for its sentences."

Praise for Mr. Warner and his work also came from Morris Marsh, a Smith Island waterman profiled in "Beautiful Swimmers." "I enjoyed him, really, and he mostly asked sensible questions," Marsh told Tom Horton, who wrote an article for Washingtonian magazine in June 2007. "A lot says they want to go with you, but come 4 a.m., they're not there. But he was always there, waiting to go."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, noted that "Beautiful Swimmers," along with James A. Michener's novel "Chesapeake," "put the Chesapeake Bay on the national agenda." Mr. Warner served on the board of the foundation.

William Whitesides Warner, known to his friends as Willie, was born to wealth in New York City -- "in a house without great books, without a father, and, for some periods of the year, without a mother," he wrote in the introduction to his fourth book, "Into the Porcupine Cave." His parents divorced when he was an infant; years later, he hired a private detective to track down his father.

Mr. Warner's daughter, Alexandra Nash, recalled that her father was raised by an irascible step-grandfather whose behavior was so extreme that the young Mr. Warner and his only brother, Shot, escaped as often as they could into the wilderness along the Jersey shore. That's where he began his lifelong love affair with nature.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Cornell University, briefly. At a dinner party, his knowledge of history and anthropology so impressed Childs Frick, a Princeton University paleontologist who was the son of steel magnate Henry Frick, that Frick called the Princeton admissions office the next day and Mr. Warner was immediately accepted as a student. A geology major, he and a classmate spent the summer of 1941 in central Utah, where they dug up a complete skeleton of the giant, late-Jurassic period dinosaur Antrodemus. The mounted skeleton of the carnivore still greets visitors in the lobby of Princeton's Guyot Hall.

After graduating cum laude from Princeton in 1943, he served as an aerial photograph analyst with a Marine air group and aboard the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he was owner and operator, with his brother, of a ski resort in Stowe, Vt., and taught English at a local high school. He skied until age 80.

He joined the U.S. Information Agency in 1953 and served for the next nine years as a public affairs officer in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Chile.

After working for two years for the newly established Peace Corps as program coordinator for Latin America, he joined the Smithsonian Institution, where he was instrumental in starting Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Associates and the annual Folk Life Festival on the Mall. He retired in 1978.

"I just had this vague feeling that I'd like to do a little writing," he told the New York Times in 1983. He soon realized, as he told the Times, that the "benign and beautiful waters" of the Chesapeake were his natural setting and the watermen were his natural heroes. He wrote the book in a closet-size hideaway in an Audubon Society building in Bethesda.

Mr. Warner traced his fascination with the bay to the boats. "In talking to the Chesapeake watermen," he wrote, "I found it impossible to hear them casually drop such terms as 'bar cats,' 'one-sail bateaux,' 'dinky skifts,' 'Jenkins Creekers' or 'Hooper Island draketails' and let it go at that."

"Beautiful Swimmers" has never been out of print.

"Once a subject caught my father's attention, he pursued it in an unrelenting fashion," Nash said. She recalled that for his second book, "Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman" (1983), he went out for weeks at a time on trawlers from England, Spain, Germany and Russia. He studied Russian for six months with a tutor so he could converse with the crew of a Russian trawler.

He also wrote "At Peace With All Their Neighbors" (1994), a history of the Catholic Church in Washington, and "Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist" (1999).

In addition to his daughter, of the District, survivors include his wife of 57 years, Kathleen McMahon Warner of the District; five other children, John B. Warner, Georgiana Kaempfer, Elizabeth Brown and Andrew Warner, all of the District, and Alletta Drakoulias of Los Angeles; and nine grandchildren.

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