Sidney Epstein, 81, a former newspaper copy boy who capped his career as associate publisher and editor of the Washington Star, died Sept. 15 at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville. He had Alzheimer's disease and pneumonia.

There was hardly a cranny of Washington civic life that Mr. Epstein did not know. He so identified himself with the city that he tried to mask the fact that he was born in Delaware.

The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in the District and became smitten with newspapering while a copy boy at the old Washington Herald in 1937. He worked his way through the merged Times-Herald -- once reluctantly hiring a young Jacqueline Bouvier as a roving photographer -- and then made his reputation as a formidable presence at the Star from 1954 until it closed in 1981.

The Star, an afternoon paper, was the dominant daily in the city when he joined the staff. He was city editor, assistant managing editor and managing editor before being appointed executive editor, overseeing all news and feature operations, in 1978.

Mary Lou Werner Forbes, who won a Pulitzer Prize at the Star for her reporting on desegregation in Virginia, said Mr. Epstein "had an absolute natural instinct for what a story was and how it should be written." He always insisted that she never sensationalize her reports.

Mr. Epstein was more than six feet tall, a nattily dressed former Marine. His demeanor was sometimes martial, sometimes jovial, what Forbes called "a composite image of the city editors of the olden days."

In the 1960s, he played a major role in the coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the riots in Washington after the killing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Shortly before the Star folded, after years of circulation and advertising decline in an economy that did not favor afternoon papers, Mr. Epstein was named associate publisher and editor.

Mr. Epstein did some consulting work in the early 1980s but was largely retired.

In 1994, he spoke with Washingtonian magazine about his hiring of Bouvier, a socially connected debutante who later married Kennedy.

He was the Times-Herald city editor and met with Bouvier only as a favor to another editor. "I remember her as this very attractive, cute-as-hell girl, and all the guys in the newsroom giving her a good look," he said.

Her journalism credentials were less attractive, and he was reluctant to hire her as a reporter.

When she said she had studied photography at the Sorbonne using a Leica, he said he might hire her if she could forget the fancy camera and learn to master the Speed Graphic in 24 hours. She did, and he took her on staff at $25 a week as the paper's inquiring photographer.

Mr. Epstein was born in Wilmington, Del. He attended George Washington University but left after working as a Herald copy boy.

His colleagues at the Times-Herald published a short and joshing profile of him in 1942, as he was returning to Washington after training with the Marines in South Carolina at the start of World War II.

The story said he had been a rewrite man, working the 7 p.m.-to-3 a.m. shift, and neither rose early nor seemed ideally suited to military life.

"It was generally expected by those who knew him that Sidney would die a hasty death as a result," the Times-Herald wrote. "But not at all. Private Epstein turned up in Washington a few days ago a veritable Atlas of a man, bulging with muscle and clear of eye. He even felt good."

He went on to serve in the Pacific Theater as an artillery officer. He retired from the Reserve in 1958 as a captain.

His Marine Corps experience paid off in 1959 when one night after work he chased a young thug who tried to steal a woman's pocketbook. The woman was Rosina Quarles, the widow of Donald A. Quarles, former secretary of the Air Force.

Mr. Epstein held the 19-year-old unemployed porter until police hauled him away. He received the Washington Criminal Justice Association's award of Mr. Citizen of 1960.

His first marriage, to Mary Allbritain Epstein, ended in divorce.

His wife of 33 years, Eleni Sakes Epstein, a former fashion editor at the Star, died in 1991.

Survivors include a daughter from the first marriage, Diane Morales of Collierville, Tenn.; and a granddaughter.

Sidney Epstein meets with President Ronald Reagan at the Star's offices in 1981. The longtime journalist died Sept. 15 at the age of 81.