R.I.P. RUSSELL BAKER 1925-2019
Russell Baker (You might recognize his face if you watched Masterpiece Theater on PBS) died in January a few days after my birthday, and I recall with fond nostalgia our lunch at the New York City Yale Club about the same time in 1984--some months after The Los Angeles Times Book Review nominated his Growing Up for its Biography Award and asked me to do the write-up:
We share a gentler world in Russell Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Growing Up (Congdon & Weed: $15, hardcover; Plume: $5.95, paperback), a book that casts the spell of honesty on narcissism and turns it into sweet nostalgia. Baker frames his autobiography with the recent death of his mother: “It was useless now to ask for help from my mother. The orbits of her mind rarely touched present interrogators for more than a moment.”
His father died when he was five, and his memories of the wake have that family vividness that makes us realize how our memories are formed, “‘Do you want to kiss you daddy?’ Annie asked, ‘Not now,’ I said.”
Interwoven with gossip, insight and deeply moving letters from his mother’s Depression suitor, the texture of Baker’s reminiscence transforms deferred pain to present poignancy. We end at his mother’s deathbed: “Her eyelids closed again. ‘You remember Russell,’ I said. ‘And Mimi. You remember Mimi.’ Her mind seemed about to surface again. She got her eyes open.
‘Who?” ‘Russell,’ I said. ‘Russell and Mimi.’ She glared at me the way I had so often seen her glare at a dolt. ‘Never heard of them,’ she said, and fell asleep.”
The life of a human being is a million moments of action. Character is decision, a signpost along the way. Biographers serve us by revealing how human beings design for themselves the characteristic force that gives life meaning. They offer models for emulation or avoidance…
He’d written to thank me for the review, and I suggested the lunch because I’d considered him a mentor in my journalism career. During lunch we discovered dozens of what my friend the late Denise Levertov called “Interweavings,” those connections discovered only when human beings actually sit down to talk about nothing in particular, just life in general. If I recall, we talked about the creative energy caused by deadlines and word-count restrictions, Richard Nixon, and solitude vs loneliness. I walked out feeling exalted by being in the presence of a fully engaged human being. Even today I savor trips to New York, one of the cities, other than in my native South, where just plain talking is still considered the best that it gets and where many of this country’s just plain good talkers like Russell hang out.
He made it to 93, died of “complications from a fall,” as so many do, including my brother Fred this past July.
I’m sorry I can’t report massive insights from the lunch. What I can report is the gentleness of spirit that informed his writing and his life, and that made me want the genial conversation to go on forever. And so it will.