Roy Rowan, 96

Foreign correspondent, editor and author
Fri, 10/07/2016 - 8:30am

By Dana Rowan and Nicholas Rowan

Roy Rowan, a former foreign correspondent, writer and editor for Life, Time and Fortune magazines, who covered Mao’s revolution in China and the Korean and Vietnam wars, died on Tuesday, Sept. 13 at Greenwich Hospital, near his home in Connecticut. He was one of only two surviving American journalists who covered the Chinese civil war and was, in April 1975, one of the last journalists to evacuate Saigon by helicopter. He also wrote 10 books during his 70-year career as a writer. He was 96.

Rowan was hired by Henry Luce and Bill Gray in 1947 to cover the Chinese civil war for Life magazine. When Shanghai fell to Mao’s insurgents in 1949, Rowan moved to Hong Kong and subsequently covered skirmishes in Malaysia and Burma. He later covered the Korean War, and subsequently the reconstruction of Europe and the Cold War from Germany. In 1954, he was transferred back to New York and in 1955 was named Life’s Chicago bureau chief covering the Midwest. In 1957, Rowan and Life photographer Francis Miller covered the murder of Bernice Worden in Wisconsin, which became the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, "Psycho." In 1959, Rowan spent a month traveling with Jimmy Hoffa for a profile of the Teamster boss in Life. He was later confronted by Robert Kennedy, then serving as chief counsel for the McClellan Committee, which was trying to put Hoffa in jail, for being too soft in his reporting on the labor leader.

Rowan was transferred back to New York City later in 1959 and appointed an assistant managing editor of Life. In 1963, he was having a weekly editor’s lunch with Henry Luce at the Time & Life Building in Manhattan when the maître d’ announced that President Kennedy had been shot. Rowan immediately flew to the Life magazine printing plant in Chicago where he and his editorial team replaced the cover with a portrait of the president and a lead story with the now famous eight-millimeter film footage of the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas, shot by Abraham Zapruder. 

Rowan continued to edit and help run Life magazine until 1970, when he left Time Inc. to start On the Sound, one of the nation’s first regional magazines, covering the coastal areas around Long Island Sound from New York to Massachusetts. His investors included Digital Equipment Corporation co-founder Harlan Anderson, Time managing editor Otto Fuerbringer and Life publisher Jerome Hardy. A second magazine, On the Shore, covering the region around Chesapeake Bay, was launched in 1972. Both magazines were sold to Universal Publishing Company that same year, at which time Roy Rowan returned to Time, Inc. as Hong Kong bureau chief in charge of Asia for Time magazine.

While based in Hong Kong for the next five years, Rowan covered the opening of China under Nixon and then Ford and the ongoing fighting and wind down of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  He was among the last journalists to leave Saigon by helicopter on April 30, 1975. He also relied on a personal friendship with President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, in covering public affairs and social issues in the Philippines. Rowan also forged friendships with business leaders based in Hong Kong, including shipping magnates C.Y. Tung and Y.K. Pao, kung fu movie producer Run Run Shaw and global architect and developer William Wong.

After returning to the U.S. in 1977, Roy Rowan joined Fortune magazine as a senior writer and a member of the Board of Editors. During his tenure at Fortune, Mr. Rowan wrote 65 major articles including provocative cover stories on Labor Secretary nominee Ray Donovan, Citibank Chairman Walter Wriston, and a 15-page exposé on the top 50 Mafia bosses in America. He also wrote a groundbreaking cover story for Time on the perpetrators behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Mr. Rowan is the author of 10 published books including: “The Four Days of Mayaguez” (W.W. Norton, 1975); “The Intuitive Manager” (Little, Brown, 1986),  which was translated into 10 languages; “Powerful People” (Carroll & Graf, 1996); “First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends” (co-authored with Brooke Janis, Algonquin, 1997; second edition with presidents Bush and Obama in 2009) which also became the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary; “Surfcaster’s Quest” (The Lyons Press, 1999); “Solomon Starbucks Striper” (Book Nook Press, 2003); “Chasing the Dragon” (The Lyons Press, 2004), which had the movie rights purchased by Robert De Niro’s company, Tribeca Enterprises; “Throwing Bullets” (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006); “Never Too Late” (The Lyons Press, 2011); and “Keeping Love Alive” (self-published in 2015).

Mr. Rowan was born in New York City on Feb. 1, 1920. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1941 and received his MBA from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in 1942. He was drafted into the Army as a private in 1942, attended Engineer Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and was assigned in 1943 to the Mediterranean Theater with stops in Tunisia and Italy. Later, he was sent to the Pacific region and stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was a major in Manila when the war ended.

Roy Rowan is a past president of the Overseas Press Club of America, the Time-Life Alumni Society and the Dutch Treat Club. He also has been an active member of the Century Association in New York City and The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. In 1995, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Hartwick College where he also served as a trustee for nine years.  His papers are held in the Paul F. Cooper, Jr. Archives at Hartwick. In 2006, Mr. Rowan received the Henry R. Luce Award for lifetime achievement in journalism.

Mr. Rowan was the loving husband of Helen Rounds Rowan, who predeceased him in 2013. Helen Rowan was a former picture editor at Life magazine, where they first met. He is survived by his four sons: Dana (Boston, Mass.) including his wife, Janice Kelley Rowan; Douglas (Ventura, Calif.); Nicholas (New York City); and Marcus (Dallas, Texas) as well as one grandson, William Roy Rowan in Boston. Roy Rowan was a longtime resident of Greenwich, Conn. and a summer resident of Block Island, Rhode Island where he and his wife owned a second home for 35 years. He was an avid fisherman and boater all his life.       

Here is some of what Roy Rowan wrote about his life on Block Island:

"Now that we are veteran Block Islanders we have come to love the many friends we have made there, the old Victorian buildings of New Shoreham, the beaches, the restaurants, the picnic areas on the West Side, the bluffs, even the dump which has become a morning meeting place.

One of the reasons I was instantly attracted to the island was its fishing — the best in the East for stripers, bonitas, fluke, and flounders. Nothing like rising at dawn and driving to the “cut” as we surfcasters know the entrance to the harbor and pulling in a few fish before stopping at the airport diner for a stack of pancakes." 

Rowan first started coming to Block Island with the family in the late 1960s and at that time stayed at the 1661 Inn. In 1970, when he launched “On the Sound” magazine, he subsequently chartered a 60-foot yacht called the Charisma which was kept in the Great Salt Pond during the Storm TriSail Race in 1971 or 1972 as a marketing and sales platform for the magazine.

The family first bought their house from Dr. Cornbrooks in December 1981. Dr. Cornbrooks built the house but never occupied it. It was sold to the Rowan family prior to completion and they were the first family to occupy it. The property now abuts the Hodge Wildlife Refuge and the land was originally part of the Hodge and formerly Sheffield property holdings. Sim Attwood, a long-time friend of the Rowan family, first urged the Rowans to buy a house on Block Island. 

Peter Wood, former publisher of The Block Island Times, writes: 

Roy and Helen were friends that Shirley and I knew from our days at Time-Life — she on the 34th Floor of the Time-Life Building with the big boys in management, while I was a lowly copy writer at the Books Division. I knew fall was in the air when I’d get a call from Roy in late September to come on over and have a drink with him and some of his pals whom he’d brought up for the run of big stripers. I was publishing The Block Island Times then, and he’d introduce me as the island’s local Henry Luce — "Yes," I’d add, “publisher and delivery boy.” Helen didn’t always come on those visits, and I know why, as the guys would get up before dawn, and then do some serious drinking in the evenings. I rarely joined them in the early mornings, but I was there at sunset. The guys Roy brought with him were among the country’s top editors and writers at those storied magazines, whom I was always thrilled to have a chance to meet.

Writer Larry Smith, managing editor of Parade magazine offered these memories:

My wife, Dorothea, and I were residents of Corn Neck Road, and were good friends of Roy and Helen. Dorothea was a regular contributor of her special German potato salad to the Rowans' annual Fourth of July picnic on their deck overlooking the north of the island.

Roy and I served together for 10 years on the Board of Governors of the Overseas Press Club of America before discovering we had homes out on the Neck that were less than a quarter mile apart. We both served as president of that organization.

Roy was special, and he did things for people. I also remember him jogging on Corn Neck Road in his 80s. And he liked to tell how, when he went to buy a new car later on, he said to the salesman, 'How many new cars have you sold to a 90-year old?' And the salesman replied, 'You're the first!' Roy was a first — in a great many ways. We will miss him a lot.

Peter Voskamp, former editor of The Block Island Times, remembers:

In his book “Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat,” author Peter Nichols recounts his solo trans-Atlantic voyage that ended when his small sailboat sank. He tells of how the captain of the huge oil tanker that rescued him was cordial enough — and respected the traditions of the sea enough — to confer upon his guest all the respect due to a fellow captain. 

The story always echoed in the back of my mind whenever Roy Rowan came to call at The Block Island Times, when the legendary editor for Life magazine would take this editor, with a far smaller circulation, to lunch.

A consummate mentor and gentleman, Roy had fascinating stories to tell. How he fell into his journalism career while freelancing in China during Mao’s revolution; traveling the country with Jimmy Hoffa; how he was charged with remaking the Life issue in the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination.

When I spent a winter in Berlin, Roy arranged for me to meet with many of his former colleagues, including the then-bureau chief of The New York Times.  

I regret that due to July 4 parade duties I was never able to attend one of Roy's annual Independence Day picnics. Still, he was nice enough to be sure I got a copy of every new book he published, from "First Dogs" (on White House canines) to his baseball tome "Throwing Bullets," to "Never Too Late: A 90-Year-Old's Pursuit of a Whirlwind Life." 

Roy was a pal and I will miss those lunches.