Anthony Lewis, whose clear, insightful writing changed the way reporters cover legal affairs and whose passionate, liberal voice rang from the opinion pages of The New York Times for more than three decades, died Monday in his Cambridge home of complications of renal and heart failure.
He was 85 and though his Times column was called At Home Abroad or Abroad at Home, depending on the dateline in his world travels, he had made his home in Cambridge and Martha’s Vineyard since the 1970s. He was married to Margaret H. Marshall, retired chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.
Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, Mr. Lewis participated just last week in a Brandeis University panel marking the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing those accused of crimes the right to be represented by a lawyer. “Gideon’s Trumpet,” Mr. Lewis’s 1964 book about the ruling, became required reading for generations of lawyers and judges.
“Tony Lewis was a personal friend, but, more importantly, he was a friend of the court, he was a friend of the law, he was a friend of the Constitution,” said Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. “He made an enormous mark on the law for lawyers, for judges, for ordinary citizens. He was a man of great integrity, decency, and intelligence. We will all miss him.”
Mr. Lewis was awarded a Pulitzer in 1955 for a series in The Washington Daily News about Abraham Chasanow, a US Navy civilian employee who was accused of being a security risk and fired. Chasanow subsequently was exonerated and reinstated. Mr. Lewis won a second Pulitzer in 1963 for his coverage of the Supreme Court for the Times.
“He invented the beat, really,” said Linda Greenhouse, who teaches at Yale Law School and formerly covered the court for the Times.
Rather than simply report a decision, Mr. Lewis “put it in context and indicated the significance and the valence in a richly nuanced way,” she said. “That was something really new, to look at the court as an institution that was part of public life, and not just an oracle that was handing down random rulings on this and that. I think he set a standard that everybody who came after him, certainly including myself, tried extremely hard to live up to.”
“There are not two members of the court itself who could get the gist of each decision so accurately in so few words,” the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once said of Mr. Lewis’s reporting.
Harvard Law School dean Martha L. Minow said Mr. Lewis “set the standard that still has never been surpassed in coverage of the Supreme Court and constitutional law in a way that engaged citizens and experts alike. Always lucid, also compelling, his reporting offered context that illuminated the issues, as well as penetrating analysis.”
Mr. Lewis, who taught at Harvard for many years, “opened the world of internal and external understanding of law to generations of students and colleagues,” Minow said. “It’s a huge loss. He was a towering, towering figure, not just in journalism, but in law and, frankly, in the history of American democracy.”
Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said that “journalism has lost one of its towering moral authorities and most committed journalistic ethicists. Tony’s analytic and journalistic skills were superb, and the thing that made him so important was his profound moral sense and his unwillingness ever to turn away.”
Joseph Anthony Lewis was born in New York City. He edited the school newspaper at Horace Mann School in the Bronx and at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1948. Known in later years for his encompassing intellect, he had been “a rather indolent student,” he told the Globe in 1989. “I’d catch up before the exams.”
Mr. Lewis had worked one summer at the Times as a copy boy: “I was a typical, striving copy boy. Clever,” he recalled.
In 1952, he worked on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign, then began reporting for The Washington Daily News.
“I learned a lot about the real world,” Mr. Lewis said in 1989. “I had lived in a comfortable world. It was shocking to see how people lived. D.C. was still a segregated city. When I first saw Washington, blacks could not go into downtown movie theaters.”
After he won his first Pulitzer, Times Washington bureau chief James B. Reston hired him to cover the Supreme Court and the Justice Department, and he published his first book during the year following his second Pulitzer.
“Gideon’s Trumpet” told the story of Clarence Earl Gideon, who was charged with breaking into a Florida pool hall and stealing money. Too poor to afford a lawyer, he was convicted, and the case wound up at the Supreme Court, which ruled that defendants have a right to court-appointed counsel if they cannot afford lawyers.
Margot Botsford, associate justice of the SJC, was on the Brandeis panel with Mr. Lewis, a week before his death. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he sat in a wheelchair and used an oxygen tube to breathe, but his presence was as vital as ever, she said, as was his book about Gideon.
Reading “Gideon’s Trumpet” again, “I was so taken by his descriptions of decisions by the United States Supreme Court,” Botsford said. “They’re so lucid, so clear, so understandable, that I just got re-impressed all over again.”
From 1964 until 1969, when he began writing a column, Mr. Lewis was London bureau chief for the Times. A columnist until retiring in 2001, he ranged widely in his travels and subjects.
He published books including “Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution” (1964), which took as its subject the civil rights movement; “Make No Law” (1991), about the Supreme Court’s New York Times v. Sullivan ruling in 1964 that established precedent in libel law; and “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment” (2007).
In 1997, James Carroll marked Mr. Lewis’ 70th birthday in an opinion column in the Globe. “For more than four decades, from Birmingham to Israel to Bosnia to welfare reform, Lewis has embodied the prophetic function of the press in a free society,” Carroll wrote.
Though his columns were pegged to daily events, Mr. Lewis wrote passages that seemed to speak easily and equally to different eras. In 1969, a year after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote that while it is understandable that most Americans “are fearful and angry at the violence of the internal attacks on our society . . . it cannot be enough, in the long run, for political leaders to make the majority feel righteous by underlining that anger and fear. Someone, sometime, will have to try again to find a common voice for those inside and outside the society.”
In 1951, Mr. Lewis married Linda Rannells, with whom he had three children. Their marriage ended in divorce.
At a Cambridge gathering he met Margaret Marshall, who was then a lawyer, and they married in 1984.
She called him “the most interesting man I ever met,” though Mr. Lewis, often more humble and understated than his reputation might suggest, told the Globe in July 2010 that he felt “bewildered when I hear her say that. I don’t feel that interesting.”
At that juncture, Marshall had stepped down as chief justice to spend more time with Mr. Lewis, given his Parkinson’s diagnosis. “There couldn’t be a more touching demonstration of her love,” he said.
Theirs was a marriage of minds and love that friends tried to emulate. They always dined by candlelight, she said.
“I’ve been in love with him because he was a great writer and he wrote so brilliantly about the issues about which I cared so deeply,” Marshall said.
Despite his travels, Mr. Lewis was most at home on Martha’s Vineyard, where he summered for decades. A two-finger typist, he always wrote on a Royal manual typewriter and dictated to the Times from pay phones on the island, once rewriting a column on the ferry ride home when President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, scuttling his earlier version.
On the Vineyard, Mr. Lewis made jelly from beach plums that he cajoled his children and grandchildren into helping him harvest, and he “made a very mean bluefish pate,” said Barbara Rouse, chief justice of the state Superior Court.
“He was a marvelous friend,” she said. “He was always solicitous about you, about your interests. Whenever we would have dinners, it was not just discussions of world events. It was about your family, your kids, your grandchildren.”
Still, “each of us has some concern in the world that he passed on to us,” said his daughter Mia of Columbus, Ohio. “He really modeled for us that it’s important to care about things in the world.”
A service will be announced for Mr. Lewis, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves another daughter, Eliza of Newton; a son, David of Atlanta; and seven grandchildren.
As old school a reader as he was a typist, Mr. Lewis read several newspapers a day at breakfast, never on a computer.
“For most of his life, he also turned on the radio on the hour, every hour, to hear the news headlines, to see if anything important had happened that he needed to know about,” Eliza said. “And he would make us all be quiet: ‘Shh. You just can’t be out of touch with world happenings.’ ”