The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Russell Baker
Russell Baker pic
Growing Up Baltimore
Baltimore is permissiveness. The Land of Pleasant Living, according to an old advertising jingle for a local beer . . . Gross and overt indulgence, however, is frowned upon. The gunned corpses that litter New Jersey are not part Baltimore life. That sort of thing is a vice. Baltimore does not like vice. . . .
–Russell Baker, The New York Times Magazine, 1973

To a generation of television viewers, Russell Baker is that nice down-to-earth fellow who replaced Alistair Cooke as the host of Public Broadcasting's ''Masterpiece Theatre.'' To readers, Baker is that nice common-sense fellow who wrote one of the most widely read newspaper columns in the United States.

Born in rural Virginia in 1925, Baker's family lived in poverty. After his father died of diabetes when Baker was five years old, the situation for Baker's mother Lucy proved so dire that she gave up one of her children for adoption and moved the family to Newark, New Jersey, where she found work as a laundress.

In 1937, when they settled in Baltimore, Baker became a newspaper delivery boy to help his family. The family ended up on relief and often had to rely on surplus food handouts. Toward the end of the 1930s, life began to improve. Mrs. Baker married again, and the family gained some measure of security. Baker attended Baltimore's City College High School and then applied to Johns Hopkins University--not having any idea how the family would afford the tuition. He had decided in elementary school that he wanted to be a writer (especially after a teacher singled out for praise an essay he wrote on wheat). Fortunately, he won a scholarship and began attending Hopkins in 1942, but he put aside his education to enlist in the U.S. Navy that same year.

After the war, Baker returned to Hopkins and graduated with a degree in English literature and hopes of being a novelist. Thinking that newspaper writing would be a good training ground, he took a job with the Baltimore Sun and spent two years as a night reporter on the police beat. Around this time, he married Miriam Nash (known as Mimi); they had three children.

He went to the Washington Bureau of the New York Times in 1954, and there he covered national politics. In 1962, he started his NY Times column—writing about everything from national controversies to personal experiences. He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1979 and a second Pulitzer in 1983, this time for his popular and entertaining autobiography, Growing Up.

Already known for his warmth and sense of humor, he became popular on the college lecture and talk show circuit. Another fan base opened for him in 1992, when he started hosting ''Masterpiece Theater.''

Baker retired from column writing in 1998. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia.

Places of interest: