Eleanor “Ellie” Merrill, who along with her husband, Philip Merrill, the longtime publisher of Washingtonian magazine and the Capital newspaper of Annapolis, became a leader in regional journalism and philanthropy, died July 15 at a hospital in Baltimore. She was 82.
The cause was a head injury sustained in a fall, said her daughter Catherine Merrill Williams, the president and publisher of Washingtonian magazine.
Mrs. Merrill, a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants and the first person in her family to go to college, became a prominent figure in the Maryland and national capital areas for five decades.
In 1960, she and her husband, newly married, settled in Washington, where he was an intelligence analyst at the State Department. Constitutionally unsuited for bureaucracy, he left government in 1968 to purchase the Capital, a struggling newspaper that under his leadership grew into a hard-charging, high-circulation publication.
Over the years, he expanded his holdings, which also included the Maryland Gazette, to include the Bowie Blade-News, the Crofton News-Crier, the West County Gazette, the South County Gazette and, for a period, Baltimore magazine.
In 1979, he purchased Washingtonian magazine. Under his leadership, it combined service-oriented lists of top doctors and top restaurants with National Magazine Award-winning reportage to become one of the city’s most popular publications.
Philip Merrill took occasional sabbaticals from his publishing work to serve in government posts, including in the Defense Department, as assistant secretary-general for NATO of for defense support, and as chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. In his absence, Mrs. Merrill oversaw the newspapers and Washingtonian.
“They both loved Washington and wanted to publish a magazine that [would] help make it a better city,” Jack Limpert, the editor of Washingtonian for four decades before his retirement in 2012, said in an email.
Mrs. Merrill was “smart and low-key and kept the magazine on a steady course while Phil was away,” Limpert wrote. “Phil was brilliant but at times temperamental and Ellie was a wonderfully stabilizing force, making them a good team. They were like a two-person crew piloting a plane — Phil the pilot and Ellie the navigator, with Ellie telling Phil to slow down when she thought he was going too fast or going in the wrong direction.”
In 2006, after undergoing heart surgery and other medical problems, Philip Merrill died from what the Maryland medical examiner’s office determined to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His body was found in the Chesapeake Bay nine days after he went sailing alone on his boat, the Merrilly, and disappeared.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Merrill briefly became chairman and publisher of the family company, Capital-Gazette Communications. The next year, she and a business partner, Landmark Communications, reached an agreement in which Landmark took control of the newspapers and the Merrill family took control of Washingtonian.
Mrs. Merrill became chairman of Washingtonian, and her daughter ascended to publisher.
Eleanor Anne Pocius was born in Scranton, Pa., on Nov. 2, 1933. Her father was a coal miner and bar owner, and her mother was a homemaker.
She received a bachelor’s degree in English from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., in 1955, then ventured to New York, where she was a Broadway press agent. In her early days in Washington, she was a press secretary to U.S. Sen. Kenneth B. Keating (R-N.Y.).
Mrs. Merrill was a former chairman of the board of visitors at the University of Maryland’s journalism school. In 2001, she and her husband donated $10 million to the school, which today is called the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
The couple also supported the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, home to the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose headquarters are located at the Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis.
Mrs. Merrill served on the boards of Washington organizations including the Shakespeare Theatre and Ford’s Theatre. A resident of Arnold, Md., she also maintained residences in the District and in Aspen, Colo.
Survivors include three children, Douglas Merrill of Shelburne, Vt., Catherine Merrill Williams of Washington and Nancy Merrill of Annapolis; and four grandsons.
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