Osborn Elliott, Father of Newsweek’s Rebirth, Dies at 83
Osborn Elliott, the courtly editor who revitalized Newsweek magazine in the 1960s before he went on to serve as a $1-a-year deputy mayor in charge of economic development for a financially desperate New York City, died at his home in Manhattan on Sunday. He was 83.
He died of complications of cancer, said his daughter Dorinda Elliott.
When Mr. Elliott became Newsweek’s managing editor in 1959, the magazine lagged appreciably behind its chief competitor, Time, in circulation and advertising, and aped the sort of terse and idiosyncratic writing that Time had introduced.
But Mr. Elliott, who rose to editor in 1961, was willing to experiment with formula and take a more ambitious journalistic path for Newsweek. The magazine began shunning the backward-running sentences that Time and its founder, Henry R. Luce, favored, and it started giving reporters bylines, breaking a long news magazine practice of anonymous writing.
More substantively, it began producing in-depth polling on national issues. In cover articles, often to attract a younger readership, it examined the war in Vietnam and the mounting opposition to it, the civil rights movement, racial unrest in the cities, popular culture, and the counterculture. The perspectives were generally liberal, as had been the case from the beginning of Newsweek’s rivalry with Time, which generally reflected the conservative outlook of Mr. Luce.
On Nov. 20, 1967, in a departure from its tradition of neutrality, Newsweek moved toward open advocacy with a 23-page section titled ‘The Negro in America: What Must Be Done.” In an editorial — the first in what was then the magazine’s 34-year history — Newsweek offered a 12-point program on how to accelerate the passage of black Americans into all aspects of society. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism recognized the series in giving Newsweek its Magazine of the Year Award.
Newsweek also gave prominent coverage to the women’s movement — “Women in Revolt,” one cover said — though in 1970 the magazine itself was the subject of a federal discrimination complaint by 46 young women on its news staff, most of them hired as researchers to check facts, saying they had been denied writing positions because of their sex.
Mr. Elliott, defending the magazine, said that most researchers were women because of a “news magazine tradition going back to almost 50 years.” In a negotiated agreement, the magazine promised to accelerate recruitment and promotion of women.
During Mr. Elliott’s tenure, Newsweek’s circulation, which stood at almost 1.5 million in 1961, rose to more than 2.7 million by 1976, the year he left, though even then it still trailed Time by nearly a million readers.
Mr. Elliott reveled in the job. “I had interviews with five presidents, audiences with two popes and the emperor of Japan,” he wrote in 1977, reflecting on his career in an article in The New York Times Magazine, adding that he had “spent the most interesting and moving week of my life living, and learning, in the black ghettos of America.”
But he conceded that the pace in running the magazine was grueling and that he had promised himself to lessen his burden when men had landed on the moon. Thus, in 1969, he moved on to what he called the nonexistent job of editor in chief. He later had the titles of president, chief executive and board chairman.
Mr. Elliott left Newsweek in 1976 to become New York’s first deputy mayor for economic development. The year before, at the urging of Senator Jacob K. Javits, he had formed and led the Citizens Committee for New York City, a private group founded to organize volunteers for projects the city could no longer afford to finance.
The city was nearly bankrupt and had lost almost 650,000 jobs in the previous seven years. Its economic development administrator had resigned. Mayor Abraham D. Beame asked Mr. Elliott to take over the development agency and restructure it as the Office of Economic Opportunity.
In taking the job at $1 a year, Mr. Elliott said a nominal salary would put him above the political process and give him more credibility with businesses. Charged with attracting businesses to the city, he shifted the emphasis from large corporations to smaller enterprises with fewer than 100 workers.
His turn as a public servant was brief. In 1977, he resigned to become dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a position he held until 1986, when he stepped down, although he stayed on as the George T. Delacorte Professor until 1994.
With his liberal urban enthusiasms — he helped organize a Save Our Cities march on Washington in 1992 — his polka-dot bow ties and his conservatively cut suits, Mr. Elliott was a familiar, old-money figure in some of the city’s citadels of power: the Century Association, the Harvard Club, the Council of Foreign Relations and the board rooms of the New York Public Library and the Asia Society. The composer Lukas Foss, a friend, occasionally tutored him in his piano playing at Mr. Elliott’s Connecticut house.
In 1983, his hospitable nature was exploited in a bizarre encounter that was to help inspire John Guare to write his award-winning play “Six Degrees of Separation.” An engaging young man had approached Mr. Elliot claiming to be the son of the actor Sidney Poitier and a classmate of one of Mr. Elliott’s daughters. When the young man said he had been mugged, Mr. Elliott invited him into his home and gave him money and clothes. It later turned out that the man was an imposter who had bilked other prominent New Yorkers.
Osborn Elliott was born on Oct. 25, 1924, a descendant of Stephen Coerte van Voorhees, who came to New Amsterdam from Holland in the early 17th century. The boy grew up in a town house on East 62nd Street, where his parents, John Elliott, a stockbroker, and the former Audrey Osborn, a prominent real-estate broker who had campaigned for women’s suffrage, entertained friends like the columnist Walter Lippmann and the author John Gunther.
Mr. Elliott attended the Browning School in New York, St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., and Harvard. In World War II, he saw combat in the Pacific aboard the heavy cruiser Boston. Discharged as a lieutenant, junior grade, in 1946, he considered pursuing a career in finance or following his elder brother, John, into advertising. (John, known as Jock, became chairman of Ogilvy & Mather. He died in 2005.)
Instead, Mr. Elliott, who was known as Oz, chose journalism, joining The New York Journal of Commerce as a reporter.
He had been working there for three years when his first wife, the former Deirdre Marie Spencer, who was working in the personnel department of Time, urged him to apply for a job with the magazine. He joined the staff as a contributing editor specializing in business and advanced to associate editor.
In 1955, Newsweek, historically the weaker of the two weeklies, asked Mr. Elliott to be its business editor, and he took the job, beginning his long association with the magazine. In 1959 he published a book, “Men at the Top” (Harper), examining the qualities that had propelled executives to the upper ranks of corporations.
In 1961, Philip L. Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, bought controlling interest in Newsweek and promoted Mr. Elliott from managing editor to editor. He continued in the job when Katharine Graham assumed control after her husband’s death in 1963.
Mr. Elliott’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1972. The following year he married the former Inger Abrahamsen McCabe, founder of China Seas, a fabric and carpeting importer. She survives him, as do three daughters by his first marriage, Diana Elliott Lidofsky of Providence, R.I.; Cynthia Elliott of Manhattan; and Dorinda, of Brooklyn; three stepchildren, Kari McCabe of Manhattan, Alexander McCabe of Brooklyn and Marit McCabe of Manhattan; 17 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. He is also survived by two foster sons, Samuel Wong of San Francisco and David Wong of St. Paul.
“I was hooked on journalism,” Mr. Elliott wrote in his Times Magazine article, recalling his earliest days as a reporter and summing up his career. “Impressed by its demands for compression and clarity. Enchanted — mostly — by its practitioners and their often feigned cynicism. Flattered by the access it offered to heads of state, artists and tycoons. Infuriated by its imperfections — though as often as not, no doubt, blind to them as well. In love with its humor. Humbled, sort of, by its power.”