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Robert Manning, a writer and innovative editor of The Atlantic

Robert Manning (center) with John Updike and biographer Justin Kaplan in 1979.
Robert Manning (center) with John Updike and biographer Justin Kaplan in 1979.Credit: Edward Jenner/Globe Staff

Robert Manning, whose 15 years as editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1966 to 1980 capped a distinguished career in American journalism, died Friday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 92. The cause of death was lymphoma, his wife, Theresa, said. For many years a resident of the Back Bay, then the South End, Mr. Manning lived in South Dartmouth.

Before coming to the Atlantic, Mr. Manning had worked for the Associated Press, United Press, Time magazine, The New York Herald Tribune, and the US State Department.

After leaving the Atlantic, he became part owner of the Boston Publishing Co. and oversaw its highly successful 25-volume series, “The Vietnam Experience.”

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“Bob Manning was a great journalist who lived many lives,” Alan Brinkley, a professor of history at Columbia University and author of “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century,” wrote in an e-mail. “He was one of the most important reporters at Time Inc., the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and a prolific book publisher. He was a friend of many reporters and writers, and a great friend of me and my family.”

The end of his Atlantic stewardship led to one of the bitterest feuds in Boston business history, a consequence of the purchase of the magazine by real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman, a purchase Mr. Manning helped initiate, and Zuckerman’s subsequent discharge of his editor in chief and refusal to honor various contractual obligations he had assumed in acquiring the magazine.

Mr. Manning told a reporter at the time, “If the estimable custom of dueling were still in practice, one of us would now be dead, Zuckerman from a shot in the heart but more likely Manning from a shot in the back.”

The remark all too accurately represented the rancor that characterized the feud, as well as displayed the wit and pungency that helped gain Mr. Manning such a notable career.

“He saw the humor in life, really, a class act,” Charles U. Daly, former executive director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and a friend of Mr. Manning’s for more than half a century, said in a phone interview. “I used to kid him that when he was running the Time-Life European operation that he had a Rolls-Royce to take him to the bathroom. ‘If one could have fit in the hallway,’ he’d say, ‘I would have.’ ”

Robert Joseph Manning was born in Binghamton, N.Y., the son of Joseph Manning and Agnes (Brown) Manning. As a senior in high school, he entered the offices of the local newspaper, The Binghamton Press, looking for work in the pressroom. Instead, he was offered the job of a copy boy who had been fired a few minutes earlier.

“I was enthralled,” Mr. Manning wrote in his 1992 memoir, “The Swamp Root Chronicle.” “The large Press city room smelled of gluepots, pipe tobacco, cigarette and cigar smoke and . . . there was also a whiff in the air of spent scotch or bourbon whiskey. Sounds as bright to me as bird calls came from the clattering of the typewriters and the clattering of the teletypes, and there arose occasionally, as if uttered by an angry crow, the sharp cry of ‘Boy!’ or ‘Copy!’ ”

Mr. Manning was soon promoted to reporter and in 1942 was hired by the Associated Press for its Buffalo bureau. His career was briefly interrupted by Army service in 1943, but within a year nearsightedness led to an honorable discharge. His military stint proved crucial to his journalistic future, however. Mr. Manning had been based near Washington, and the wartime manpower shortage had affected news organizations. Upon his discharge, he accepted an offer from UP to join its Washington bureau covering the White House and State Department.

A self-described “gangly lad who checked in from the provinces with little more to serve him than an ill-fitting suit, a hunt-and-peck technique at the typewriter, and a varnish of audacity,” Mr. Manning covered a broad array of stories — from Elliot Roosevelt’s wedding plans to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death — and did so with such distinction he was named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 1945-46 academic year.

After Harvard, he served as UP’s United Nations correspondent and joined Time magazine in 1949. Mr. Manning wrote and edited for the magazine’s National Affairs and Foreign News sections, with time out in 1952 to work for the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson. He claimed to have written the cover story that set “the modern-day record for drawing the lowest newsstand sale by an issue of Time,” a profile of Italian leader Alcide De Gasperi. Conversely, he also wrote Time’s cover story on Ernest Hemingway after enjoying a memorable stay with the Nobel Prize-winning author at his Cuban home in 1954, and the two became friends. Contributing to their bond was both men’s passion for fly-
fishing.

Mr. Manning served as Time-Life’s London bureau chief from 1958-61. Growing restive in the Luce empire, he became Sunday editor of The New York Herald Tribune, only to find himself with even less freedom than he had enjoyed at Time. Thus he was glad a year later to become assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Kennedy administration. Asked by his boss, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, if he was “willing to lie for your country,” Mr. Manning icily replied, “No.” That was the right answer, and Mr. Manning spent 2½ years in the upper echelons of government.

After a breaking-in period as executive editor, he became the 10th editor in chief of the Atlantic, in 1966. The magazine nearly doubled its circulation during his tenure and became a leading critic of US involvement in Indochina. He instituted the “Reports and Comments” section, and among writers whose careers he furthered were Elizabeth Drew, James Fallows, Ward Just, James Alan McPherson, L.E. Sissman, Ross Terrill, Tracy Kidder, and Dan Wakefield.

The Atlantic’s editorial distinction under Mr. Manning did not translate into profitability, and he encouraged Zuckerman to purchase the magazine in 1980. A series of questionable dealings on Zuckerman’s part, such as secretly seeking out a new editor in chief and refusing to pay more than a quarter of the agreed-upon purchase price of $3.6 million, enraged Mr. Manning. Zuckerman countered that the magazine’s perilous financial condition had been kept from him.

Mr. Manning left the magazine at the end of that year, and a suit brought by him and the Atlantic’s previous owners dragged on for seven years. In two separate rulings, Zuckerman was ordered to make the agreed-upon payments. Asked once what lesson he had learned from the experience, Mr. Manning replied: “One, get your money up front. Two, expect that whatever deal you feel that you might have struck, once the papers are signed, the negotiations will commence.”

The Atlantic’s owner, David Bradley, moved the magazine to Washington in 2006.

Mr. Manning was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and his clubs included the Tavern, St. Botolph, and Century Association. He was president of the St. Botolph Club from 1988-1990 and for many years a regular at its weekly poker game. At the Tavern Club, he participated as both writer and actor in its theatricals.

“Even with his limited formal education, he was one of the most cultured and thoughtful persons I’ve known,” Daly said.

His first wife, Margaret (Raymond) Manning, died in 1984. A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, she was for many years book editor of The Boston Globe. Mr. Manning married Theresa M. Slomkowski in 1987.

In addition to his wife, he leaves two sons, Brian of Paris; and Robert G. of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and four grandchildren. His son, Richard, died in 2004.

A “party” — the term her husband used, said Theresa Manning — will be held in his memory at the St. Botolph Club in the spring.

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