Pete Steffens, journalist, teacher, political activist and champion swimmer, died on Aug. 23, at 87, in Nanaimo on Canada’s Vancouver Island, and I lost a friend of 60 years standing.
Pete had the privilege, and the burden, of being the son of a very famous father, muckraker Lincoln Steffens, as well as the stepson of screenwriter and humorist Donald Ogden Stewart.
That was a difficult heritage to live up to, but Pete made his own mark in many fields.
Pete was born in San Remo, Italy, the only child of Lincoln Steffens and writer Ella Winter, and was educated at Harvard and Balliol College, Oxford, where he competed on the rowing team.
He qualified for the Italian Olympic swim team before returning to the United States to serve in the navy during World War II.
I met Pete after the war when we were fellow copyboys on the San Francisco Chronicle, a lowly position (at $32 a week), but which proved to be a springboard for some subsequent journalistic careers of some note.
Pete, who was fluent in eight languages, including Russian, Czech, Italian and Greek, made his journalistic mark working for Reuters in London and the Middle East, for TIME magazine and other publications and broadcast outlets.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, while reporting on Israel and Jordan for TIME, he met Israeli radio reporter Ella, but when they decided to get married, they ran into the same obstacles faced by any planned interfaith marriage in Israel.
While going through the family documents, Pete discovered, rather to his surprise, that his mother, Ella Winter, was Jewish, which cleared the bureaucratic hurdles.
Returning to the United States, Pete turned to teaching at UC Berkeley what he had practiced as a journalist. He jumped full force into the Free Speech Movement of the day and was a mentor to FSM leader Mario Savio.
In the early 1970s, he returned to Israel, to research the early Hebrew-language press and to serve as literary editor of the New Outlook, a magazine written and published jointly by Jewish and Arab Israelis.
His longest teaching stint, lasting 27 years, was at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, where he became deeply involved in journalism education for young Native Americans.
Pete spent some years in northern England, where his second wife, author and academic Valerie Alia was teaching, and the couple then moved to Vancouver Island, where Valerie cared for her husband during the lengthy illness preceding his death.
Pete’s writing was notable for the incisive profiles of such world leaders as Golda Meir, King Hussein of Jordan, and other Middle East notables. After a stay at Charlie Chaplin’s Swiss villa, Pete wrote a cover story for Ramparts magazine on the great comedian.
When Pete drew his first breath, Lincoln Steffens, born in 1866, one year after the end of the civil war, was 58. When he died in 1936, Pete was only 11.
Except for historians of American journalism and politics, the name Lincoln Steffens does not ring many bells, but his legacy persists.
At the turn of the 20th century, Lincoln Steffens was at the head of a group of intrepid reporters who exposed the corruption of politics and plutocracy, eating at the heart of American democracy.
Now considered the father of investigative journalism. Steffens shook the political and financial establishments with “The Shame of the Cities.”
The 1904 book, a collection of his exposes for McClure’s magazine, is still studied in university history classes, as is the monumental and best-selling “The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens” (1931).
After the October 1917 Revolution, Steffens visited the newly born Soviet Union, interviewed Lenin, and returned an ardent (though later disillusioned) admirer, proclaiming, “I have seen the future and it works.”
Steffens’ fellow “muckrakers,” so labeled by President Teddy Roosevelt, included the likes of Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Frank Norris.
The muckrakers’ latter-day descendants, carrying on the legacy of investigative journalism, count among their number Rachel Carson, Jessica Mitford, Ralph Nader, I.F. Stone, Studs Terkel, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Seymour Hersh.
“The legacy of Lincoln Steffens looms large to this day, if only because the issues he engaged in – from urban poverty to corporate greed – are still alive,” notes historian Dan Letwin of Penn State University.
“He would be distressed (if not surprised) to see how the grotesque inequalities of wealth and power continuer to subvert American democracy,” Letwin said.
Some years after Lincoln Steffens’ death, his widow, Ella Winter, married screenwriter (“The Philadelphia Story”) and humorist Donald Ogden Stewart, who became Pete’s stepfather.
In Pete’s honor, the Western Washington University Foundation has established a journalism scholarship fund for Native American students. Donations may be sent to the Foundation, 516 High St., OM 430, Bellingham, WA 98225. For information, phone (360) 650-3027, or visit www.wwu.edu/give. Please indicate "Pete Steffens Scholarship".
In recent years, Pete worked closely with Peter Hartshorn, author of the recently published “I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens.”
At the time of his death, Pete was completing a book of memoirs and helping screenwriter Allison Burnett research a film on Lincoln Steffens.
Pete Steffens is survived by his wife, Valerie Alia, his first wife Ella Steffens, daughters Daneet Rachel Steffens and Sivan Alena Steffens, stepsons David Restivo and Daniel Restivo, stepbrother Donald Stewart and step-granddaughter Mary Margaret Hope-Restivo.
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