It’s the birthday of American journalist and humorist Russell Baker (1925) (books by this author), best known for his satirical essays on politics and daily life in his “Observer” column for the New York Times.
Baker was born Russell Wayne Baker in Morrisonville, Virginia. His father was a diabetic who drank moonshine at a hog-butchering festival, slipped into a coma, and died when Baker was five, plunging the family into poverty. His mother moved the family to New Jersey, where she found work as a laundress, and then Baltimore, where Baker lived across the street from satirist H.L. Mencken. In elementary school, Baker wrote an essay on wheat, a teacher praised him, and he decided to become a writer because, he said, “What writers did couldn’t even be classified as work.”
After serving in the Navy and graduating from Johns Hopkins, Baker spent two years as a night reporter at the Baltimore Sun, thinking it would be good training for a novelist, but he ended up writing a lively column called “A Window on Fleet Street” and soon found himself with the Washington Bureau of the New York Times, covering national politics. He began writing his “Observer” column, for which he wrote about quitting smoking, tax reform, trimming a Christmas tree, and the common cold, in 1962 and didn’t stop for almost 40 years. When he retired, he said: “Writing a column was like swimming underwater. When you swim underwater and you want to swim across the pool, you do it in one breath, right? You take a breath and you dive in and swim […] It’s one smooth motion and it’s over.”
Baker began hosting Masterpiece Theatre on PBS in 1992, replacing longtime host Alistair Cooke. He said: “Television is harder than I thought. I can’t bear to look at myself. I fancied that I was an exceedingly charming, witty, and handsome young man, and here’s this fidgeting old fellow whose hair is parted on the wrong side.”
Russell Baker has twice won the Pulitzer Prize: the first time for commentary for his “Observer” columns (1979) and the second time for his best-selling memoir, Growing Up (1982). Baker’s other books include No Cause for Panic (1964), Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), The Good Times (1989), and Looking Back: Heroes, Rascals, and Other Icons of the American Imagination (2002).