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Phil Merrill and the Vanishing Iconoclastic Publishers

At NATO headquarters in Belgium, at a Washington power dinner, or among his employees at Washingtonian magazine, Philip Merrill was the kind of boss whose arrival was occasion for a frisson of fear, the occasional rolling of eyes, and a rush of anticipation.

No one ever accused Merrill--who is now presumed dead after his sailboat was found empty, his wallet still aboard, in the Chesapeake Bay over the weekend--of being a beancounter or a corporate conformist. The owner and publisher of Washingtonian magazine, the Annapolis Capital and a number of other Maryland newspapers was among the last of a vanishing breed in the media industry--the kind of owner who used his publications for whatever purposes interested him, with barely a nod toward the financial analysts, investors and other outsiders who think they know what to do with a journalistic outlet.

Merrill was not a swashbuckling editor of the Ben Bradlee ilk; Merrill's publications were hardly known for their journalistic verve or courage. But he was the kind of publisher who had favorite writers and favorite subjects and who appreciated journalists who liked to get into tough issues. In the continuum of publishers, with the great family institutions (Graham, Sulzberger, and once upon a time, Knight) on one end and the bland, cost-cutting public corporations (Gannett, the late Knight-Ridder) on the other, Merrill stood on a siding just off the middle of the route, along with a small group of mainly small-town owners who went their own way. There aren't many individualists left in a business now dominated by many-tentacled corporations; Merrill was his own man.

I first got to know Merrill when I was stationed in Germany as bureau chief for the Post; part of the gig was covering NATO and European-American defense and alliance issues. Merrill showed up at NATO headquarters as assistant secretary general of the alliance, an appointee of the first Bush administration. He started calling me to comment on my stories, and before long, we discovered that we had attended the same high school (though decades apart) and that we were both New York City kids who couldn't quite take entirely seriously the diplomats and military folks who were at work shaping the post-Soviet world.

Merrill--my high school alumni directory says he changed his name at some point from Philip Levine to Philip Merrill-- became a helpful source during a time of great tension over German unification and U.S.-Soviet relations in the final months of the Soviet Union. He had a delicious way of cutting through the self-important secrecy that diplomats and military people use to keep their work one step removed from the understanding and knowledge of the general public. And he loved to gossip.

When I visited him in Brussels and later saw him in Washington, I glimpsed another side of his personality--the part that reminded me of visiting the Yankee Stadium offices of George Steinbrenner. The mere rumor of his impending arrival was enough to send mere mortals scurrying to make sure everything was as the boss wanted it. Some thought him imperious, others found his shtick amusing. Merrill reminded me of other kids at our school in the Bronx, smart kids who were taught to follow their interests wherever they might lead, kids whose teachers incessantly drilled into them the idea that they were destined to run things.

Merrill could be absent-minded to the extreme, yet detail-obsessed as well. Just when he appeared to be clueless about something, he would pop in with a comment that showed he knew the topic frighteningly well.

If he'd been a smoother kind of person, others would have thought of him as charismatic and even visionary. But there was something awkward, even nerdy about him, causing some folks to underestimate Merrill. They did so at their peril.

In his last years, Merrill devoted himself to the Bay where he apparently died, and to the University of Maryland's journalism school, to which he made a $10 million donation that led to the school being renamed in his honor.

But he is best known for his city magazine, one of the few remaining books that sticks with the 1970s formula of service journalism along with lifestyle pieces and the occasional gritty piece of reporting, as pioneered by Clay Felker at New York magazine. Some like to deride Washingtonian as a magazine that essentially does the same stories every year, but it does them well, and it's often fun to read--in good part because the man who owned it liked to surround himself with people who shared his own wide-ranging interests in the world.

Phil Merrill was one of Washington's big characters, the kind of guy you'd want to sit next to at dinner. I'll miss him.

By Marc Fisher |  June 13, 2006; 7:20 AM ET
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Marc--Thanks for sharing your experiences and perspctive. One question. How did he feel about soccer?

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 13, 2006 9:58 AM

Marc, you forgot hubris in describing the many characteristics of Phillip Merrill. This, above all of Merrill's traits, is what ultimately cost him his life. My sympathies go out to the Merrill family at this time.

Posted by: KP | June 13, 2006 10:19 AM

Awww, Marc had a friend. Obviously, nature did not fear big, bad Philip Merrill. I'm sure that many of his employees and peers are glad the snarkiness and attitude are gone.

Posted by: WB | June 13, 2006 10:23 AM

out of curiousity what was the name of the high school in the bronx that you both attended?

Posted by: TE | June 13, 2006 10:58 AM

the comment above my former one is disrespectful and rude

Posted by: TE | June 13, 2006 11:00 AM

Phillip Merrill was a caring and generous man who will be sorely missed by the Chesapeake Bay community.

Marc, your post was a fond remembrance of a often cantankerous but always brilliant man.

WB: Clearly the term missing and presumed dead is lost on you. Have you no soul?

Posted by: DeeDee | June 13, 2006 11:05 AM

WB-How easy it is to say disresprectful and hurtful things while hiding in anonymity... Something Phil Merrill would have never done.

Posted by: BW | June 13, 2006 11:08 AM

Doctor KP--As I understand it, no body has been recovered. He's missing. How, then, are you so confident in diagnosing his cause of death as hubris? Assuming he really is dead, couldn't it be something simpler like a heart attack?

Posted by: Curious | June 13, 2006 11:32 AM

TE: It's Horace Mann School, in the Bronx, N.Y.

Posted by: Fisher | June 13, 2006 12:24 PM

Time was, a newspaper's job was to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. The (presumably?) deceased's magazine may have trafficked in hagiography, but...
And he was mighty comfortable.

Posted by: Zenger | June 13, 2006 12:38 PM

I used to work at one of Mr. Merrill's publications, while he was on his NATO assignment, so I didn't see him often. But when I did, he certainly lived up to the hype that preceded him!

Am I the only one who is thinking about how former diplomats or CIA agents or FBI investigators "go hunting alone" and fall on their own rifles? Maybe I just don't want to believe he's really disappeared, with the worst feared.

Posted by: rolling doughnut | June 13, 2006 1:08 PM

I've known Phil Merrill well for most of my life. Whether you loved Phil or hated him or felt something in between, he was unforgettable. Among everything I've read since his disappearance, this column best captures the character he was. Bravo!

Posted by: SPD | June 13, 2006 1:49 PM

As a former employee of the Washingtonian, I can tell you, while Phil did have a temper, his bark was much worse then his bite. He also had a heart of gold. I think you really nailed it Marc. Thanks, I'll miss him too.

Posted by: JS | June 13, 2006 2:09 PM

Ah, yes, Phil Merrill, "the kind of owner who used his publications for whatever purposes interested him..." like ordering a reporter at the Capital to dig up dirt on a Circuit Court judge hearing a civil suit against him.
Like allowing headlines such as "Democrats, Sodomites meet in San Francisco."
Like allowing into print an editorial filled with barely concealed racial slurs against the Japanese.
Like underpaying reporters while socking away the money to have stuff named after him.
God, I miss those good old days of journalism, Marc.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2006 4:38 PM

I agree with the previous unnamed poster: Phil Merrill was not a nice man. Yes, I know it sounds awful to say something like that about a dead person, but take it from someone who worked for one of his publications.

He would have screaming fits in front of everyone or on the phone. People used to dread seeing his Lincoln and driver (Yes, he actually had a driver...) in his reserved spot because someone probably would be getting dressed down for something.

He wanted the photographers to control the color in their images even when it was beyond their control. If a kid was playing outside and wearing a blue shirt, it was no good because of the sky. He also wanted no motion blur, even when the photo was artistic and probably the best thing shot that day.

He wanted the photographers to get the names and racing teams during sailing events like the Volvo Ocean races.

He used his publications to promote himself but rarely spent money on getting good equipment for the publications. When he donated money to UMD, he asked the photographer shooting it, "Do you work for me?" The photographer had been with the paper for 15 years at that point.

I could go on, but suffice to say, not everyone will miss him. And no, I am not a photographer.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2006 8:49 PM

I just realized I needed to edit my post after submitting it... specifically, the section about the races...

Phil wanted those IDs even when they were impossible to get, like when the photographer was on another boat and the racers looked like nearly-impossible-to-identify specks in the viewfinder.

Posted by: anonymous | June 13, 2006 8:52 PM

To all "anonymous" posters: Find a spine and use your names.

The guy has a wife, children and grandchildren, for God's sake. And there's another side to him most of you, apparently, sadly did not know.

Mr. Fisher, thank you for your brilliant portrait.

Bob Mosier
Maryland Gazette newspaper, a Capital-Gazette publication.

Posted by: Bob Mosier | June 13, 2006 10:23 PM

Marc, did you ever actually read Merrill's newspapers ("hardly known for their journalistic verve or courage") or do you just enjoy tossing insults from your ivory tower? Reason I ask, some of those cowering journalists now work for the Post. What's that say about your paper?

Posted by: spineless twit | June 14, 2006 1:34 PM

While I didn't personally know Mr. Merrill, perhaps his longtime reputation for spasms of venom toward subordinates has caused some of them to succumb to the organizational culture he inspired, where people were trained, in effect, to cower.

Anonymity is and was a sensible way to avoid his wrath, the wrath of his defenders and friends, or the wrath of those whose sense of propriety precludes criticizing the (presumed) dead.

Surely, his reputation for charitable largesse, high-brow social and political roles and his less-known reputation for privately defending *some* who worked for him must be offset by his spectacular penchant for berating underlings in the nastiest possible fashion. Obituaries notwithstanding, that's the thing about reputation--it's a package deal.

Posted by: Sensibly Anonymous | June 14, 2006 2:26 PM

The deceased was sailing his classic Cheoy Lee 41' sloop, right?

Posted by: Jack | June 14, 2006 6:47 PM

I was that photographer in the UMD incident referred to by Anonymous. Yes, it did happen, and it was the fourth time over the years Phil Merrill asked me if I worked for him. I liked to tell that story so it almost doesn't surprise me to see it here. As a photographer I always tried to be as unobtrusive as possible ... perhaps I was more successful than I thought.

My colleague Bob Mosier points out above that there was a side we didn't know. It's unfortunate that Mr. Merrill didn't make that side known to many. A few brief conversations with him over the last few years made me see something beyond the bluster he was known for. But it was hard to get past the fear factor that came with his reputation.

He was one of the greatest characters I've ever observed in a business now mostly devoid of them. Annapolis is a character among cities so perhaps the city and he deserved each other. The Capital wasn't much of anything when he bought it and it can be argued Phil Merrill turned it into something. Would we have fared better with some corporate ownership in a far-off city making occasional waves of layoffs? Probably not.

While it's true I didn't care for a number of Mr. Merrill's decisions and I found his occasional harsh demeanor embarrassing, his demise has struck me with an odd sadness, partly for the company's loss, and certainly for the tragedy his family is enduring.

Posted by: Nick Lundskow | June 14, 2006 10:43 PM

I am having difficulty in deciding which is sadder a. The basic inhumanity and lack of civility some people have for their fellow man. b. The inability of some people to move on over real or perceived slights or harms and live in the future that has removed them from this unpleasantness. or c. The fact that it is truly a shame that these folks didn't know the real Philip Merrill, and evidently only saw some small part. As one of the MANY employees both current an former, I can say on my own behalf and theirs that we truly appreciated, admired, and yes loved the man. We miss him greatly and feel blessed to have know him.

Posted by: James Brown | June 17, 2006 12:39 AM

Dying doesn't turn an egotistical, nasty omphilocentric into a paragon of virtue, and those who insist that a man's true character should be tortuously twisted into what it never was just because he died are being intellectually dishonest. Not only was Mr. Levine (he adopted his cousin's surname, Merrill, because he was ashamed of his own, which, he believed, "sounded Jewish") an extremely unpleasant man, to put it mildly, but also he ran a newspaper that was known for lifting whole articles from the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun (among others) and running them without the original byline and without attribution to the newspapers in which they were originally published. That's the kind of "journalism" Mr. "Merrill" practiced. Those who worked for him were, as Gary Gately said in a New York Times article of June 14, "primarily young journalists willing to work long hours for little pay" because they were fresh out of school. Most of them left for real newspapers, such as the Sun or the Post, as soon as they could, realizing that working at Mr. "Merrill's" petty fiefdom, where truth was required to be compromised on a daily basis, was a kind of newpaper hell that no one who had any spine should have to suffer for too long. The locals in Annapolis have another name for The Capital that should tell you all you need to know about the caliber of Mr. "Merrill's" paper - just insert an "r" in the appropriate place in "Capital".

Posted by: KF | June 17, 2006 11:34 PM

Suicide?! Suicide. That sure turns all the previous opinions about Phil Merrill upside down. It also represents an editorial conundrum for any publication---especially his own---that wants to write further about the end of his life. Policy aside, they should--and probably won't---explore his self-inflicted demise out of deference to the family.

Baffling and dismaying. The larger-than-life go-getting ass-kicking philanthropist-entrepreneur...quits? I just hope they don't try to pass it off as merely depression due to ill health. That is too easy, and ultimately implausible for a Titanic personality like Merrill's.

Of course, "successful" people are no less entitled to suicide, rational or otherwise, than anyone else. But it sure makes it a lot harder to despise the old codger, knowing he did himself in. And harder for some, perhaps, to respect him.

While further reporting might constitute a posthumous invasion of privacy, many will want to know what could possibly inspire a man like that to take his own life. I hope some fair-minded writers and editors--even at the Capital---will try and explain just that. His legacy is incomplete without it. It's important.

Posted by: Bewildered | June 20, 2006 11:43 PM

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