Baker was born on August 14, 1925, in Loudoun County. His father, Benjamin, was a stonemason who died in a diabetic coma when Baker was five, leaving the family in poverty. Baker and his mother, Lucy Baker, moved to New Jersey to live with her brother. They were forced to live on the generosity of relatives until his mother remarried when Baker was a teenager.
Always an excellent student, Baker won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, but he left after one year to join the U.S. Navy Air Force in 1943. World War II (1939–1945) ended before he saw combat, so Baker returned to Johns Hopkins, graduated in 1947, and began a career as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun. From 1953 until 1954, Baker was the Sun‘s London bureau chief. In 1954, he returned to the United States and became the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the New York Times. He left this position in 1962 and began to write the acclaimed “Observer” column for the Times. The column appeared three times a week for more than three decades, making it one of the longest-running columns ever. In 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for his “Observer” column. Baker married Miriam Emily Nash, of Camden, New Jersey, in 1950. They had three children. She died in 2015. In 1986, Baker returned to Virginia and settled in Leesburg.
Baker produced a variety of other writing while he worked for the Times. Six collections of short pieces, including some of the “Observer” columns, were published between 1964 and 1983. In 1982, Baker’s autobiography Growing Up was published, and the first chapters deal with his boyhood in the mountains of rural Virginia. Richard Lingeman described the book in a 1982 review in the New York Times: “Instead of being a grim tale of drunken stepmothers and battered stepfathers, Growing Up is touching and funny, a hopeless muddle of sadness and laughter that bears a suspicious resemblance to real life.” The memoir won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1983. Two additional volumes of autobiography, The Good Times (1989) and Looking Back (2002), followed. He also wrote a children’s book and a play, and frequently contributed to leading magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and the New York Times Magazine. Other works such as Washington: City on the Potomac (1958) and the fictional Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections (1968) were based on Baker’s experiences in Washington.
As an editor, Baker compiled the best-selling volumes The Norton Book of Light Verse (1986) and Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor (1993), a collection of humorous literary pieces from two hundred years of American writing. He was also a noted book reviewer and literary critic. With co-author William Zinsser, Baker published Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir in 1995.Baker hosted the PBS series Masterpiece Theatre from 1993 intil 2004.
Baker died at his Leesburg home on January 21, 2019, of complications from a fall.
- Washington: City on the Potomac (1958)
- An American in Washington (1961)
- No Cause for Panic (1964)
- Baker’s Dozen (1964)
- All Things Considered (1965)
- Our Next President: The Incredible Story of What Happened in the 1968 Elections (1968)
- Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972)
- The Upside-Down Man (1977)
- So This Is Depravity (1980)
- Growing Up (1982)
- The Rescue of Miss Yaskell and Other Pipe Dreams (1983)
- The Good Times (1989)
- The Norton Book of Light Verse (editor, 1986)
- There’s a Country in My Cellar (1990)
- Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor (editor, 1993)
- Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (with William Zinsser, 1995)
- Looking Back (2002)