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Robert Stein, 90
Robert Stein, editor, publisher, media critic, journalism teacher and blogger, died July 9 at the home of his son, Keith Stein, in Westport. He was 90. Robert Stein: journalist summered in Westport. Contributed photo
Keith Stein said in a posting on his father’s website, www.ajliebling.blogspot.com, that death was due to “kidney issues related to his several month battle with multiple myeloma cancer.”
In a career that spanned more than 70 years, Robert Stein was influential in bringing many of the political and social issues of the times to national attention.
His editorial discretion while heading Redbook and McCall’s magazines helped empower a generation of women by treating them as world citizens on equal footing as men—helping clarify the serious issues of the day and bringing insights into the problems and challenges of their lives.
His vibrant career included relationships with newsmakers, writers and celebrities including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jacqueline Onassis, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Steinem, Joseph Heller, Walt Disney, Truman Capote and many others.
As he reflected in his memoirs, ” Work often brought me face to face, sometimes head to head with people who were not like me, the powerful and the famous, most of whom were shameless in going after what they wanted,” he wrote. Robert Stein discusses the dangers of nuclear weapons with President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1963. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo
“I needed their fame to help sell magazines and books, they needed the magazines and books to keep feeding their fame.
“While sharing scenes with them, I usually stayed off-camera. ... a life that started in one millennium and will end in another, shaped by one kind of society and lived out in another, that went from poverty to privilege with time enough to learn how to behave and sometimes understand but not how to feel.
“It is a life that could only have been lived in that time and that place, an America where, with all its imperfections, ironies and hypocrisies, the ideal of freedom truly existed—where, just like in Horatio Alger novels and the movies, any poor kid could get lucky. I certainly did.”
Stein was born in Harlem on March 4, 1924. The son of an immigrant pawn shop clerk, he grew up in The Bronx, attending DeWitt Clinton High School, and began his journalism career as a copy boy for the New York Daily News.
After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in a rifle company in the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division, part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and meeting up with the Russian army as the war ended.
When he returned home, he attended college and graduated from CCNY before resuming his work as a journalist.
During a long career, he was editor-in-chief of McCall’s and Redbook; publisher of the Saturday Review Press; director of projects for cable and satellite TV for the McCall Corporation; media critic at New York Magazine, and a teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
A former chairman of the American Society of Magazine Editors, he served as a judge of that organization’s annual national magazine awards for more than a decade.
He is survived by his ex-wife, Dorothy Price Weichel, his three sons, Gregory, Keith and Clifford; and stepdaughter, Stephanie Weiss, as well as grandchildren Griffin, Baxter and Quincy Stein. He is also survived by his ex-wife Lois Brenner, whom he divorced in 2014.
While living in New York City, he was a summer resident in Westport for much of the 1960s. He subsequently lived in Sherman, Barrytown, N.Y., and Weston before spending his last several years living with his son Keith’s family in Westport.
“For the most part, journalists are men and women who derive more satisfaction from exploring and explaining the world than wresting power and profit from it,” Stein wrote in his book “Media Power” (Houghton Mifflin, 1972).
During the years preceding and following that observation, he himself practiced a probingly honest kind of journalism that, through writing and teaching, attempted to explore the changing relationship between the worlds of power and communications.
In “The Magazine in America 1741-1990” (Oxford University Press, 1991), the authors note: “Robert Stein was editor of McCall’s twice and of Redbook as well, bringing to both a serious attempt to elevate quality and so separate them from their competitors.
“That ‘attempt’ included monthly columns by Margaret Mead, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Clare Boothe Luce, Julia Child, Pauline Kael, Gabrielle Chanel and Betty Friedan, among others, as well as serious reporting of political, cultural and scientific issues, including the earliest questioning of mastectomy as the only treatment for breast cancer and co-sponsorship of the first medical research into the effects of long-term use of birth-control pills.
Shortly before John F. Kennedy’s death, Stein organized and led a joint interview with the president by editors of eight women’s magazines on the dangers of nuclear weapons.
After a follow-up interview of Kennedy by Stein, the results were published in October 1963, receiving international publicity and an expression of gratitude from the president.
Among other awards, the American Society of Authors and Journalists cited Stein as “the editor who has done the most to advance magazines as a medium of democratic communication.”
He served on the board of directors of the McCall Corp., the Magazine Publishers Association (now called The Association of Magazine Media), and Friends of the Earth, an environmental group. He was a member of the Rockefeller Commission on Race and the Media, and was elected as an anti-war delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
Author of two books, “Media Power: Who’s Shaping Your Picture of the World?” (Houghton Mifflin, 1972), and “Getting Your Share: A Woman’s Guide to Divorce” (Crown, 1989), with co-author Lois Brenner, he also wrote numerous articles and reviews for New York Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, American Heritage, Saturday Review, Reader’s Digest, Newsday and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other periodicals.
From 1986 to 1990, he taught courses in magazine publishing at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, he had taught magazine editing at New York University and magazine writing at City College of New York. In 1997, he served as screener for the New Media Awards of the Magazine Publishers Association after writing an op-ed piece, “AOL’s Bottom Line,” for The New York Times.
Before the war in Iraq, he wrote in The New York Times: “I see a generation gap in the debate over going to war in Iraq. Those of us who fought in World War II know there was no instant or easy glory in being part of ‘The Greatest Generation,’ just as we knew in the 1990s that stock market booms don’t last forever. We don’t have all the answers, but we want to spare our children and grandchildren from being slaughtered by politicians with a video game mentality.”
Although he “retired” in 1986, Stein continued to probe and question the politics and social mores of his times in a popular blog, Connecting the Dots (ajliebling.blogspot.com ), which was a finalist in the 2008 Weblog Awards. He was also a co-blogger for The Moderate Voice.
In his blog, he attempted to connect today’s issues to experiences throughout his lifetime. As he noted, “The Web is a wide space for spreading news, but it can also be a deep well of collective memory to help us understand today’s world. In olden days, tribes kept village elders around to remind them with which foot to begin the ritual dance.”
His website’s tagline was Harry Truman’s quote, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
At his request, the family is not holding a funeral service. Friends are invited to visit his website, ajliebling.blogspot.com, which is serving as a tribute to his life and career.
Tax-deductible contributions may be made in his memory online https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/1436666?skinId=110115 Or by check to: Brennan Center for Justice, attention: Development Department, 161 Ave. of the Americas, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10013.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice.
See New York Times obituary here.
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