Dan Baum: “He adroitly moves his subjects through parades, prison, fancy balls and gun brawls — yes, the stuff of life here.”

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Dan Baum, journalist who wrote of the flooded lives of New Orleans, dies at 64”:

Dan Baum, a onetime reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker magazine whose in-depth books examined the ­Coors brewing family, gun ownership in America and the intertwined lives of New Orleans residents before and after Hurricane Katrina, died Oct. 8 at his home in Boulder, Colorado. . . .

Mr. Baum was a peripatetic journalist who lived at various times in Alaska, Zimbabwe and Mexico and wrote four books hailed for their solid reporting and graceful writing.

His most acclaimed work was focused on New Orleans, from which he reported for the New Yorker, beginning two days after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Taking up residence for several months, he detailed the city’s collapse and resilience in a series of articles and blog posts.

Returning in 2007, he wrote of the city’s painful plight: “I felt the same sense of wonder we all felt in the days after Katrina: that the United States, with its wealth, its generosity, and its professed affection for the culture of this idiosyncratic little city, would stand aside and let New Orleans suffer alone.”

In that spirit, Mr. Baum decided to chronicle the city through the stories of nine local citizens, including Black residents of the downtrodden Lower Ninth Ward, a millionaire White lawyer, a career criminal, a transgender bar owner, a White police officer and a trumpet-playing coroner who swam up Canal Street to reach his office after the levees broke.

In “Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans” (2009), Mr. Baum reached back to 1965, when Hurricane Betsy inundated New Orleans to recount the city’s slow resurrection and the self-reliance of its people — before, during and after Katrina.

“I noticed that most of the coverage, my own included, was so focused on the disaster that it missed the essentially weird nature of the place,” Mr. Baum wrote in “Nine Lives.”

“Long before the storm,” he went on, “New Orleans was almost by any metric the worst city in the United States — the deepest poverty, the most murders, the worst schools, the sickest economy, the most corrupt and brutal cops. Yet a poll conducted a few weeks before the storm found that more New Orleanians — regardless of age, race, or wealth — were ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives than residents of any other American city.”

With an almost cinematic narrative structure, based on four years of reporting and editorial help from his wife, Margaret Knox, Mr. Baum wrote what “may be this young year’s most artful and emotionally resonating nonfiction book so far,” noted New York Times critic Dwight Garner.

In one scene, Mr. Baum described how Tootie Montana, a chief of the elaborately dressed Black Mardi Gras Indians, had collapsed while testifying at a city council meeting about police brutality.

When someone shouted, “Pray!,” the crowd immediately broke into song: “Here comes the Biiiig Chief, the Biiiig Chief, the Big Chief of the nation, the whole wild creation. He won’t bow down, not on that ground.”

Reviewing “Nine Lives” for The Washington Post, New Orleans author Jason Berry wrote that Mr. Baum’s “technique brings to mind Robert Altman’s film ‘Nashville,’ cutting between short scenes and longer vignettes from the lives of people who rarely intersect. . . .

“He adroitly moves his subjects through parades, prison, divorces, sex changes, fancy balls and gun brawls — yes, the stuff of life here — showing New Orleans as a magnetic, enduring force.”. . . .

After graduating from New York University in 1978, Mr. Baum went into journalism. He worked at a newspaper in Anchorage before moving to Singapore for the Wall Street Journal and later to New York. He was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1985 to 1987.

After he and Knox were married in 1987, they moved to Zimbabwe for more than two years, opening a news bureau and supplying stories to news organizations around the world. On his website, Mr. Baum said he wrote the first draft of his books and articles, but Knox was an essential writing partner: “Everything that goes out under the byline ‘Dan Baum’ is at least half Margaret’s work.”

Mr. Baum’s first book, “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure” (1996), examined federal drug enforcement policies. His 2000 book, “Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty,” was a revelatory saga about the arch-conservative and secretive Coors brewing family of Colorado. With their brewing business closed by Prohibition, Mr. Baum showed, the family patriarch, Adolph Coors, died by suicide.

“Prohibition was the family’s Iliad; a maelstrom of conflicts that defined the world and the Coorses’ place within it,” Mr. Baum wrote. “Government was the main enemy; with an imperious wave of its too-powerful hand, it had annihilated everything for which the Coors family stood.”

In 2013, Mr. Baum published “Gun Guys: A Road Trip,” about the culture of gun ownership in the United States. He described himself as liberal and Jewish — yet also as a gun enthusiast who had a concealed-carry permit and felt a camaraderie with conservative gun owners.

With one foot in each side of the country’s deeply divided views about firearms, Mr. Baum admitted he didn’t “have to go far to learn about the nation’s conflicted attitudes about guns. I could just tour the inside of my own skull.”

Mr. Baum and his wife traveled often and lived in Montana, California, rural Mexico and France. In 2016 and 2017, they worked for Human Rights Watch in Mexico City. . . .

In his final blog post for the New Yorker in 2007, Mr. Baum sought to explain his fascination with New Orleans, where people skipped business meetings to chat on the porch, where food, music and conversation seemed to hold more civic value than money.

“It took me a while to figure out that in New Orleans the future doesn’t really exist. There is only the present,” he wrote.

“This isn’t simply laziness or fecklessness; it’s a reflection of a commitment to enjoying life instead of merely achieving. You want efficiency and hard work? Go to Minneapolis. Just don’t expect to let the good times roll there.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.


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