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A lot of history in one man who calls Shelter Island home

PETER BOODY PHOTO |  Carole and Richard Baron, World War II POW and former publisher of Dial Press during the Civil Rights era, outside the beachfront home where they host children, step-children, grandchildren and step-grandchildren.
Carole and Richard Baron, World War II POW and former publisher of Dial Press during the Civil Rights era, outside the beachfront home where they host children, step-children, grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Many Islanders know Richard Baron, a regular in the Memorial Day Parade, as a member of that “Greatest Generation” of Americans, a man who fought from North Africa to Anzio and on into Germany, where he was captured and spent the last four months of World War II as a prisoner of war.

His military record, from his wounding in Italy to his capture in Germany, makes for a fascinating tale, part of which is told in a book he co-authored in 1981 called “Raid,” about General George S. Patton’s disastrous attempt to free his son-in-law from the camp where Richard was a prisoner.

Probably few Islanders know Richard was the publisher of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and other greats at Dial Press during the 1960s, or that he is a veteran of the March on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, or that he is a commercially licensed pilot and former ocean sailor who discovered Shelter Island when he sought refuge here during heavy weather in the 1960s.

At 91, Richard Baron is also the patriarch of an extended family of children, step-children and grandchildren. They gather in a well-mannered crowd at his and his wife Carole’s modern beachfront home with its view westward across Peconic Bay for swimming and kayaking and what Carol, a top editor at Knopf who met Richard through publishing connections in 1973, calls “controlled chaos.”

Richard maneuvers through the tumult like a man on a mission, his walker and the effects of surgery for sinus cancer be damned, making his specialty latte for a guest and reciting in precise detail the progression of his life from public school on the Upper West Side through the war and onto his publishing career, all the while fending off admonitions from Carole that he’d better get on with it.

He radiates an aura of military authority and determination but there’s a twinkle in his eye and the trace of a wry, perhaps skeptical smile. People adore him. For outsiders, the proof is in a video recorded at his 90th birthday party upstairs at the 21 Club two Aprils ago.

Among the many who spoke of their love was daughter Amy and son Richard Baron the younger, known as Tom, the only one of five children from the elder’s first two marriages who is not a daughter and who spoke of the challenge of living in the shadow of his father.

The story he cites isn’t about Paris after liberation, when famed New York Times war correspondent Drew Middleton interviewed his father at Hotel Scribe and had the Times home office contact his parents to tell them he was alive and well, if skin and bones. Tom instead cites the time a decade ago when his dad, in his 80s, was pulled over for driving at more than 100 mph and somehow came away with no speeding ticket.

There’s Christopher Lehman-Haupt, the journalist, editor and former New York Times book reviewer, remembering that when he accepted a job offer from Richard in the 1960s, his previous employer warned he’d be working for “Captain Bligh. Why work for that man?”

“I don’t plan to sail with him,” he told his boss. But he did sail with him, including a 10-day trip on which the skeptical wives had a lovely time despite their fears, thanks to doses of Milltown.

The longtime editor and publisher of The Nation and a colleague in Dial days, Victor S. Navasky, told of a luncheon at the Four Seasons “back in the 1960s, when publishing was as it should be,” to which Richard took him and Leonard Lewin, the author of “Report from Iron Mountain” — a legendary bestseller for Dial that made front pages for purportedly exposing a national policy that promoted war as essential to the economy. It was, in fact, a work of fiction, “a hoax,” as Richard describes it.

Novelist E. L. Doctorow, whom Richard hired as editor in chief at Dial, recalled that “the 1960s, as some may remember, were a tempestuous time,” with the anti-war and civil rights movements, the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, the student shootings at Kent State.

“It was a terrible time but also a wonderful time,” he said, when the “country was breaking out of the Cold War mentality. If anyone was the perfect publisher for the 1960s, it was Richard Baron. He was totally fearless and he backed us in every crazy thing we wanted to do.”

That strain of fearlessness runs through his life story. The son of a corporate president and a Manhattan socialite, Richard and his sister, Audrey Del Rossario, herself well known on the society pages in New York, Southampton and Palm Beach, grew up on the Upper West Side and later Sutton Place.

He attended public school until, in seventh grade, he turned around and punched a kid who had pushed him from behind during a fire drill at school. His father shipped him off to the Manlius St. John’s Military Academy near Syracuse, where he graduated in 1940 and went on to Fort Benning, Georgia for Officer Candidate School, which he had to attend twice because he was caught gambling in forbidden territory across the Chattahoochee River and barred from graduating with his class.

He shipped out for North Africa from Newport News in 1943, a lieutenant in the largest convoy ever assembled up until that time, landing weeks later in Mers-el-Kébir and going straight into combat. He would fight on into Sicily and mainland Italy, where he was hit in the left arm by machine gun fire leading his platoon on a mission to clear a house of enemy personnel ahead of the Anzio breakout.

“The enemy machine gun was located in an outhouse,” he wrote in a private memoir. “If I had been raised differently, I probably would have thought of clearing the outhouse immediately, but I was a city boy.”

After his recovery, he returned to combat and fought his way into Germany, finding himself and 1,500 men trapped on a ridge, surrounded by German SS units. By the time the Americans surrendered, 1,200 had been lost.

His POW camp, near Hammelburg, was the target of a raid ordered by General George S. Patton, probably to free his son-in-law. It reached the camp but all its tanks and armored personnel carriers were destroyed during the withdrawal and all its men killed or captured.

As the Allies advanced, the Germans moved Richard and the other POWS to a camp at Nuremberg, from which he was liberated by the arriving Americans just a few weeks later.

Back from the war, he was living at his parents’ Sutton Place apartment and working for the family’s Royal Paper Corporation. He started a division to sell paper to book and magazine publishers and developed an interest in that field. He jumped ship and went into the publishing business in 1958 because his father’s four brothers wouldn’t go along with his proposal to buy a paper mill in Wisconsin.

He bought into George Joel’s Dial Press and soon found himself in charge after Joel died of a heart attack. For Richard, it was “not just a business,” he explained. “It was a mission. I wanted to do something to make my mark on the country and have an effect.”

What was happening to the country in the 1960s, with bombings in Birmingham and students beaten by police, “was awful,” he said. “I wanted to become important in changing things.”

He told of allowing Dial author James Baldwin to stay at his farm in Bedford to write. Richard took him to the Century, his country club in nearby Purchase. The dinner crowd out on the patio for the Tuesday night buffet fell into silence when they arrived.

“All the Wall Street people were there,” Richard remembered. “I was married to one of their daughters.”

None of them said a word until publisher Alfred Knopf stood up from his table, ran “over and gives Jimmy a big hug and everybody relaxed. They were horrible,” Richard said.

He sold half of Dial Press to Dell in 1970 to raise cash for a very expensive divorce. He later sold the rest because he did not get along with Dell’s Helen Meyer. He formed Richard Baron Publishing Co., which brought out titles like “Revolutionary Notes” by Black Power militant Julius Lester.

There is too much to tell about Richard’s long and fascinating life to fit in such a short space. Richard and Carole, who is nowhere near ready for retirement, divide their time between the Island and  New York. They sold their last boat. His plane, a retractable Cessna 182, rests in a hangar at East Hampton Airport. He’s working on a writing project and she’s at the top of her game at Knopf.

There’s plenty more time for fearlessness ahead.