William Safire Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Safire (SA-fir) was the youngest of three sons born to Oliver and Ida (Panish) Safir. Years later, while in the Army, he would legally change the spelling of his surname to match its pronunciation. His father, a successful thread manufacturer, died when his boy William was only four years old, leaving his wife and three sons financially strained. Times were difficult for the family; his brother and occasional collaborator, Leonard, has noted that Safire learned much of his determination and grit during this period of his life, as well as the value of family and friendship in surviving hard times.

In 1947, Safire earned a scholarship to Syracuse University. Two years later, however, he dropped out of college to work and to serve in the military, never returning to earn a degree. He was a correspondent while in the military and a profiles columnist for The New York Herald Tribune, but it was his work as a copyboy with John Reagan “Tex” McCrary, columnist at the newspaper and host of a radio show, that shaped much of his future life. As public figures, McCrary and his wife, actress and model Jinx Falkenburg, introduced Safire to many politicians and prominent figures of the day. McCrary was active in Republican politics; at the age of only twenty-two, as McCrary’s assistant, Safire organized a major rally that persuaded General Dwight Eisenhower to run for U.S. president in 1952. Although McCrary cultivated other young talents (including newscaster Barbara Walters), he treated Safire like a son, and the two went into public relations together in the 1950’s. From 1955 to 1960, Safire was vice president of Tex McCrary, Incorporated.

In 1959, Safire was responsible for the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. vice president Richard Nixon. Nixon was in Moscow to promote a U.S. trade and cultural fair; Safire’s role there was to promote the manufacturers of American home products. In front of a replica of a typical American kitchen, the two world figures confronted each other in a newsmaking impromptu debate arranged by Safire. From 1955 to 1960, he was president of Safire Public Relations in New York City. In 1962 he married British jewelry maker Helene Belmar Julius; they had a son, Mark Lindsey, and a daughter, Annabel Victoria, and settled in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Safire and his wife remained married until his death at age 79 on September 27, 2009.

In 1965, Safire volunteered to work as an unpaid writer for Richard Nixon; he produced speeches and worked with Patrick Buchanan on Nixon’s syndicated newspaper column. When Nixon won the presidency in 1968, Safire sold his public relations company and joined Nixon’s White House staff as a senior writer of speeches and position papers. He represented the moderate wing of the Republican Party. He assisted the president and Vice President Spiro Agnew on position papers on the economy and the war in Vietnam. It was Safire who coined Agnew’s famous...

(The entire section is 1224 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Buckley, William F. “Right from the Start: William Safire.” New York 25 (December 21-28, 1992): 107-108. Buckley critiques Safire’s conservative role in the media.

Pinker, Steven. “Grammar Puss.” The New Republic 210, no. 5 (January 31, 1994): 19. Scholar and linguist Pinker takes issue with Safire’s prescriptive rules of grammar and argues that there are deeper forces at work in linguistic change than Safire acknowledges.

“A Pundit for the Times: William Safire.” U.S. News & World Report 104, no. 5 (February 8, 1988): 72. Part of a special report on the media establishment, this article offers a profile of Safire and of his role in the Bert Lance resignation.

Quinn, Jim. “Lingo: William Safire’s ‘On Language’ Column.” The Nation 242 (January 18, 1986). The author accuses Safire and other grammar prescriptivists of devaluing certain language because it emerges from marginalized groups that threaten the status quo of establishment power groups.

Safire, William. “Strong Words.” Interview by Victor Gold. Washingtonian 26 (August, 1991). A generally favorable interview with Safire, it includes his views on contemporary political figures, including presidents and their staffs.

Shapiro, Walter. “Prolific Purveyor of Punditry.” Time 135, no. 7 (February 12, 1990): 62. This is an admiring personality sketch that hits the highlights of Safire’s life and career.

Williams, Marjorie C. “Safire and Brimstone.” Vanity Fair 55 (November, 1992). This author accuses Safire of using his public relations skills to finesse his way into positions of power and influence. It delves into his careers at The New York Times and in the Nixon administration.