Throughout his career, Mr. Anson was considered one of the leading magazine writers of his generation, contributing to Time and Life magazines, New Times, Esquire, the Atlantic and Vanity Fair, where he began working in 1995. He published several books and was known for his fearless, sometimes combative approach to reporting — and his dealings with editors.
Mr. Anson emerged from the New Journalism movement of the 1960s, which held that reporters should immerse themselves in their stories and employ dramatic literary devices to make their tales more compelling. He was 24 when he was sent to Vietnam to cover the war for Time magazine and narrowly escaped death after being held captive in Cambodia.
Later, after he joined the magazine’s New York bureau, one of Mr. Anson’s first assignments was to write about boxer Joe Frazier.
“I thought this guy was completely out of his mind,” former Time writer Chris Byron said of Mr. Anson in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “He got in the ring with Joe Frazier, and I think Frazier hit him so hard with the first punch, he got a broken leg or a dislocated shoulder. That guy hit him into the next county.
“Everybody said, ‘Did you hear what Bob Anson did?’ ”
Mr. Anson often wrote about the troubled legacies of powerful or once-promising men, including in-depth examinations of the post-presidential years of Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton. He often chronicled lives cut short by tragedy or mystery, including those of hip-hop star Tupac Shakur, comic writer Doug Kenney and Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed by his terrorist captors in Pakistan in 2002.
“The why is always the hardest question for a journalist to answer,” Mr. Anson wrote in the August 2002 issue of Vanity Fair, “and it’s what brought Danny Pearl to Pakistan. ‘I want to know why they hate us so much,’ he said. Why he died trying to find out brought me.
“My qualification is having been in a similar circumstance a long time ago—August 1970, in Cambodia, to be precise . . . The difference is, I came back.”
Mr. Anson also wrote a searching 1987 book, “Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry,” about a young African American graduate of the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire who was killed on a Harlem street by a White police officer. Edmund Perry, who went to Exeter through a program designed to bring students from underprivileged backgrounds to top prep schools, had been accepted to Stanford University.
He “had everything going for him, all the things anyone was supposed to need to climb out of poverty and make it in America,” Mr. Anson wrote. But when Perry’s bright future was snuffed out after a late-night encounter with an undercover police officer, Mr. Anson discovered the story had many unexplored dimensions, including Perry’s history of drug-dealing and violence.
“Something had gone dreadfully haywire,” Mr. Anson wrote, “not only for this one 17-year-old boy but, by extension, for the country itself.”
In 1989, Mr. Anson published a memoir, “War News: A Young Reporter in Indochina,” which “deserves its own special place in the literature of the Vietnam experience and in the annals of journalism,” former Washington Post foreign correspondent Thomas W. Lippman wrote in a review.
In the book, Mr. Anson described the excitement of being in a war zone, the feeling of being under fire and living to tell the tale.
“Every day you could test yourself, your willingness to push the limits,” he wrote. “And God knows it was fun, not just the doing of it, but the recounting of it later at cocktail time, when everyone claimed the day’s closest call.”
Mr. Anson was born Robert Sam Zimdar in Cleveland on March 12, 1945. After his parents divorced, he grew up with his mother and maternal grandparents, taking their last name. His grandfather, Sam Anson, was a journalist who often quizzed his grandson about current events.
At Notre Dame, Mr. Anson said he found his first father figure — the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the university’s president. Mr. Anson, who studied English and international relations, began contributing to Time as an undergraduate and was hired by the magazine after his graduation in 1967.
During the 1970s, Mr. Anson was a freelance writer and author, writing a biography of 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern and another book that questioned the results of investigations into the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A 1981 book, “Gone Crazy and Back Again,” traced the rise of Rolling Stone magazine and its influence on the 1960s and ’70s.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Anson was working on a book about the Walt Disney Co. when his publisher, Simon & Schuster, canceled the project. Mr. Anson sued for $1 million, suggesting that the publisher was pressured by corporate overlords. He settled out of court.
Mr. Anson was named editor of Los Angeles magazine in 1995, setting off a tumultuous period in which 17 of the magazine’s 19 contributing editors were gone within two months. Employees complained that he was moody, dismissive and prone to making sexist remarks.
“Robert Sam Anson is a bull who carries his own china shop around him,” Rod Lurie, the magazine’s onetime film critic, said at the time. After five months at the magazine, Mr. Anson was fired.
Even in the best of circumstances, he could be hard to manage and was known to get in the occasional fistfight.
“I would say he’s a great journalist and an excellent kick boxer, as anyone who’s wrangled with him knows,” former Esquire editor David Hirshey told the Los Angeles Times.
“There was a lot of blood on the walls, most of it mine, but in the end I always got a fax congratulating me on staying in the trenches with him.”
Mr. Anson’s marriages to Diane McAniff, Sharon Haddock and Amanda Kyser ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage; a daughter from his third marriage; a sister; and a grandson.
In his book “War News,” Mr. Anson wrote that, after quarrels with his editors at Time over his coverage of the Vietnam War, he was sent to Cambodia, only to have the war follow him there.
He was captured by North Vietnamese forces in 1970, at a time when several other Western journalists were abducted and killed.
Mr. Anson was thrown into a foxhole with a trenching tool and ordered to keep digging.
“My mind was filled with a jumble of things — how I wished they’d kill me on the road so my body could be found; how I’d let down my kids and my wife; how I wanted to be shot in the chest, not the head,” he wrote.
“Another soldier moved forward and shouted at me to stop . . . I felt . . . the coldness of his AK being pressed against my forehead. I began saying the Hail Mary.
“Above me I heard the metallic click of a weapon being locked and loaded. . . . Then something strange swam into my head . . . the Vietnamese word for peace.
“ ‘Hoa-binh,’ I whimpered. Then louder: ‘Hoa-binh . . . Hoa-binh!’ ”
He finally persuaded his captors that he was a journalist, not a U.S. pilot who had been shot down. After three weeks, he was released, noting that the North Vietnamese had treated him “like a brother.”
He announced that he could no longer cover the war in Southeast Asia, saying, “I have friends on both sides now. I don’t want to see my friends dead.”
* * *
From The New York Times, 6 November, 2020 edition:
Robert Sam Anson, ‘Bare-Knuckled’ Magazine Writer, Dies at 75
He covered wars, politics and brash, complicated men — like himself. His profile subjects included Oliver Stone, Tupac Shakur and David Geffen.
A bear of a man who resembled the actor James Coburn, Mr. Anson wrote mostly for Vanity Fair, where he was a contributing editor for more than two decades, but also for Esquire, Life, The Atlantic and New Times, a short-lived crusading magazine of the left in the mid-1970s.
He was “the last of a breed of broad-shouldered, bare-knuckled, ’70s magazine journalists who will chopper into any hellhole on earth and come back with an epic story,” his Esquire editor, David Hirshey, once said.
Mr. Anson’s byline promised vigorous writing, vivid scene-setting and insight into complicated, sometimes difficult men, of whom he was one.
“He, too, was magnetic and brash, turbulent and complex, passionate and fascinating,” David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, wrote in a tribute after Mr. Anson’s death.
Among those he profiled were the director Oliver Stone, who at the time was making his controversial movie about the assassination of John F. Kennedy; Tupac Shakur, in a piece written after the rap star’s death; David Geffen, the music mogul, who allowed Mr. Anson a glimpse into his kaleidoscopic life; and Doug Kenney, the comic genius and co-founder of National Lampoon, whose life was anything but funny.
“The thing about Bob was that he was both vulnerable and imposing at the same time,” Graydon Carter, the former editor of Vanity Fair, said in an email interview. “The wild man of his youth — and he was really out there — gave way to a journalist of towering bravery and ingenuity.”
As a 24-year-old correspondent for Time magazine in Cambodia, Mr. Anson was taken prisoner of war in 1970 and held for weeks by the North Vietnamese and their murderous allies, the Khmer Rouge.
“Bravery isn’t just about launching yourself into a war zone — although he did that,” Mr. Carter said. “It’s also the stories you’re willing to take on. Bob was especially brilliant covering the dark side of the male psyche.”
Mr. Anson probed his own psyche in the last of his six books, “War News: A Young Reporter in Indochina” (1989), a personal story of camaraderie, competition and the thrill of danger.
He was so exhilarated to be covering the war, he was hardly aware of the bullets flying around him. He frequently traveled over dangerous roads where some of his colleagues had been killed or kidnapped.
Such daredevilry, Mr. Anson wrote, “was a means where every day you could test yourself, your willingness to push the limits.”
“And God knows it was fun,” he added, “not just the doing of it, but the recounting of it later at cocktail time, where everyone claimed the closest call.”
In reviewing the book for The New York Times, Harrison E. Salisbury called it “the story of a very young man at war, a tale that is told with gusto and excitement and captures a correspondent’s almost reckless pursuit of danger.”
An opinionated man who was fiercely protective of his work, Mr. Anson was not an easy edit. “He talked back to editors,” Ken Auletta, a media writer for The New Yorker and a longtime friend, said in a phone interview.
“And he would call people out,” he added. “If a fellow reporter was cutting corners or not being aggressive in his questioning, he would call them out. He made enemies that way. But from his point of view, he was telling the truth.”
Robert Sam Anson was born on March 12, 1945, in Cleveland. His mother, Virginia Rose Anson, was a schoolteacher. His father was not in the picture, and his mother and her parents raised him. His grandfather, Sam B. Anson, was a major figure in journalism in Cleveland, where he held publishing and editing jobs at the city’s daily papers. His grandmother, Edith (McConville) Anson, was a homemaker.
Life at home was something of a journalistic boot camp. When Robert was a child, he later told friends, his grandfather would quiz him on current events. If he gave a wrong answer, his grandfather would throw something at him.
As Mr. Anson recounted in his LinkedIn profile, he was expelled from one school for what he said was his “resistance to idiotic rules.” His punishment for one misdeed was to copy, by hand, Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” which “proved useful” when he covered Vietnam, he wrote.
He graduated from the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland in 1963 and went on to Notre Dame, where he majored in English and international relations. He graduated in 1967.
Mr. Anson’s three marriages ended in divorce. His brief first marriage, to Diane McAniff, whom he had met in college, was in the late 1960s. He was married, again briefly, to Sharon Haddock, a lawyer, in the mid-1970s. He married Amanda Kay Kyser, an artist, in 1985; they divorced in 2017.
In addition to his son, Mr. Anson is survived by two daughters, Christian Anson Kasperkovitz and Georgia Grace Anson; a sister, Edith Schy; and a grandson.
Time magazine hired him soon after college to work in its Los Angeles bureau. He covered politics, organized crime and what he once described as “a smorgasbord of mayhem,” which included the sensational killing of the actress Sharon Tate and others by followers of Charles Manson.
After he returned from Southeast Asia, he followed the 1972 presidential campaign, which led to his first book, “McGovern: A Biography” (1972). It was the authorized story of Senator George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat who lost that election in a landslide to President Richard M. Nixon.
His other books include “Gone Crazy and Back Again: The Rise and Fall of the Rolling Stone Generation” (1981), a history of Rolling Stone magazine and its editor, Jann Wenner; “Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon” (1984), which examined the former president’s life after he left the White House; and “Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry” (1987), about a Black honors student from Harlem who was killed by a white police officer in 1985.
In a departure for a man so identified with being a writer, Mr. Anson accepted an offer in 1995 to become editor of Los Angeles magazine. His brief tenure was a disaster.
Shortly after he took the reins, The Los Angeles Times wrote a scathing piece about him, portraying him as mercurial, pugnacious and sexist, “the kind of writer colleagues imagined nursed a Hemingway complex.”
Others believed he was a gifted editor whose disruption of a stodgy workplace was bound to ruffle feathers. Still, he and the magazine parted ways after just five months.
He soon moved back east, “where he continued to torment editors, commune with friends and hunch over his keyboard for the rest of his days,” his son wrote in a letter to friends.
Mr. Anson did most of his writing from an Airstream trailer, which he kept behind his house in Sag Harbor, on Long Island’s East End. He survived a bout with cancer and became a mentor to other patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York through its Visible Ink writing program.
Almost two decades after leaving Los Angeles magazine, Mr. Anson reflected on his editing experience in a blog called “About Editing and Writing.”
He said he was glad that he had gone back to writing, “where you’re responsible solely for the words you put on paper, not the lives and families of an entire staff.”
But the editing experience made him a better writer, he said, adding, “And boy, did it open my eyes about what editors have to put up with 24/7.”