Sir Harold Evans

Sir Harold Evans

It was supposed to be a great victory, an hour of grandeur, a noble instance of fortitude. In the late spring and first summer days of 1940, under assault from Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht, the British Expeditionary Force in France had been driven to the sea. Then came what the popular press held—and prevailing memory holds still—to be the miracle of Dunkirk, the improbable evacuation back to England of many of the fighting men. In Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, constrained from intervening by a largely isolationist public, watched with care. Eleanor Roosevelt later remarked that Dunkirk, along with Winston Churchill’s rhetoric of resilience in the wake of the operation, convinced the American president that Britain could indeed hold out against Germany. For the British fighting men, it was said, there was no ambiguity, no fear—only the certainty of triumph, and an eagerness that the battle be joined anew.

So went the story. The truth, however, was more complicated—and Harold Evans, not yet a teenager, saw the truth. As a boy on seaside holiday, he encountered large numbers of the evacuated soldiers. “They were a forlorn group, unshaven, some in remnants of uniforms, some in makeshift outfits of pajamas and sweaters, not a hat between them,” Evans recounted many years later. His father, a train driver, struck up conversations with the weary veterans. “We had been encouraged to celebrate Dunkirk as some kind of victory,” Evans recalled. “A Daily Mirror front page I’d seen pinned up in our boardinghouse had the headline ‘Bloody Marvellous!’ How was it, then, Dad found nothing marvelous, only dejection, as he moved among the men?”

The vicissitudes of the moment, the epic and personal forces in play, the connection between image and reality, transfixed the young Evans. The men of Dunkirk would go back, and they would win through. As William T. Sherman had noted, however, war was hell—and nobody knew that better than those fighting it. Looking back, Sir Harold Matthew Evans saw this seaside moment as the beginning of the odyssey that only closed on Thursday, when he died at the age of ninety-two. “Newspapers were clearly more important and more fascinating than I had imagined, reporting more than a matter of stenography,” Evans noted. “How could I equip myself to decode the complex, ever-changing, thrillingly dynamic mosaic of live news and bring it to the public with the raw integrity of truth?”

The raw integrity of truth: That is what Harry Evans sought ever afterward, through the brightest, the most influential, and the most romantic of careers in the Republic of Letters on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a Renaissance figure who saw the past in the present and whose commitment to reporting and to truth-telling was designed to create a more perfect, or at least a more honest, future.

Sprightly and urbane, charming and tireless, Evans was an editor, publisher, and writer of remarkable scope and skill. In the atomized cultural climate of the first decades of the twenty-first century, it can be difficult to appreciate how large he loomed as the editor of The Sunday Times in London and then in his sundry posts in the New World, including his years in the 1990s as the publisher of Random House. A champion of crusading journalism, of erudite history, and of memorable storytelling, Evans was an architect of his times, an exemplar of the essential role of a free and contentious press in the lives of the world’s democracies. Demagogues may denounce inconvenient reports as “Fake News”; Harry Evans, though, was the news.

“Harry was, of course, a towering figure: the editor we all looked up to, the gold standard we aspired to,” recalled Alan Rusbridger, a former editor in chief of The Guardian and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. “The fourteen years he spent as editor of The Sunday Times were in many ways the high-water mark of what a serious newspaper should be: campaigning, brave, eclectic; independent; challenging; rigorous. He was lucky in his proprietor, Roy Thomson, but he seized his luck and showed why journalism mattered. In later years he was someone I regularly turned to for advice, support, and general wisdom. There was literally nothing he didn’t know about newspapering—and he was a generous mentor on anything from the typography of headlines to how to stay out of jail. I will miss him immensely.”

And he was great fun. A breakfast meeting with Harry at the Waldorf Astoria—a favorite spot in midtown Manhattan—could stretch to lunch. With his wife, the editor Tina Brown, Evans was at once an observer of society and a player on its stage. “Some of the qualities that made him a great newspaperman also made him a great and rewarding, and sometimes surprisingly tender, friend,” the journalist Hendrik Hertzberg remembered. “Once the dessert dishes were cleared and the coffee cups filled at one of his and Tina’s big dinner parties, he was very much the editor in chief, darting from table to table, orchestrating a roomwide conversation that provoked arguments and challenged assumptions. He was the very opposite of a know-it-all. He was a want-to-know-it-all.”

Herself one of the great storytellers in the Anglophone universe, Tina shared revealing details about the Great Man in a toast she delivered to her beloved on his ninetieth birthday celebration at Cliveden. Her task that evening, she said, was to act in an Evans-inspired “spirit of journalistic fearlessness” by relating “certain peculiarities which occasionally try the Nancy Reagan–like adoration I hold him in.” To wit: “If you’ve ever had him to stay, you will know that, like Napoleon, Harry loves to take very long hot baths that monopolize the bathroom,” Tina said. “In any hotel where we stay, he disappears for hours with at least two books that can be found discarded and damp afterward with strips of sponge to mark pages. The longest bath he ever took was before moderating a panel with three Proust historians at a monthly literary breakfast he started when he was at Random House. When I asked him through the door what was the last time he had read Proust, Harry replied, ‘Never. But by the time I get out I think I’ll have the gist of it.’” When Winston Churchill proposed marriage to Clementine Hozier, he reputedly remarked, “We may not always be happy, but we shall never be bored.” Evans and Brown were always happy. And they were never bored, or boring.

As the publisher of Random House, Evans was a man of substance and of showmanship. He believed, rightly, that literature was most effective when people actually encountered it and devoted not inconsiderable time to promoting the books he loved. He hosted those Breakfasts at Barneys with the Proust historians and others, including Nora Ephron, Stephen Sondheim, Frank Rich, and Kurt Vonnegut. Evans edited Colin Powell’s My American Journey, a book that nearly launched a presidential campaign in 1996. On his watch, Random House published John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which anecdotally held the record for the longest time on the New York Times bestseller list; Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone; Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action; Magic Johnson’s My Life; Caleb Carr’s The Alienist; Richard Nixon’s Beyond Peace; Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again; and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. He was the force behind Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colors, which was initially published anonymously, and Evans edited and published, among others, Henry Kissinger, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William Styron, Carl Sagan, Gail Sheehy, Anna Quindlen—and twenty-one volumes of the Talmud.

“Harold Evans was a great editor for my books and a steady friend,” Kissinger said. “Above all, he elevated those whose lives he touched with the constancy of his decency and the reliability of his convictions.” The writer and editor David Remnick offered this praise: “How lucky was I? My first book, a thick tome about the fall of the Soviet Union, was helped immeasurably because Jason Epstein was my editor and Harry was my publisher, which is rather like playing with Ruth and Gehrig right next to you. How can you fall? Harry will always be an inspiration to me, as a spirit of infinite enthusiasm and curiosity, as an avatar of free inquiry, as editor and writer. His achievement was immense, and I adored him.” The editor Geoff Shandler said this of life with Evans: “I am the only person in the world lucky enough to have worked for Harry as an editorial pipsqueak at Random House and then, a decade and half later, edited and helped publish his memoir. In all that time, though, I’m not sure that I ever saw Harry more excited about a book than he was about Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action—or more frustrated by its inability to get traction in the marketplace. (Note that these were in days when ‘not get traction’ still meant selling more than 100,000 copies.) The original cover of the book had been an extremely elegant, mostly type treatment on a cream background, intended to give off a vibe of ‘case file.’ When the book wasn’t exploding, Harry decided to put a new cover on it—not so easy, since the book was already in stores, but he managed to get it done. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, this replacement cover might have been even worse: a Duchamp-esque gavel stuttering downward that looked more like a windsock than a legal instrument. Months later, I was in Harry’s office talking about an edit I was helping him with, and he took out a printout of Vintage’s pending paperback cover for A Civil Action. It was a photo of Boston Common in winter, a man seen from the back, walking away from the viewer. ‘They got it,’ Harry said. ‘I kept doing these bloody abstract images but forgot the essential thing: without a person, you have no story. People are always the most interesting thing. You can write about anything, but without people, you can’t have heart. Always remember that.’ He was not just talking about books and articles: he was talking about life—and how right he was. He was a gem—an incredibly good man whose gifts were many, but perhaps my favorites were that he never made you feel like you should have known something that you didn’t, and he always made you feel like you had something to say even if you hadn’t figured it out yet.”

Born on Thursday, June 28, 1928, in Greater Manchester, England, Harold Matthew Evans was a son of what he called “the respectable working class” and rose through the complicated ranks of British class as a daring newspaperman—a field he entered only four years after encountering the veterans of Dunkirk in World War II. As the historian Niall Ferguson recalled, “By birth and by temperament Harry was an outsider, a foreign body in the metropolitan and still partly hereditary British Establishment. His career coincided with the rise, apogee, and fall of the national newspaper as the most potent force in British political life. When he started out, the press was still to a striking extent regionally structured, as it had been in the nineteenth century. The Manchester Evening News, like The Manchester Guardian, was a northern paper, like The Northern Echo, of which he became the editor in 1961. But when Harry moved to London to edit The Sunday Times in 1967, the press became Fleet Street: centered in London and capable of making and breaking ministers and even governments.”

Investigative journalism—of the hard-nosed, time-intensive, shoe-leather variety—became his hallmark. “I first met Harry Evans in 1967 after he brilliantly excerpted my book Inquest for The Sunday Times,” the journalist Edward Jay Epstein remembered. “He was then turning The Sunday Times’s Insight team into one of the greatest experiments in the history of investigative journalism. Unlike any other editor that I’ve ever known, Harry was a sui generis dynamo generating a constant stream of ideas for scoops that still electrifies the entire world of journalism. What an inspiration—a fearless editor, with the grit and skills to take on any Goliath.”

On Evans’s watch his newspaper uncovered the scandal of birth defects caused by thalidomide; so, too, the gripping saga of Kim Philby’s Cold War treachery. Backed by the courageous Roy Thomson, Evans was relentless. “Harry would always confound me: a turn of phrase, an idea, a connection to history or to our company,” recalled David Thomson, son of Roy and head of what is now Thomson Reuters. “The mind was teeming. One visit to The Sunday Times from a luncheon during my Cambridge days comes to mind. Harry approached and proceeded to probe me about the undergraduate community, asking terribly direct questions. Although I was taken aback initially, the experience never left my mind. Harry was the embodiment of journalism. His inspired leadership left an indelible mark upon the world. Harry represented the thread to all that was good and just. I marveled at his ability to inspire and lead in a selfless and humble manner. A boundless curiosity enveloped everyone. Journeys unfolded with passion and conviction. Harry was a beacon in my life and to countless others. The threads were personal, familial, corporate, ethical, and to realms beyond. Harry’s spirit is entwined within, and our friendship simply made life worth living.”

Evans fell out with Rupert Murdoch over editorial control at The Times and moved to New York in the early 1980s. “But ‘the Harry Evans Sunday Times,’” Niall Ferguson recalled, “long remained the epitome of a golden age of British journalism, spoken of with a rare reverence in the insalubrious watering holes of Wapping and Docklands—to the annoyance of Harry’s successors, who strove to match his scoops.”

Evans’s New York years were hectic and heralded. He shared a restless energy that he had seen in his father. On those annual holidays, the elder Evans, Harry recalled, “could never sit in a deck chair for long. He would inhale the salt air for ten minutes, then declare we should swim, kick a soccer ball, or join an impromptu beach cricket match. . . . Not only could he not sit still for long, he was compulsively gregarious.”

As was his son. Tina transformed Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker; Harry undertook a series of editorial posts and wrote several acclaimed books, including The American Century; a history of innovation entitled They Made America; and Do I Make Myself Clear?, a guide to writing well. “Late to the party as usual,” Ferguson recalled, “I first met them in the early 2000s, post–Talk, pre–Daily Beast. I suppose I had expected them to be the ultimate power couple, as that was how they were generally billed. Certainly, the book parties they hosted had stellar guest lists. And yet, to my surprise and delight, the couple seemed to regard their power, and that of their guests, as droll to the point of absurdity.”

Evans loved the land he had adopted as home. “For about a dozen years we spent a lot of Thanksgivings together at Marie Brenner’s house,” the writer Peggy Noonan recounted. “This involved the reading of a play written for children called ‘The First Thanksgiving.’ We all took roles. Harry was always William Bradford. (Tina was the voyager on the Mayflower who called ‘Land ho!’) And when Harry first read it, he burst into tears. And was moved also in subsequent years. He so loved America, was in love with the idea of it, was grateful to it and, when it made its big dreadful blundering mistakes, was furious with it and his eyes welled up then too. He was a loving, liberal gentleman. He loved his England, and if it were a lady he would have kissed its hand, but he was such an American.”

Around the time of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Isabel, one of Tina and Harry’s beloved children, was working on a school project. “Some months after 9/11 her homework for a class in Greek mythology was to make a Pandora’s Box,” Evans recalled at the end of his memoir My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times. “We asked her what she’d put in it. She showed us an empty plate for hunger, a Tylenol bottle for disease, a cracked mirror for vanity, and a chocolate for greed. There was also a tiny colored drawing she had made of the Stars and Stripes.

“‘And that?’ we asked.

“‘Hope,’ she said.”

Summing up the long journey from Dunkirk to Dune Road on Long Island, where he loved spending time, Evans remarked, “I often think of that today. I flew into America on the wings of hope, and it has not let me down.” In good times and bad, in sun and in storm, Sir Harold never let down the cause of truth or the claims of his friends. And there can be no greater victory than that.