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Shelter Island Reporter obituary: Richard Warren Baron

Richard Warren Baron, the renowned 1960s owner and publisher of The Dial Press, where he presided over works by James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, and hired E.L. Doctorow as editor-in-chief, died on Sunday, May 9 of natural causes in New York City. He was 98.

His death was announced by Carole Baron, his wife of 45 years, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

A  World War II combat veteran and POW, Richard was a lifelong fighter for social justice, — he participated in the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King in 1963 — and a pilot well into his 80s of his Cessna 182 plane, Richard lived on Shelter Island and in Manhattan.

Wanting to make his mark outside The Royal Paper Company, which was the family business, he  bought half-ownership of the Dial Press, an independent publishing house, which began in 1923. Under his leadership, Dial’s author roster included James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Thomas Berger, Elizabeth Bowen, Leonard Levin, W.R. Burnett, Howard Sackler, Vance Bourjaily, and historical novelist Frank Yerby.

 At Frank’s 90th birthday celebration in 2013, Mr. Doctorow toasted Baron with the words, “He was totally fearless and he backed us in every crazy thing we wanted to do.”

 In addition to Mr. Doctorow, Richard brought on Christopher Lehmann-Haupt as one of his editors. He also developed close working and personal relationships with many of the authors he championed.

Three examples: While finishing his novel “Another Country,” James Baldwin stayed at Richard’s home in Bedford, N.Y., writing and playing ping-pong with his publisher’s daughters, who called him “Jimmy.” As his dinner guest at Richard’s country club in neighboring Purchase, the all-white dining members sat in shocked silence — until Mr. Alfred A. Knopf came over to hug the author, and the diners relaxed.

The Baron and Mailer families summer-vacationed together in Provincetown, Mass., where publisher and author were fierce sailing competitors.

Richard placed Frank Yerby’s photo on the jacket of his historical novels, defying the conventional wisdom of the times that a Black author photo on popular fiction potentially diminished sales.

In 1969, Richard sold half his interest in Dial to the Dell Publishing Company, later divesting the rest. Dell eventually became part of Doubleday, which dissolved the imprint in 1985.

The Dial Press was revived in 1993 by Carole Baron, then head of Dell, at Bantam Doubleday Dell. At her husband’s suggestion, she appointed the late Susan Kamil to run it. Since then, it has thrived within Penguin Random House’s Random House division as a publisher of award winners and bestsellers, such as the current “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle.

Post-Dial Press, Richard established the Richard W. Baron Publishing Company, whose authors included Thomas Berger, Nat Hentoff and Julius Lester, whose “Revolutionary Notes” was a major bestseller.

Richard Baron was born on April 4, 1923 to Samuel T. Baron, owner of the Royal Paper Corporation, and Mabel Levy Baron, and grew up on New York’s Upper West Side. After a scuffle with a fellow student at P.S. 166, he was enrolled in Manlius Military Academy, near Syracuse. Having attended the University of North Carolina, early in World War II he joined the Army Infantry. His armed-forces education and training had him sent to North Africa in 1943 as a lieutenant. He saw combat at Anzio, after which he was wounded. Before he returned to the war in Germany, he and a few other Jewish  soldiers changed the H (for Hebrew) on their dogtags to P (Protestant). This saved his life when he was surrounded by SS units, captured and imprisoned in a POW camp for the war’s final four months. Richard recounted his experiences in “Raid,” a book published in 1981.

Richard retired from book publishing in 1980, dividing his time between Manhattan and his beloved Shelter Island where, well into his 80s, he sailed his boat and flew his retractable Cessna 182.

Richard is survived by Carole; his children Amy and Tom from his second marriage to Virginia Olsen; children Susan, Wendy and Vicki from marriage to his late first wife Pamela Stearns; three step-children; 17 grandchildren; and great-grandson, Asher. Richard will be buried on Shelter Island in a private ceremony. Memoriam contributions can be made to the Shelter Island Friends of the Library, shelterislandpubliclibrary.org/friends-of-the-shelter-island-library.