Osborn Elliott, 83; Newsweek Editor Fueled Magazine's Success

Osborn Elliott, who left Time magazine for the then-little-noticed Newsweek, established a reputation as an innovator and helped reinvent the publication.
Osborn Elliott, who left Time magazine for the then-little-noticed Newsweek, established a reputation as an innovator and helped reinvent the publication. (Family Photo Via Bloomberg News)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

Osborn Elliott, 83, a former Newsweek editor who transformed the magazine into a lively competitor with its archrival Time and who later became a deputy mayor of New York City, died Sept. 28 in New York. The cause of death was complications from cancer, his family told Newsweek.

In 1955, Mr. Elliott, known as "Oz," was working as an editor at Time when he was offered a job as senior business editor at Newsweek, a magazine he had "hardly looked at," he said.

He wasn't the only one who rarely looked at Newsweek, a weak and struggling Time imitator in those days. He took the job, nevertheless, and four years later became managing editor, the third-ranking job at the magazine.

When the magazine was put up for sale in 1960, Mr. Elliott and Ben Bradlee, then in Newsweek's Washington bureau, persuaded Philip L. Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, to buy it. Graham made Mr. Elliott, then 36, the magazine's executive editor.

"Newsweek needed somebody to open the windows and doors and let a gust of fresh air blow through," Mr. Elliott told the New York Post in 1976. "Phil Graham made it possible by the tone he set and the budget he gave me. We attracted top people who attracted others and rebuilt the whole editorial department."

He quickly established a reputation as an innovator. His Newsweek departed from the group journalism tradition of Time and began running bylined articles. He also opened the pages to a number of columnists, including Milton Friedman, Meg Greenfield and Stewart Alsop.

"Oz made Newsweek a successful, ambitious, first-class publication," said Bradlee, later executive editor of The Post.

Newsweek plunged with energy and panache into coverage of the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s. In 1963, the magazine produced a detailed study of black life and attitudes in the United States, dispatching 40 researchers to conduct more than 1,200 interviews for a special issue titled "The Negro in America."

The magazine won a number of prizes for its special issue, including a Magazine of the Year award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

"I had a front row seat for that wonderful, awful period -- for the space age, the Kennedy years, the assassinations, civil rights, the war in Vietnam, the campus revolt, the sexual revolution, the women's movement," Mr. Elliott wrote in a 1977 issue of the New York Times Magazine. "But while the job was fun, it was also grueling, and in the mid-60s, being something of a space nut, I secretly resolved to extricate myself as editor as soon as man had landed on the moon. I figured that eight or 10 years of editing were enough for any man -- and more than enough for any magazine."

Mr. Elliott stayed at Newsweek until 1976, as editor in chief beginning in 1969 and also as president, chief executive and board chairman. When New York's economic development administrator resigned in June 1976, with the city about to topple into bankruptcy, Mayor Abraham D. Beame asked him to join his administration and restructure the city's economic development agency. Given the title of deputy mayor, he waived his city salary and worked for a dollar a year. He stayed in his city post until 1977.

Osborn Elliott was born in Manhattan on Oct. 25, 1924, the scion of an old New York family. His father, John Elliott, was a Wall Street stockbroker who lost his Wall Street job and much of his savings during the Great Depression. His mother, Audrey Osborn Elliott, was a former suffragette who became vice president of a real estate firm and kept the family solvent during hard times. After graduating from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., he entered the accelerated Navy ROTC program at Harvard University, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1946 after serving in the Pacific on the cruiser USS Boston.

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