Michael Elliott, who had the rare distinction of working as an editor for all three prominent newsmagazines, TIME, Newsweek and the Economist, died on July 14. He was 65 and had been battling cancer.
Elliott, who was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2003 for his services to journalism, was known and loved by all who worked with him for his ability to be fascinated, his generosity and his almost giddy, unbridled gusto. He loved new stories, new people, new places. There was apparently no realm in which his mind did not wish to roam and in which he could find nothing to pique his curiosity. In meetings in which magazine writers would pitch stories he was relied upon as a lifeline. In the silence after a suggestion, in which a story’s fate — and a writer’s — would hang precariously, waiting for that first reaction, he would often chime in with one of his trademark phrases: “Nothing but readers!” “Top shelf!” or the best, a slow, wondrous “terrific stuff,” with an emphasis on the Fs.
That nearly all his trademark phrases were expressions of enthusiasm is no accident. He was an inveterate optimist, and when he believed in a project, proved himself right about its success with the energy and industry he brought to it. After leaving journalism in 2011, he became president and CEO of the ONE campaign, the global development organization founded by U2 lead singer Bono. In five years, ONE’s membership rose from 2 million to more than 7 million, of which 2.8 million members are in Africa. “As the leader of ONE he communicated with ease just how doable was the transformation of the lives of the poorest,” said Bono. “His decades as scribe and editor had not made him cynical, rather he saw himself as an evidence-based optimist.”
Elliott’s good cheer was indefatigable, a crucial quality during what can be brutal hours at a newsmagazine. “Michael is one of the very few people I’ve ever known who deserved the description ‘larger than life,’” says TIME editor Nancy Gibbs. “He lived life large, buoyantly, flamboyantly, delightedly chasing the next big idea, spotting the next great talent, inviting us all to his table to listen and learn. He was preacher and teacher, mentor to generations of journalists and model to all of us as editors. We will miss him terribly.”
Elliott was a great editor—he first suggested the idea that became the TIME 100, the magazine’s annual list of the world’s most influential people — who also wrote more than 20 cover stories for the magazine. He could write on any subject and at any height, from the minutely observed to 20,000 feet in the air. He witnessed the 2004 Asian tsunami from his hotel room in Phuket, Thailand, and sent in a searing report of the situation on the ground. “They are burning bodies on the shore of Tamil Nadu in southern India, and Manikimuttu, 24, whose grandfather is among the 60 or so in the pyre, is crazed with grief, one moment scooping water into cooking pots and throwing it on the flames, the next collapsing in uncontrollable sobs,” he wrote. “Fifty miles south in Patong, a honky-tonk beach town on Phuket Island, 100 bodies are laid out in front of a morgue that has room to refrigerate only two. In Batticaloa, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, dozens of men have lined up on either side of a bridge, watching for bodies trapped underwater to pop up to the surface of a lagoon.”
He could also make sense of dizzying macroeconomic global trends, always with a cautious hopefulness that was as much his trademark as his Kangaroo-skin Akubra hat. “Though romantics want revolutions to have charismatic leaders,” he wrote about the Arab Spring, “successful ones channel the revolutionary instinct into habits of effective government.” To the end he was a fierce supporter of a united Europe, raging about Brexit on Twitter until a day or two before he died.
He never talked down to readers and expected as much of them as of himself, always writing to unite, not divide. “It’s right that we get mad about Ebola — mad that the world waited so long to tackle the outbreak; mad that poor, vulnerable societies don’t have the resources needed to tackle infectious diseases,” he wrote in 2015. “But we should remember too that in the past few years, Liberia — in fact, every country, rich or poor — has seen small miracles and sees more of them each year.” In what might termed be the ultimate expression of confidence in his subscribers’ thirst for knowledge, he once devoted a magazine cover to diarrhea.
He really loved America, often wearing cowboy boots and a belt buckle to his New York City office jobs and marveling in his book The Day Before Yesterday about how Americans didn’t really appreciate it enough. For only one U.S. institution did Elliott have no time. Oh, how he hated the increasing prominence of Halloween. “A hint of mist in the damp air, a rustle from the trees as they shed their leaves in nature’s annual striptease and, everywhere you look, ripe, corrugated pumpkins, waiting to be turned into something delicious by a touch of nutmeg and a hot oven,” he wrote in an essay called “Boo, Humbug.” “Except that the mist comes from dry ice stuck in a grinning skull, the whisper in the trees from nylon ghosts hung in the boughs, and the pumpkin, made of bilious orange plastic, has a gizmo inside that groans ‘Whoooooooo …’ as you walk past. Halloween is upon us again.”
Elliott was born in Liverpool, England, in 1951, and raised in a home, he noted “where the Messiah was considered light entertainment.” He attended Oxford University and spent some time in academia before being hired by the Economist in 1984 right on the eve of joining Deloitte. “[Editor Andrew Knight] told me, ‘You will make much less money but you will have much more fun,’” Elliott once told a reporter, “both of which were true.” After several years as that magazine’s Washington bureau chief, he was hired by Newsweek, where he rose to the title of international editor.
An early adapter to the online world, Elliott spent some time at a tech startup before coming to TIME in 2001, where he eventually rose to be deputy editor and editor of all the international editions under Richard Stengel. “I couldn’t have asked for a better deputy,” says Stengel, now Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. “Thoughtful but decisive, independent but loyal, he made everyone around him better. He was also a prodigious worker, writing and editing late into the night with only the occasional cigarette to keep him going. He once described himself as a ‘hod carrier’ and teased me for not knowing what it really meant.” (It’s a worker who brings the bricks to the master builder.)
When he left journalism for advocacy, shortly after signing what he called his best publishing contract ever, only he was surprised by the move. Wanting things to be better had always been an essential part of him. “Mike loved his life, lived it boldly and wanted the rest of the world to have that same experience of it,” said Bono. “He was annoyed and sometimes angry at the waste of human potential. Above all else, he wanted his life to be useful. If you were around him, that’s what he demanded of you.”
Of all Elliott’s catchphrases, perhaps the one he used most was from Winnie the Pooh: “Mustn’t grumble,” he’d say when he was asked about how things were. Even as he battled cancer, “his awareness that he might run out of time far too soon only deepened his appreciation of life” said his wife Emma Oxford, with whom he had two daughters, Roxana and Gina.
Two days before his death, Elliott was at a celebration of his work at ONE. He was feted by chairman Tom Freston and many of his friends and colleagues. During his speech he read a Derek Walcott poem which compares writing to women ferrying coal in baskets: “Look, they climb, and no one knows them/ They take their copper pittances, and your duty/ From the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house/ As a child wounded by their power and beauty/ Is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.”
Elliott took every chance he had to give many a voice before his was stilled.