Sir Harold Evans, who died Wednesday at age 92, was among the most consequential journalists of his or any generation, an impassioned and wily newspaper editor who used his prominence and penchant for battle to challenge, and sometimes torment, the British political and legal establishments when he believed they were wrong.
During a career that spanned eight decades on both sides of the Atlantic, he ran Britain’s two most influential broadsheets, the Sunday Times for 14 years and (briefly) the daily Times before his resignation was forced in 1982 by the new owner, journalistic buccaneer Rupert Murdoch.
Evans then emigrated to the United States to become editorial director of U.S. News & World Report and editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press—both owned by his friend Mort Zuckerman—and went on to launch a successful glossy magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, write best-selling books, head the American publishing behemoth Random House, and lead a glittering New York social life with his much-younger second wife, Tina Brown, who edited Vanity Fair and The New Yorker in the ’80s and ’90s, and was founding editor of The Daily Beast.
“I fell in love with his professional absorption,” Brown once wrote about Evans, a soulmate who, like Brown, seldom took a day off and saw journalism—and the curiosity that fueled it—as more a way of life than a mere occupation.
“Harry was a partner to Tina in all things, including The Beast,” recalled John Avlon, who succeeded Brown as editor in chief of The Daily Beast in September 2013. “He was not often physically in the office, but his presence was constantly felt. There was Harry offering notes on refinement of style, especially on the Cheat Sheet, a tribute to the precision of language he loved. The constant reminder: there is always a tighter, clearer, and less pretentious way to communicate. Harry was quick with praise for a scoop or a well crafted column…
“After Tina left The Beast,” Avlon continued, “I had him come into the newsroom once a year for a refresher course on the art of the headline, winning over new generations of Beasts with his wisdom and wit.”
Evans, who became an American citizen in 1993 and was dubbed a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004—for his services to journalism—continued working well into his nineties.
Regularly producing books and essays—including for The Daily Beast—Evans spent more than a decade as editor-at-large for Reuters, presiding over symposiums that featured his razor-sharp onstage interviews of the planet’s power elite.
In 2017, as he approached his nineties, Evans produced Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, an exhaustive yet entertaining survey of good and bad writing—especially the universal need to avoid linguistic atrocities—that was celebrated by The New York Times.
“As a master editor and distinguished author, Evans is well qualified to instruct us on how to write well,” the philosopher Jim Holt wrote in his Times review of the book. “But can he delight us in the process? After reading this book, I can affirm that the answer is yes.”
Evans and Brown reigned for a time as New York’s preeminent power couple, regularly holding soirees that drew movie stars, Nobel Prize-winners, former presidents and prime ministers, Wall Street moguls, novelists, and journalists to their baronial apartment boasting a lovely garden in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood.
In later years they downsized to a smaller yet light-dappled flat a few blocks away, where they toiled at their computers in adjoining home offices, within earshot of each other.
Yet Evans, born in Manchester in 1928, never forgot his working-class roots—nor, for that matter, did he shed his outrage at an English class system that had been designed to keep people like him in their place.
“The question I asked myself often about my parents was what they might have done if they’d had a real chance. Like millions of others, they’d been held back from birth by the belief among the ruling elites that education could do nothing for the working class—nor should it,” Evans wrote in his 2009 memoir My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times.
An especially egregious example was Lord Inchcape, aka Sir Eric Campbell Geddes; in the early years of the 20th century, he was “a Tory grandee and Minister of the Crown,” Evans wrote, who “had a predictable contempt for the working class. It expressed itself most nakedly in his advice to Parliament not to waste money giving poor children a secondary education—‘children whose mental capabilities do not justify it’ was the way he put it in the report of his committee examining public expenditure. This was unappealing as rhetoric; it was appalling as policy.”
In a class system that remained infected by such prejudices even in Evans’s day, one’s opportunities for advancement often depended on one’s manner of speaking. As Nicholas Lemann once noted in The New Yorker, Evans “worked much longer and harder than Eliza Doolittle to learn to pronounce the letter ‘H.’”
“Evans had at least as much impact on British politics and government as Ben Bradlee had in the United States.”
Unlike his late pal, the dashing Washington Post editor Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee of Watergate fame, a scion of the Boston aristocracy who preferred juicy yarns about the sins of the rich and powerful over knotty investigations of official malfeasance, Evans embraced the notion that journalism was essentially a form of activism that existed primarily to crusade for justice and effect social change. He had at least as much impact on British politics and government as Bradlee had in the United States.
And yet this son of a soot-covered steam-train driver (Evans’s father Fred) and a factory worker turned shopkeeper (his mother Polly, who sold groceries out of the family parlor at 54 Ashworth Street in Failsworth, Manchester) reveled in his status as the less glamorous half of a celebrity Manhattan media couple who counted billionaires, socialites, Hollywood stars, and even a former president or two among their dinner-party and yachting companions.
In Britain, Evans had confronted and occasionally alienated people in power. “I will bury you,” Tory shadow defense minister Enoch Powell threatened Evans after the Sunday Times criticized his racist speech in 1968 warning that West Indian and Asian immigrants would turn Britain into a “river of blood”—provoking white mob violence against new arrivals.
In the United States, however, Evans befriended Henry Kissinger, a primary architect of the latter-day Vietnam War; socialized with Bill and Hillary Clinton; and eagerly helped Richard Nixon with a book on foreign policy—downing pricey bottles from Nixon’s wine cellar over their frequent weekend lunches at the disgraced ex-president’s hideaway in Saddle River, New Jersey. When Nixon died in 1994, his daughter Julie invited Evans to be an honored guest at the funeral.
“I must have written God knows how much attacking Nixon over Watergate,” Evans told The Daily Beast in an interview conducted shortly after his 90th birthday. “But I would pick Richard Nixon any day over Donald Trump.”
Regarding his relationship to power—especially when it was abused by Nixon and Kissinger, his secretary of state and national security adviser—Evans added, “I think it would be fair to say that there are two sides to me. The one is propelled by endless curiosity. It’s part of the journalistic passion in which we get to know people and find out what we can, which is relevant, while not betraying them by cheap, crass stuff. So there’s that journalistic utility.
“At the same time, when you actually meet them and get to know them, you can retain your supremely critical stance about the things that they do without saying, ‘I’ll never speak to that man again’—which, to me, would be an abdication of journalism.”
In Britain, Evans brought sustained attention to government-sanctioned injustices that had blocked compensation for children who were deformed in the womb by the anti-morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, and to the elite intelligence service MI6’s official cover-up of the traitorous deeds committed by Soviet double agent Kim Philby.
Deploying the power of investigative reporting, he also aimed a spotlight on the causes of industrial pollution and played significant roles in Parliament’s 1965 legislation to abolish the death penalty and the Ministry of Health’s 1963 decision, after years of obdurate opposition (stoked by the aforementioned Enoch Powell), to fund early screenings of women to prevent cervical cancer.
At the Sunday Times, Evans’ reporters pursued Philby, who’d defected to Moscow in 1963, over the opposition of the Whitehall bureaucracy and the British law courts, along with Philby’s fellow Oxbridge toffs who dominated the intelligence services, in which Philby had been a rising star: They all conspired—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to keep Philby’s crimes an official secret.
Evans—who was an assistant editor at the Manchester Evening News and ran the Northern Echo in the railway town of Darlington before assuming editorial control of the Sunday Times in 1967—also toiled persistently to loosen press restrictions mandated by British libel laws and the Official Secrets Act.
Before he clashed with—and was ultimately forced out by—Murdoch, Evans championed investigative reporting through the “Insight” team of journalists that was launched in 1963 by Clive Irving, now a contributor to The Daily Beast.
“The impact of the investigative reporting, as consequential as it was, tends to overshadow the larger picture of the Sunday Times under Harry,” Irving recalled. “The paper performed brilliantly in every department. Harry’s style was to put very smart people in charge of sections, let them recruit their own people and urged them to innovate.”
“Murdoch earnestly promised not to meddle in editorial content, and Evans stayed on for a stressful year as the piratical press lord predictably broke his promise.”
Irving added, however, “Harry’s willingness to give the editors around him their head didn’t mean that it was a cozy, collegial atmosphere. There were outbreaks of hand-to-hand combat between him and the section editors if they got sloppy. Harry was a very hands-on editor when it came to detail. He came from a hot metal background of deadline pressures and manic edition changes…
“He prided himself on his grasp of the craft right down to font sizes and cropping photographs,” Irving continued. “This drove people nuts and sometimes was a weakness: if the captain spent too much time in the engine room, he didn’t see enough of the picture from the bridge.”
Murdoch, who already owned the sensationalist tabloids The News of the World and The Sun, had purchased the Sunday Times and the daily Times from the late Canadian press lord Roy Thomson’s family in 1981; he ultimately laid off thousands of pressmen in the transition from hot type to computerized typesetting and famously broke the recalcitrant printers unions with the encouragement of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Evans had initially opposed Murdoch’s acquisition, and had tried to assemble a consortium of investors to buy the papers. In the end, however, Murdoch charmed him into leaving the Sunday paper and accepting the editorship of the daily Times. Murdoch earnestly promised not to meddle in editorial content, and Evans stayed on for a stressful year as the piratical press lord predictably broke his promise and around 50 journalists quit in protest.
After a year, Evans followed them out the door.
In Good Times, Bad Times, his 1984 book about his dealings with Murdoch, Evans recounted their final confrontation in March 1982, a few days after the death of Evans’ father.
“Murdoch had written me a note of condolence, saying it was 30 years since his own father died and he remembered it as yesterday,” Evans wrote. “‘A good father and son relationship is one of the best experiences in life. You must take any time you need to attend to the necessary family arrangements.’ Twenty-four hours after my return from the funeral he summoned me to his office. ‘I want your resignation today,’ he said. I replied: ‘You cannot have it. I refuse.’”
Yet Evans’s departure was inevitable. Indeed, the late Times journalist Patrick Brogan had predicted to Evans that Murdoch would “cut your balls off.”
“I resigned the day Murdoch bought it, but I’m quite sure Murdoch was right to sack Evans,” Brogan told The Washington Post in 1984, as Evans began his editorship of Mort Zuckerman’s U.S. News. “He was a disaster at the daily. He couldn’t make his mind up. He wanted to do everything himself… And he spent money like crazy. Zuckerman better be warned that Harry Evans spends other people’s money like a drunken sailor.”
In Good Times, Bad Times, Evans couldn’t resist noting “the thick black hair on the back of [Murdoch’s] hands”—lending the Australian media baron a certain demonic quality. Evans quoted from the diary of Tina Brown, who attended a get-to-know-you dinner at Murdoch’s London house in January 1981, as Murdoch was finalizing his purchase and wooing Evans to stay on: “I had to admit I liked him hugely,” Brown wrote. Murdoch “was by turns urbane and shady. His face seems to have been made for the cartoonist’s distortion—the gargoyle lips, deep furrows in the brow, the hint of five o’clock shadow that gives him such an underworld air when he’s sunk in thought. But when he was standing by the fire with one foot on the fender laughing uproariously he seemed robust and refreshing. There’s no doubt he lives newspapers…”
Clive Irving argued, “Thomson left the editorial alone and prospered. Murdoch had no intention of leaving the editorial alone, even though he gave an undertaking that he would, [and] then reneged on it. The result is very plain to see and should be absolutely explicit in the case of Harry’s legacy. Under Thomson the Sunday Times was one of the world’s great newspapers. Under Murdoch it was often a good paper but never a great one because Murdoch intervened for personal reasons to further his own political views and agenda.”
Evans, however, came to believe that Murdoch was justified in breaking the British labor unions that, in Evans’ view, insisted on increasingly unreasonable financial and employment demands that put newspapers deeply in the red and thus harmed journalism.
“What he is doing is long overdue,” Evans recalled telling a television producer who had wanted to book him to attack Murdoch’s 1986 anti-union campaign, in which the media magnate abruptly, and secretly, relocated his four newspapers to an industrial park on the Thames and fired 6,000 striking union employees, some of them violent, to produce the papers with non-union printers.
“The old script of endless warfare on Fleet Street that had always ended with a management whimper was being rewritten,” Evans wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t have any doubt where I stood. Murdoch and his managers had struck a redemptive blow for the freedom of the press.”
Evans started out in journalism in 1944, at the height of World War II, when, at 16, he’d learned how to type and take shorthand; after rejections from more than half a dozen big-city dailies to which he mailed letters asking for a job, he applied to every small-town newspaper he could think of—“the obscure titles in the urban wastes of Lancashire and then the posher towns of Cheshire,” as he wrote in his memoir.
Evans ascribed his ambition to become a journalist to a family summer vacation in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl when he was 12, the eldest of four boys of Fred and Polly. It was 1940, mere days after the debacle at Dunkirk, and as young Harry and his father strolled the beach, talking to the soldiers lying in the sand, they found only haggard, dispirited men who had narrowly escaped with their lives.
“Newspapers were clearly more important and more fascinating than I had imagined, reporting more than a matter of stenography,”
— Harold Evans
“We had been encouraged to celebrate Dunkirk as some kind of victory,” Evans wrote. “A Daily Mirror front page I’d seen pinned up in our boardinghouse had the headline ‘Bloody Marvelous!’ How was it, then, Dad found nothing marvelous, only dejection, as he moved among the men?…
“The epiphany on Rhyl beach shook my faith in the printed word, but it did not make me averse to newspapers,” Evans wrote. “On the contrary, as I entered my teens, I grew ever more eager to involve myself in their mysteries. Newspapers were clearly more important and more fascinating than I had imagined, reporting more than a matter of stenography.”
Evans eventually secured a three-month tryout at a proudly parochial northwest England weekly, the Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter—for which he was glad to receive a salary of a pound a week for writing unbylined paragraphs “chronicling darts winners and blushing brides,” as he put it—along with the occasional obit of a fallen war hero.
After national service in the Royal Air Force, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Durham University (a less prestigious credential than a diploma from Oxford or Cambridge), Evans toiled in the country’s industrial north as a subeditor or “sub”—cutting stories to fit the layout, fixing grammatical infelicities and writing pithy headlines at the Manchester Evening News—and then for four years as the top editor of the Northern Echo in Darlington.
In 1956, when he was married to his first wife, Liverpudlian Enid Parker—whom he’d met as a fellow student at Durham University—Evans spent a year touring the United States on a Harkness Fellowship, enjoying adventures like living on a Navajo reservation and hiking through the Grand Canyon.
But he was deeply shaken by his encounters with official racism during his visit to the Jim Crow South. In his memoir, he recalled his discussion with the attorney general of Mississippi concerning the denial of voting rights to African Americans.
“Yes, we don’t encourage them,” the official explained to Evans. “Maybe a wrong was done to the babbling natives of Africa brought here, but I am not willing to accept that the race of Negroes can get to the same position in two hundred or three hundred years that yours and mine attained in several thousand years. Would you know, I saw a Negro boy urinating in the street today?”
Later, he and Enid, who was traveling with him, “had a nasty experience on a lonely mountain road heading into Arkansas,” Evans wrote. “I saw cars coming up fast behind me. The lead car had me in a dazzling spot. I pulled over to let the cars pass, but they pulled over, too, and several men in rough farm clothes got out and approached.
“‘Didya notice that little bitty of a stoplight at the crossing back there?’ one asked. Well, I said, I’d seen a blinking amber light, and I’d paused several seconds to make sure both roads were clear. ‘Yeah, well, round here we say that an amber is a stoplight. Come with us.’
“We were taken back to a little town and escorted into a dimly lit, bare room, while the gang kicked stones outside. My imagination had been inflamed by all the stories of police brutality I’d been hearing. Were these men even police? ‘Ya been in Mississippi, right?’ said a man who claimed to be the sheriff. ‘Not from these parts?’ I said we were from England.
“It seemed an age before he absorbed this information, then he asked me for $20, which I gave him. It was a lot of money in 1956—$140 at today’s values—but worth it when we were allowed to go. I had a shameful feeling: I was glad I was white.”
By Evans’s account, his 20-year-old marriage to Enid—with whom he had three children—had run out of steam by the time he took up with Tina Brown, a precocious journalist and playwright half his age, fresh out of Oxford. A literary agent had sent him Brown’s clippings from The New Statesman as she was getting ready to graduate, and Evans didn’t get around to reading them for two weeks. Then, duly impressed, he had tried to phone her, only to dial Brown’s mother Bettina instead.
When they finally met, in 1976, it was at the Sunday Times headquarters on Gray’s Inn Road, where Evans had summoned her. “The fact that the mighty Mr. E had read my insignificant jottings (on a train journey to Manchester, he later told me) and actually wanted to meet me was, to me, heart-stopping,” Brown wrote in her 2017 memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries.
She arrived 10 minutes early for their appointment, and after a couple of hours of waiting, she was informed by Evans’s secretary, Joan Thomas, that he was working on the layouts and couldn’t be disturbed; she suggested Brown return the next day, “but I said no, I’d rather wait,” Brown wrote.
“When she went to the bathroom I surged through Harry’s office door, determined to get my shot… Amid a platoon of shirtsleeved editors grouped around a high layout table, my future husband was sketching out the front page. Looking up from the layouts, a pair of dazzling blue eyes met mine. ‘Don’t bother me now, love,’ he said. (He has said it a lot since.)”
They were married in 1984—in the backyard of Grey Gardens, Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s East Hampton estate—and they managed to raise two children amid their frenzied careers.
Eventually Tina’s stardom in journalism began to eclipse Harry’s, and certain wags in the British chattering classes started calling him “Mr. Brown.” But Evans maintained he was never bothered. “I love it,” he told The Daily Beast. “If some of that radiance can be cast over me!… I’m surprised she lets me be known as that.”