When reporter Nicholas von Hoffman joined The Washington Post in 1966, he brought with him a flair for controversy that eventually triggered a resignation threat from a top editor, a boycott from advertisers and, according to Post historian Chalmers M. Roberts, “produced more angry letters to the editor than the work of any other single reporter in the paper’s history.”
The son of a professional explorer who once walked from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Mr. von Hoffman had worked for community organizer Saul Alinsky in Chicago before reporting on the civil rights movement in the South while sporting an elegant suit and a prematurely white shock of hair.
He had such a good ear for dialogue that some colleagues believed he was simply fabricating his stories, and he was handpicked by The Post’s ambitious new managing editor, Ben Bradlee, to enliven a newspaper known for dull prose.
Mr. von Hoffman, who was 88 when he died Feb. 1 at a hospital in Rockport, Maine, was “an irreverent intellectual who wrote like a dream,” Bradlee observed in his memoir, “A Good Life.” He injected wit, verve and a striking left-leaning point of view into his stories and columns at The Post, where he worked for 10 years and became one of the first writers and editors at Style, the paper’s innovative new features section.
At the typewriter of Mr. von Hoffman, used-car dealers became crooks — a comparison that spurred an advertiser boycott of The Post — and Democratic presidential candidate and evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter became “Jimmy Peanut,” “the gleamy-toothed, bushy-tailed anointed chipmunk of the lord.”
“My life would have been a lot simpler had Nicholas von Hoffman not appeared in the paper,” former Post publisher Katharine Graham wrote in her autobiography, “Personal History.” “But he also had a gifted voice and represented a certain segment of the population that needed to be heard. Almost alone among American journalists at the time, von Hoffman was telling us what was in the minds of the young who felt dispossessed and unrepresented by the so-called establishment press.”
Mr. von Hoffman was among the first reporters to focus on the hippie community of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, spending an entire summer there in 1967. His reporting so intrigued Bradlee that the editor flew to San Francisco to spend three days with Mr. von Hoffman, whose interviews with drugged-out residents — conducted in his usual work attire, a suit — led some people to ask if he was an undercover “narc,” his son Alexander von Hoffman said in an interview.
All 16 of Mr. von Hoffman’s Haight-Ashbury stories were syndicated and ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, and formed the basis of Mr. von Hoffman’s 1968 book “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against.” A Newsweek reviewer described the book as “a rare example of journalism that approaches art in one direction and the best of social science in another.”
Mr. von Hoffman’s tenure at The Post was often fraught, generating conflict between editors who argued over whether his writing was powerful and vivid — or editorializing and lacking any semblance of objectivity.
One of his most contentious stories, a piece about a funeral, began this way: “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led his last march today. He was in a cherrywood coffin, carried in an old farm wagon hitched to a pair of down-home mules.”
Ben Gilbert, a senior editor at the paper, “had a fit,” Mr. von Hoffman later said according to “Power, Privilege, and the Post,” a biography of Graham by journalist Carol Felsenthal.
“ ‘There’s no way that you’re going to lead The Washington Post with this piece of garbage,’ ” Gilbert said, according to Mr. von Hoffman. Another editor threatened to resign if the story didn’t appear on the paper’s front page, where it eventually ran at Bradlee’s direction.
Mr. von Hoffman wrote plays and more than a dozen books, including “Citizen Cohn” (1988), a best-selling biography of Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1950s Red Scare. After leaving The Post in 1976, he contributed to publications including the New Republic, Esquire, Architectural Digest and the New York Observer.
But he also ranged far beyond print journalism, commenting on public affairs on “Byline,” a Cato Institute-sponsored radio show, and battling with conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick on “Point/Counterpoint,” a segment of the CBS program “60 Minutes” that the two writers inaugurated in 1971.
Mr. von Hoffman’s best-known comment on the show was also his last, resulting in his firing by “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt.
“The President is like a dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor,” he said in July 1974, in the waning days of the Richard M. Nixon administration. “The question is: Who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash?”
Nicholas von Hoffman was born in Manhattan on Oct. 16, 1929. His mother was a dentist, and his father, Russian-born explorer Carl von Hoffman, brought the family a pet chimpanzee, Jo-Jo Boy, that he “rescued” from Africa.
Mr. von Hoffman’s parents divorced when he was a child, and after graduating from a Catholic prep school in the Bronx he attended Loyola University Chicago. He dropped out within a week to work odd jobs at a slaughterhouse and hotel.
Mr. von Hoffman was introduced to Alinsky and was offered a job on the condition he cut his hair and wear a suit. He went on to become a leader of the Woodlawn Organization, which led voter-registration drives and other civil rights efforts on Chicago’s South Side. He left in 1963 to join the Chicago Daily News as a reporter.
His marriages to Ann Byrne and Patricia Bennett ended in divorce. Survivors include three sons from his first marriage, Alexander von Hoffman of Cambridge, Mass., Aristodemus von Hoffman of Quantico, Va., and Constantine von Hoffman of Boston; and two grandchildren.
Mr. von Hoffman died of renal failure, his family said.
While he was sometimes cited as an early exemplar of “New Journalism,” the literary movement that melded fact-based reporting with novelistic techniques, Mr. von Hoffman insisted that his approach to the craft was “nothing new.”
His reporting style, he told Newsweek in 1969, was “no different than the methods used by people like Hearst, Pulitzer or Mencken. They certainly didn’t adhere to strict news objectivity. I think you’re mad if you come into journalism with the idea that you’re going to change things for the better. I write because I enjoy it. I sincerely believe in what I write, and I get a kick out of getting those Washington mossbacks angry.”