His wife, Tina Brown, confirmed his death in a statement. She told Reuters, where Evans had been editor at large, that the cause was congestive heart failure.
From smoky Fleet Street newsrooms to star-studded literary circles in New York, Evans climbed to success with relentless independence, innovative ideas and an appetite for risks that often led to postwar changes in journalism, publishing and public tastes on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Britain, he helped redefine high-quality newspapers and pushed back legal restrictions on the press. In the United States, he edited national magazines, introduced new scope and glitz to book publishing as the head of Random House, wrote history books and a best-selling memoir, and, with his wife, Brown, who edited Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, dazzled and upset the cognoscenti.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 for his services to journalism, despite having left Britain 20 years earlier and becoming an American citizen.
As editor of The Sunday Times for 14 years, from 1967 to 1981, and for another year at its daily sister publication, The Times of London, Evans did away with gray columns of type and stuffy traditions, building circulation with hard-hitting investigative reports, sophisticated news analyses and eye-catching layouts and photographs.
Harold Evans at work as president and publisher of Random House in New York on Oct. 30, 1990. Evans, the crusading British newspaperman who was forced out as editor of The Times of London by Rupert Murdoch in 1982 and reinvented himself in the United States as a publisher, author and literary luminary, died on Wednesday night, Sept.23, 2020 in New York City. He was 92. (Jack Manning/The New York Times)
Sometimes risking ruinous fines or even jail, he challenged British libel and national security laws; campaigned successfully for national Pap tests to detect cervical cancer; exposed the horrors of thalidomide; and traced the bungling of Britain’s secret intelligence services in the case of Kim Philby, the double agent who defected to Moscow.
Journalists in 2002 voted for him as Britain’s greatest newspaper editor of all time. But at the peak of his success he ran afoul of Murdoch, the Australian media magnate. Murdoch had added The Times and The Sunday Times, together the broadsheet voice of the British establishment for 200 years, to his tabloid empire and then reneged on a promise not to interfere with their editorial independence.
It was a titanic yearlong struggle that Evans inevitably lost, as he recalled in “Good Times, Bad Times,” a 1983 memoir that chronicled the episode. “Ultimately, all stands or falls on the values and judgement of the proprietor,” he wrote. “At its highest levels, a great newspaper is not simply a personal possession but a public trust.”
Arriving in the United States in 1984, he landed on his feet, but his wife hit the ground running. Formerly editor of Tatler magazine in Britain, Brown became the editor of Vanity Fair (1984-92) and The New Yorker (1992-98), injecting those magazines with new energy while stoking controversies with her own iconoclastic style. She later started and edited the news website The Daily Beast. Evans taught at universities, edited several publications and was the founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler.
But it was as president and publisher of Random House, from 1990 to 1997, that he gained prominence and came to symbolise an era of change in publishing, a business unaccustomed to swift, startling moves. Acting with journalistic speed, Evans shook up staffs, spent millions, turned profits, provoked resentment and admiration, and created a buzz more often associated with Hollywood movies than books.
His mandate from the owner, S.I. Newhouse Jr., was to revamp a narrowly focused, barely profitable house that had embodied excellence since publishing James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1934. He soon broadened Random House’s list of titles to include business, science, art, photography, poetry, current events and blockbuster novels.
He published Norman Mailer, William Styron, E.L. Doctorow, Joe Klein’s anonymous 1996 novel “Primary Colors,” and Gen. Colin Powell’s “My American Journey” (1995, with Joseph E. Persico). But he overspent lavishly on some advances: $2.5 million for Dick Morris’ “Behind the Oval Office” (1997) and $5 million for Marlon Brando’s autobiography, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me” (1994, with Robert Lindsey).
Evans bubbled with enthusiasm for the photographs of Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, for a reintroduced list of Modern Library classics, and for his unabashedly commercial promotions — a festival of Shaw plays to publicise a new biography and, to advertise “Beast,” Peter Benchley’s giant-octopus sequel to “Jaws,” beach banners proclaiming “There’s something in the water!”
He generated enormous publicity with his star-studded, sold-out literary breakfasts in Manhattan featuring panel discussions by famous authors, and he attracted a parade of celebrities to paparazzi-chronicled parties at the Evans-Brown garden apartment on fashionable Sutton Place on Manhattan’s East Side.
At a party or a breakfast, Evans conveyed a world-weary charm, talking in cultured tones of books and newspaper adventures. Wiry at 5 foot, 7 inches, he could appear slightly rumpled from all the travel. Under flyaway hair, his expression was typically thoughtful, a face out of Fellini: gaunt, intense, lined with a lifetime of editorial decisions.
Harold Matthew Evans was born in Manchester, England, on June 28, 1928, the oldest of four sons of Frederick and Mary (Haselum) Evans. His father was a railroad engineer, his mother a grocery shopkeeper. He was 11 when World War II began, and he hid with his family in shelters near their grimy rowhouse on the outskirts of Manchester as German bombers destroyed the city centre.
He graduated in 1943 from St. Mary’s Road Central School, where he played soccer, edited a student newspaper and became an ardent moviegoer. “Hollywood reinforced my infatuation with newspapers,” he recalled. “I identified with the small-town editor standing up to the crooks, the tough reporter winning the story and the girl, and the foreign correspondent outwitting enemy agents.”
He got his first job in 1944 at a weekly, The Ashton-under-Lyne Reporter, before serving in the Royal Air Force from 1946 to 1949. He studied economics and political science at the University of Durham, graduating in 1952, and then joined The Manchester Evening News as a reporter and editorial writer. On an American fellowship from 1956 to 1957, he studied at the University of Chicago and Stanford University.
Harold Evans in New York on April 23, 2019 with his wife, Tina Brown, who edited Vanity Fair and The New Yorker before starting the website The Daily Beast. Evans, the crusading British newspaperman who was forced out as editor of The Times of London by Rupert Murdoch in 1982 and reinvented himself in the United States as a publisher, author and literary luminary, died on Wednesday night, Sept.23, 2020 in New York City. He was 92. (Krista Schlueter/The New York Times)
In 1953, Evans married Enid Parker. They had three children, Ruth, Katherine and Michael, and were divorced in 1978. He married Brown in 1981 — they had met when he was editing The Sunday Times and she wrote for the paper as a freelancer — and had two children with her, George and Isabel, who also survive him.
In 1961, Evans became editor of The Northern Echo, a paper in Darlington, a working-class area in northeast England. There he began crusading, demanding an inquiry into the case of Timothy Evans (no relation), who had been hanged in 1950 for killing his wife and infant daughter, largely on the testimony of a neighbor who was later convicted of the crimes. His campaign led to a posthumous pardon and contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain in 1965.
Hired in 1966 by The Sunday Times, he became editor a year later and transformed the staid weekly into Britain’s best investigative paper. His reports in 1967 revealed that the Soviet mole Kim Philby had not been a low-level diplomat when he defected in 1963 but the head of anti-Soviet intelligence and chief liaison to the CIA. Charges that Evans had jeopardised national security with his revelations were withdrawn in embarrassment.
What many called his greatest triumph arose in an inquiry into the tranquiliser thalidomide, which caused severe deformities in thousands of babies and led to lawsuits against a drugmaker. Evans campaigned for compensation for the victims and challenged a law against publishing articles that might prejudice pending lawsuits. The drugmaker finally paid settlements, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain’s efforts to suppress the reports had violated free speech, and Parliament liberalised the country’s civil contempt laws.
After his much-publicised departure from The Times and his move to the United States, Mr. Evans taught at Duke and Yale Universities, became editor of the book publisher The Atlantic Monthly Press and took up the post of editorial director of the newsmagazine US News & World Report, with a mandate to redesign it.
He was later the founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler, where he worked from 1986 to 1990. The magazine broke ground with tough reports by writers who, unlike those covering the travel industry for many other publications, were forbidden to accept free travel, meals or accommodations from those they were writing about. Some advertisers withdrew, but the magazine prospered and won awards.
Evans became an American citizen in 1993. After leaving Random House in 1997, he was an executive of The Daily News in New York, US News & World Report (in a second stint), The Atlantic Monthly and the business magazine Fast Company.
During this time he wrote “The American Century” (1998, with Gail Buckland and Kevin Baker), a lavishly illustrated bestseller that critics called an ambitious and innovative approach to history.
Other books followed: “War Stories: Reporting in the Time of Conflict From the Crimea to Iraq” (2003), “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Two Centuries of Innovators” (2004, with Gail Buckland and David Lefer), his best-selling memoir “My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times” (2009) and “Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters” (2018).
In 2011, he was named editor-at-large of the Reuters news agency.
For all Evans’ forays into magazine editing, book publishing and writing, he never lost his passion for newspapers. “How delicious the smell of the still warm newsprint!” he wrote in “My Paper Chase.” And he remained a muckraker at heart. “A newspaper is an argument on the way to a deadline,” he declared. “If there isn’t any argument, there’s not much of a newspaper.”
Yet he feared for the future of newspapers and what impact their decline might have on the democratic institutions that he so extolled in his book “The American Century.”
“I think a certain commitment to the public good has vanished in the race for circulation,” he told NPR in 2009. “I think that is accentuated when you get newspapers taken over, as you have across America, by people who either borrow extensively to buy the paper, or never had any interest in what real journalism is about in the first place.
“The kind of investigative journalism, which I think is the absolute essence, is in danger and, in fact, in many places has vanished,” he added. “We have to have this searchlight to know what the hell is going on. So when newspapers or TV neglect reporting, so you get chunks of opinion without any factual basis whatsoever, we’re all going to suffer for it.”
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