Russell Baker 1925-2019

Russell Baker, one of America’s leading journalists in the last half of the 20th Century, has died at the age of 93. He was best known as a reporter and columnist for the New York Times. But he got his start in journalism on the Baltimore Sun as a police reporter beginning the late 1940s. In what may have been his first assignment as a reporter on non-criminal matters, he was sent to interview Evelyn Waugh during Waugh’s stop in Baltimore on his 1949 tour where he lectured at Loyola College of Maryland. Baker wrote about this experience in his 1989 memoir The Good Times.

Waugh was interviewed by both the morning and evening Sun papers, which had separate editorial and news staffs in the 1940s. The interviews were conducted in the the house of Charles Reeves, a local lawyer and benefactor of Loyola College, who hosted Waugh and his wife on their Baltimore visit. The Baltimore Sun (the morning paper) was represented by Baker, who grew up in blue-collar south Baltimore. As explained in his memoir, Baker had been assigned on short notice with no opportunity to research Waugh’s background. He had never read anything by Waugh, and the assignment was not explained to him. He had no time to change clothes to suit the refined tastes of north Baltimore. When he arrived, the reporter for the rival Evening Sun was already there.

Baker noticed that Waugh was dressed in the tweedy north Baltimore style, only more so–as though in parody. He also 

looked like an extremely disagreeable man. The wide pink face did not quite scowl at me, but it was a face from which the smile seemed to have faded years ago. He had the eyes of an angry bird. As I introduced myself, I thought I saw pure hostility in those eyes, but this may have been my fevered imagination at work. Hostile or not, this was clearly a man not likely to be charmed by bumbling damn-fool questions from boy reporters. (The Good Times) 

Baker was further spooked by the Evening Sun reporter, James Bready, a brilliant and experienced feature writer. 

Searching his brain, Baker came up with one fact about Waugh—his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The interview took place just after reports that the Communist government of Hungary had imprisoned Cardinal Josef Mindszenty. In desperation, Baker asked Waugh how he felt about the Cardinal’s imprisonment. Although a how-do-you-feel question was, according to Baker, the sure sign of an amateur in the news business, it worked well on Waugh, who became animated and spoke his mind about what he considered an outrageous action.

Waugh’s reaction became the basis of Baker’s report of the interview in the Sun:

“I can say nothing but what the whole world says. It is pure martyrdom in an age of martyrs. Cardinal Spellman summed the whole thing up quite admirably, I think, in his sermon  Sunday. It shows quite clearly how low the prestige of the West has fallen.”

Mr Waugh, a short boyish-looking man with intense, inquiring eyes and a decisive way of speaking, went on to talk of the so-called “religious revival” in modern letters. “I see no reason to account for it,” he said. “Man is a religious animal. It is abnormal for him not to be religious.”

Baker also included some of Waugh’s responses to questions that may have been asked by Bready, who knew about Waugh’s recent trip to Hollywood. According to Waugh, Aldous Huxley was surrounded by a “bunch of loonies” involved in what they called mysticism: “Huxley is not an irreligious man. He’s just lost in a hopeless fog…. Mysticism implies contact with the supernatural and is a part of Christianity.” When asked about themes of The Loved One (which Bready had obviously read), Waugh responded: “Forest Lawn is the best ordered part of the cinema world. There, all the bodies are properly sorted and placed.” As to whether he would return to Hollywood, Waugh responded: “I’ve seen Hollywood. There’s no point in going back.”

The article concluded:

Asked whether his reputation as a writer of satire makes people expect to find him bitter, Mr Waugh replied, “I don’t know what they expect; but they’re certainly disappointed if they do.” Mr Waugh was right. He creates the impression of being a sober man of faith rather than a cynic.

Baker had his story printed, with no byline, on page 18: “Waugh, Novelist, Calls Trial of Cardinal ‘Martyrdom’” (Baltimore Sun, 8 Feb. 1949). The story is accompanied by a photo which looks as if it were taken for the occasion.

The foregoing account of Russell Baker’s interview of Evelyn Waugh appeared in slightly different form in “’Something Entirely Unique’: Evelyn Waugh’s 1948-49 Tours of North America, Part 3, Baltimore”,  by John McGinty and Jeffrey Manley. Evelyn Waugh Studies, No. 44.2, Autumn 2013.

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