Obituaries

Richard Eder, at 82; esteemed critic whose reviews were performances

Mr. Eder, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, reviewed books for the Globe from 2004 until last year.

George Rizer /Globe Staff/file 1987

Mr. Eder, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, reviewed books for the Globe from 2004 until last year.

Richard Eder, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987 for the Los Angeles Times and for three decades a luminary on the Boston literary scene, died Friday at Tufts Medical Center. He was 82 and lived in Cambridge. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia, according to his wife, Esther Garcia Eder.

Mr. Eder, who reviewed books for The Boston Globe from 2004 until last year, had been a foreign correspondent and theater critic for The New York Times prior to going to the Los Angeles Times as a book critic. He returned to the Times, to review books, in 1999.

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Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post and former editor of the Globe, shared a New York office with Mr. Eder when both worked for the Los Angeles Times. “I admired him immensely,” Baron said in an e-mail. Mr. Eder “had a wit that could slice up anyone and anything. Plus, he was just plain brilliant, a master of the English language and knowledgeable about more than perhaps anyone I knew.”

Excellence in reviewing books for one Times brought Mr. Eder his Pulitzer. Excellence in reviewing theater for the other Times got him reassigned. From 1977 to 1979, he was The New York Times’s first-string drama critic. That his standards were more exacting than those of his predecessor, Clive Barnes, made for friction with his editors and led to a brief tenure.

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Mr. Eder liked to recount a conversation with the paper’s executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal: “Hey, Eder, come on. You’re a good Catholic. You’ve got seven kids! Catholics are supposed to be charitable, right? Try to show some charity.”

Whether writing about musicals or novels, Mr. Eder’s reviews were performances. He wrote a feathery, dancing prose – at once precise and expansive — part minuet, part surgical incision.

A 1997 Los Angeles Times essay on contemporary American fiction gives a sense of Mr. Eder’s distinct voice. Conceding the hopelessness of his assignment, he wrote: “My categories are the webs of six drunk spiders at a dance. There is not an American fiction, unless perhaps it is the American itch to define one. (I don’t believe the British, French or Italians scratch as hard.)”

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Joseph Lelyveld first met Mr. Eder when both were New York Times foreign correspondents. In a telephone interview, the former Times executive editor said Mr. Eder’s stylishness made him, “for a journalist, something of a poet – and that made him a better writer and critic.”

Richard Gray Eder was born on Aug. 16, 1932, in Washington, D.C., the son of George and Marceline (Gray) Eder. Mr. Eder’s father oversaw International Telephone and Telegraph’s operations in Argentina. Mr. Eder spent most of his boyhood there and met his future wife. The couple would have celebrated their 60th anniversary in April.

At 14, Mr. Eder contracted polio and was bedridden for a year. He regained the ability to walk, with the assistance of a cane. He graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover. When two upperclassman tried to haze him when he arrived on campus, Mr. Eder drew on his Argentine background, telling them his luggage included a large bolo knife. The hazing stopped.

At Harvard, Mr. Eder majored in English. His Adams House room had a view of St. Paul Church. When its bells tolled at midnight, he would sometimes take an air rifle and fire a shot for a 13th chime. “Any drunken passersby must have gotten confused,” he once recalled with a laugh.

Raised an Episcopalian, Mr. Eder converted to Roman Catholicism in his early 20s, inspired by reading St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” “It all made such sense,” Mr. Eder once said.

Mr. Eder’s first foreign posting for the Times was to Colombia, in 1962. The government, dismayed by the candor of Mr. Eder’s reporting, refused him reentry after several years there.

The Times then sent him to its Washington bureau, where he covered the State Department, followed by stints in Belgrade, Madrid, and London.

Among his more memorable assignments were reporting on the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague and, a few years earlier, three days spent interviewing Fidel Castro. Listening to the dictator’s torrent of words, Mr. Eder later said, was like “washing your hands in Niagara Falls.”

“I found myself becoming less and less anxious about catching planes,” Mr. Eder said in a 1987 Globe interview, describing his decision to give up foreign reporting for the arts. It was a natural move. Mr. Eder had long been a passionate reader and filmgoer; and his love of theater dated to playing Falstaff in a 1950 Phillips Academy production of “Henry IV: Part 1.”

Mr. Eder spent two years as second-string film critic to Vincent Canby, then received the plum assignment of first-string theater critic.

Max Frankel, who succeeded Rosenthal as the Times’ executive editor, wrote in an e-mail of a high point in Mr. Eder’s career as drama critic: “Richard’s instant and penetrating embrace of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ when huge segments of the theater audience (and quite a few of his editors and colleagues) received it with tin ears.

“I learned much from him about our hemisphere and about the machinations in our State Department and about difficult literature. But here he emerged also as a first-rate guide to difficult Sondheim music! Who knew?”

In his review, Mr. Eder wrote that the songs of the character Mrs. Lovett “are awesomely difficult,” and Angela Lansbury “does them awesomely well. Her voice is a visible voice; you can follow it amid any confusion; it is not piercing but piping. Her face is a comic face; her eyes revolve three times to announce the arrival of an idea; but there is a blue sadness blinking behind them.”

In 1980, the Times sent Mr. Eder to Paris as bureau chief. He went to the Los Angeles Times in 1982, as a book reviewer and cultural correspondent. Initially based in New York, he and his wife moved to Boston in 1985 to be closer to several of their children, who were going to college in the area.

The Eders lived in the Back Bay, then Milton, and Cambridge. For many years, Mr. Eder’s Times “office” was a narrow two-room apartment on Charles Street where erudition fought a constant battle with inundation. Review copies of books lined the walls and covered much of the floor. They also filled the bathtub. Mr. Eder had a standard greeting for visitors: “Here, take a book.”

In 1987, Mr. Eder won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle citation for excellence in reviewing. Taking a 1999 buyout from the Los Angeles Times, he resumed reviewing for The New York Times, this time writing about books. He also wrote for The New York Review of Books.

At various times, Mr. Eder taught at Bard College, Boston University, Princeton, MIT, and Brown.

“Journalism is a hinged profession,” Mr. Eder remarked to a friend earlier this year. “Reporting on one side, writing on the other. I was always a better writer than reporter. Whenever I hadn’t done enough reporting, I thought I could disguise it by writing better. Usually, I could.”

Besides his wife, Mr. Eder leaves a brother, Donald, of Tarrytown, N.Y.; two sisters, Liz McCullough of Gainesville, Fla., and Luli Gray of Chapel Hill, N.C..; three daughters, Maria Eder Miller of New York City, Ann Eder Mulhane of Jamaica Plain, and Claire of Boston; four sons, Michael of Milton, Luke of Portland, Maine, Ben Garcia of San Diego, and Jamie of Oakland; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Wednesday in St. Peter Church in Cambridge. A memorial service will be held December 6 at 2 p.m. in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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