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Jun 6, 2010 1:01 pm

Daniel Okrent

Basic Facts

Occupation: Author and journalist

Currently a retained consultant to Time Inc. and on the board of TESSCO Technologies Inc.

The Edward R. Murrow Visiting Lecturer on Press, Politics, and Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Founded the award-winning magazine New England Monthly and was chief editor at the monthly Life magazine.

First public editor of the New York Times from 2003 to 2005.

Former chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, on whose board he served from 2001-2009.

Retired as Editor-at-Large of Time Inc. in July 2001, after serving three years in that post, three years as the company’s Editor of New Media, and four years as Managing Editor of Life magazine.

The Hearst Foundation Visiting Fellow in New Media at the Columbia University School of Journalism in the 1999-2000 academic year.

Area of Research: Modern American history

Education: B.A., University of Michigan, 1969.

Major Publications:

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, 2010.

Public Editor #1: The Collected Columns (with Reflections, Reconsiderations, and Even a Few Retractions) of the First Ombudsman of The New York Times. PublicAffairs, 2006.

Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. Viking Penguin, 2003.

The Way We Were: New England Then, New England Now. Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.

Co-authored with Steve Wulf: Baseball Anecdotes. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Personal Statement

After spending most of my career as a journalist, I turned to history in the late 1990s, when I began working on Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.  The idea was proposed by a publisher who knew I cared a lot about New York; that I was an experienced reporter; and that I was sufficiently capable as a writer to build the story on interviews and secondary sources.

It didn’t turn out that way.  Early on, finding the secondary sources uninspiring, I decided to dip into some primary materials.  And once I set foot in the Rockefeller Archive Center in Westchester County and encountered an eight-foot bookcase filled with Finding Aids to the RAC’s vast collections, my entire approach to research was turned upside down.  By losing myself in the correspondence and file memos of people long dead, the story I was working on came to life.

I eventually worked in two dozen archives for that book, and three dozen more for my recently published Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. But one day out of the hundreds I’ve spent in archives stands out as a signifying moment.  I was in Princeton, working in the papers of the financier Otto Kahn, who had played a brief but critical role in Rockefeller Center’s development.  I was searching for two specific letters Kahn had written in 1926—letters I knew about only because they were referenced in the letters of another, minor figure in the Rockefeller Center story.  I found the letters, whose dates I knew, within minutes of sitting down.  But when I next looked up, the library was closing for the day.  Seven hours had passed, but I had gotten so lost in Kahn’s day-to-day life—matters far, far removed from the subject I was writing about—that I hadn’t moved from my chair.

I had been seduced by the practice of history.  The file boxes and folders of a well-maintained archive became the objects of my fondest attention.  But the boxes and folders of various archives rewarded me in several other ways as well.  They didn’t tell me lies.  They did not suffer faulty memories.  And, writing as I was about the long dead, they couldn’t threaten to sue.  Historical documents, I was delighted to learn, are not diminished by the frailties of the interview subjects I had long encountered as a journalist.

In the end, Great Fortune was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in history.  That gave me the confidence to try a bigger subject&mbdash;and gave similar confidence, evidently, to Scribner, which offered me a contract for what would become, five years later, Last Call.  I’m not yet at the point where I can unabashedly call myself a historian; when asked my profession, I opt for the less committal “writer.”  But if someone else wants to call me a historian on the basis of two books that are, I believe, as rigorously researched and as fully documented as the profession requires, I won’t object—and will be secretly thrilled.

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