Osborn Elliott, a giant of American journalism and a tireless crusader for revitalizing America's cities, died on Sunday in New York City. He was 83.
The cause was complications from cancer, his family said.
As NEWSWEEK's top editor in the 1960s and 1970s, Elliott transformed a magazine that had been a faint rival of Time into a nimble competitor. While Time was slow to evolve from the conservative path laid down by its founder Henry Luce, NEWSWEEK under Elliott pursued an ambitious, liberal agenda that gave the magazine a sharper identity and sense of mission. For those accomplishments, Elliott, known to his friends as "Oz," was among the first to be voted into the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame. He also received the Frederick Douglass Award from the New York Urban League for his work in civil rights.
"Oz transformed the weekly newsmagazine concept and had an enormous impact on American public and political life," said Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who knew Elliott for several decades. "He was also a deeply moral man who was concerned with social issues, and he made a difference."
Elliott was born in New York City in 1924. His father, John Elliott, lost his Wall Street job and much of his savings during the Great Depression. After that, Elliott's mother, Audrey Osborn Elliott, who had been an early activist for women's suffrage, entered real estate and became a powerhouse broker in New York City, keeping the family solvent.
When he was eight, Elliott started a home newspaper that reported on school events; his parents paid him a nickel a copy. He attended the Browning School in New York City, graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., and was accelerated through Harvard by the Navy, earning his degree in two years.
Like many of his generation, Elliott came suddenly of age during World War II. He saw action in the Pacific as an ensign aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Boston.
After the war, Elliott got his start in journalism in 1946 as a cub reporter at the New York Journal of Commerce, making $35 a week. In 1949, he joined Time magazine as a business writer, profiling many of America's business leaders. Elliott was hired by NEWSWEEK as business editor in 1955 and within four years became managing editor, the third-ranking job. When the newsweekly was put up for sale in 1960, Elliott and Ben Bradlee, then in NEWSWEEK's Washington bureau, conspired to persuade Philip Graham, president of the Washington Post Co., to make an offer for the magazine. Graham outbid the competition and installed Elliott as NEWSWEEK's editor. He was 36. (Bradlee would eventually become the Post's top editor.)
Elliott was an innovative force. He introduced bylines in the magazine in the mid-1960s over objections that it would diminish the magazine's voice of authority and brought a range of columnists into the fold, including Milton Friedman, Meg Greenfield, Stewart Alsop and Paul Samuelson.
"Oz was a remarkable editor and an even more remarkable man," said Richard Smith, NEWSWEEK's chairman. "He was to the manor born, but with a twinkle in his eye, a generous heart and a finger-tip feel for popular and political trends." Said Bradlee: "Oz made NEWSWEEK a successful, ambitious, first-class publication."
Elliott's NEWSWEEK was a reflection of a tumultuous time, and it was the magazine's groundbreaking coverage of the civil rights movement that solidified his reputation as a journalistic star. In 1963, the magazine produced a remarkably detailed study of black life and attitudes in the U.S., dispatching 40 researchers to conduct 1,250 interviews for a special issue titled simply: "The Negro in America." With that, NEWSWEEK burst its way into national attention. The issue won widespread praise from political leaders as well as the magazine's competitors. In 1967, NEWSWEEK produced another special report, "The Negro in America: What Must Be Done."
"To deal with the racial crisis effectively, there must be a mobilization of the nation's moral, spiritual and physical resources, and a commitment on the part of all segments of U.S. society," Elliott wrote in a editorial accompanying the project.
By laying down an action plan for solving America's racial problems, NEWSWEEK crossed over traditional lines of objectivity and sought to become an advocate for what it considered the most critical issue of the era. The issue won many prizes, including the Columbia University School of Journalism's Magazine of the Year award.
Elliott's NEWSWEEK also had its slipups. In his memoir The World of Oz (published in 1980), Elliott acknowledges the magazine's tin ear in its 1964 cover story on the Beatles. "Sartorially they are a nightmare. . . musically they are a near disaster. . . their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of 'yeah, yeah, yeah!') are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments," the story read. As Elliott later said, dryly: "We didn't always get it right."
Leaving NEWSWEEK in 1976, Elliott next devoted his energies to New York, then on the brink of bankruptcy. He became the founding chairman of the Citizens Committee for New York City, a nonprofit organization he created with Senator Jacob Javits to encourage New Yorkers to volunteer to perform tasks the city government no longer could afford to do. Elliott remained the guiding force of the committee for more than three decades; today it is one of the strongest advocates for grass-roots involvement aimed at improving New York life.
Taking to heart his own message of volunteerism, Elliott agreed in 1976 to serve as New York's first deputy mayor for economic development—and roving ambassador for goodwill—for a token salary of $1 a year. His agency was charged with the job of helping the city emerge from its worst fiscal crisis ever.
Elliott returned to journalism in 1978, when he was named dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The school's endowment doubled during his seven-year tenure, and he established two major centers for the study of journalism: the Poliak Center for First Amendment Studies and the George T. Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism. In 1980, in a talk with students, Elliott summed up the qualities that every journalist should develop. Foremost among them: "An open mind, a willingness to learn, and the knowledge that the truth is not always what it seems."
Continuing at Columbia as a professor, Elliott also returned to duty at the Citizens Committee. In 1991, when U.S. cities were struggling anew, Elliott wrote a guest column in NEWSWEEK that called for the nation's mayors to lead a march on Washington to protest the drop in federal support for America's cities. What ultimately moved him to action, he told the New York Times, was a newspaper report that transportation workers were shoring up the city's crumbling bridges with wooden braces, but homeless people were stealing the braces to use as firewood.
"I thought, 'My God, what are we coming to?'" he said. Elliott himself organized the march in May 1992, linking arms with Jesse Jackson, David Dinkins and numerous other mayors, as the 250,000 participants chanted: "Save our cities! Save our children!"
"When I think of Oz Elliott," said Dinkins, New York City's mayor from 1990-93, "I think of a person who embodies all the qualities of a good citizen—a practical man of high ideals, a courageous man who exercises self-restraint, a worldly man who loves his city."
Over the years, Elliott was active in various institutions, serving as a trustee at the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library. He became a life trustee at the Asia Society, and in 2003 that organization honored him by establishing the annual Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism. He was also a member of many boards, including New Yorkers for Children and the Lincoln Center Theater; he served on the Harvard Board of Overseers and was chairman of the Visiting Committee to the East Asian Studies department at Harvard.
When he retired, Elliott abandoned the bow ties that he once wore daily and spent much of his time at his summer home in Stonington, Conn., piloting his Boston Whaler and relaxing with his wife, the accomplished photojournalist and entrepreneur Inger Abrahamsen Elliott, and six children and stepchildren, and his many grandchildren.
Besides his wife, his survivors include his three children from his first marriage, to Deirdre Spencer Adler: Diana Elliott Lidofsky, Cynthia Elliott and Dorinda Elliott; and his three stepchildren, Kari McCabe, Alec McCabe and Marit McCabe; two foster children, David and Samuel Wong; and 17 grandchildren and one great grandchild.