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Russell Baker, Times Columnist, Delight To Readers, Dies at 93

January 22, 2019

A writer who could make a newspaper page come alive.

Mr. Baker in 1951 at The Baltimore Sun, where his newspaper career began

Russell Baker, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose whimsical, irreverent “Observer” column appeared in The New York Times and hundreds of other newspapers for 36 years and turned a backwoods-born Virginian into one of America’s most celebrated writers, died on Monday at his home in Leesburg, Va. He was 93.

But it was as a columnist that Mr. Baker made his name. Based at first in Washington, he recalled that he had to feel his way in the new genre of spoof and jape. “Nobody knew what the column was going to be,” he told the writer Nora Ephron. “I didn’t. The Times didn’t.”

But soon he was doing what he called his “ballet in a telephone booth,” creating in the confined space of 750 words satirical dialogues, parodies and burlesques of politicians and the whirling capital circus — then stoking the fires of the antiwar and civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard M. Nixon from office in 1974.

That year, Mr. Baker moved from Washington to New York, and his column changed. His topics grew more varied, less tied to news events and more to the trappings of ordinary life. His writing, admirers said, matured into literature: an owlish wit, sometimes surreal, often absurdist, usually scouring dark corridors of paradox, always carried off with a subtext of good sense.

He wrote of Francisco Franco’s dying and going straight to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. In another column, a pseudonymous Sykes tells of awakening one day to find that he has someone else’s feet. Sykes conceals the shame from his wife and colleagues. Doctors are no help. Finally he confides to an editor, who signs him to a three-book contract. The feet become television celebrities. Hollywood wants Sykes’s life story for a Robert Redford movie.

In 1975, after The Times’s food editor and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne reported in gastronomic detail on a $4,000 31-course epicurean repast for two, with wines, in Paris, Mr. Baker wrote “Francs and Beans,” describing his own culinary triumph after coming home to find a note in the kitchen saying his wife had gone out.

“The meal opened with a 1975 Diet Pepsi served in a disposable bottle,” he wrote. “Although its bouquet was negligible, its distinct metallic aftertaste evoked memories of tin cans one had licked experimentally in the first flush of childhood’s curiosity.” And on to a “pâté de fruites de nuts of Georgia”: “A half-inch layer of creamy-style peanut butter is troweled onto a graham cracker, then half a banana is crudely diced and pressed firmly into the peanut butter and cemented in place as it were by a second graham cracker.”

Two years later, he conceived “A Taxpayer’s Prayer”:

“O mighty Internal Revenue, who turneth the labor of man to ashes, we thank thee for the multitude of thy forms which thou has set before us and for the infinite confusion of thy commandments which multiplieth the fortunes of lawyer and accountant alike. …”

His targets were legion: the Super Bowl, Miss America, unreadable menus, everything on television, trips with children, the jogging craze, the perils of buying a suit, loneliness and book-of-the-month clubs. He struck poses of despair that resonated with harried readers: of his endless effort to read Proust, of lacking the gene for resisting salesmen, of boredom with dull dirty books.

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