Jan 23, 2019

Breakfast With Russell Baker

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Russell Baker
August 14, 1925 – January 21, 2019

I was awake well before sunrise that Friday morning. A limousine was waiting for me in front of my building in Bloomfield, New Jersey, because commuter trains don't run that early. I had no time to brew coffee, so I had to make do with a chilled Pepsi offered by the driver. I am not a morning person, but it was part of my job as a publicist to escort my authors to their New York media appearances. I had booked Russell Baker on Good Morning America

I really didn't know what to expect from Mr. Baker, having only chatted with him briefly on the phone a few times. I had read The Good Times, for which I was doing publicity. It was a delightful memoir about his career in journalism. But I had not yet read Growing Up, his first memoir, for which he'd won a Pulitzer. Our department assistant had rustled up a copy for me only the day before.

I had learned a bit of the history, the unexpected success of Growing Up. The book had gone back for a second printing even before the publication date. The original publisher hadn't anticipated huge numbers on this sweet, understated memoir about coming of age in the shadow of the Great Depression and going on to become a New York Times columnist. The Times reviewed it, of course. It was a rave, and the book had started flying off the shelves, deservedly so.

In my youthful ignorance I hadn't really understood why it was so easy to book media for Russell Baker. It began to dawn when I saw how warmly he was welcomed at the GMA studio. They seemed thrilled to talk to Baker again, even for a mass market reprint of his second memoir. I began then to understand just how beloved he was. As the day wore on, I began to understand why.

We had a long break after GMA and before his first radio interview. Mr. Baker suggested we have breakfast at The Plaza, where he was staying on Penguin's dime. There I had the most expensive slice of papaya I'd ever tasted and as much coffee as I could get the waiter to pour.

Baker entertained me by performing dialogue he imagined was happening around the dining room, and other witty speculations about strangers. We talked. We laughed. He peppered me with questions about my life and how I'd ended up in publishing.

At some point, in the course of the day, the realization began to dawn as to just what was so delightful about spending time with Russell Baker. He was treating me like a real, fully human person. He never condescended to me or belittled me as a "publicity girl." (Other authors, whom I shall not name, had done.) He actually listened when I spoke. Without interruption. He asked me questions and listened to my answers with rapt attention and not once did I have the sense that it was because he wanted anything from me, other than pleasant conversation. It felt different than any interaction I could ever remember having with a man of any age.

After his last interview, Baker took me to the New York Times building for a tour. He read me the column he was working on for that week. He introduced me to the few colleagues who had not already fled the city for the weekend. And then it was time for me to do the same. It was a Friday afternoon and it was summer. The publishing world had been effectively closed since noon. So I headed back to New Jersey. I had to take a bus, because the trains wouldn't be running for another few hours. I sat in Port Authority, watching strangers, musing quietly to myself about their lives, and wondering at an inner joy that had overtaken me at some point that morning.

That evening, I started reading Growing Up. It won me completely from the opening passage.

At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoons for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.

It remains the most beautiful paean to senility I've ever read.

I learned that the dual forces of his father's death and the Great Depression had moved a young Baker to New Jersey, of all places, to live with his mother's relatives. They'd been not far from where I was living in Bloomfield, in neighboring Belleville.

Reading his life story, I began to understand why I had not felt even a hint of sexist condescension from Russell Baker and that it started with his relationship with his mother. She was a fiercely powerful woman. And when he married, it was to another fiercely powerful woman, whom he loved passionately and never seemed to see as anything other than his equal. As I read about Mimi, I began to understand the way Baker's eyes twinkled when he'd spoken of her, over our delightful breakfast at The Plaza. Baker's life was defined by relationships with strong, determined women, whom he both loved and admired. I have recommended Growing Up to many people over the years and those who've read it have thanked me.

I was so sad this morning when I read that Baker had died. He was 93, so it is not exactly unexpected. I teared up all the same. He lived a rich, full life, as attested to by his own beautiful words. Russell Baker, for me, is a warm memory of an enchanting morning. I was graced to spend a few hours with a literary luminary who was beloved, not only for his wit and verbal skill, but because he was such lovely human being.

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