Peter Collier, Author and Leading Conservative Voice, Dies at 80 - The New York Times

He and David Horowitz wrote well-regarded biographies of prominent families. They also drew attention for their ideological shift from left to right.

[The following NYT obituary is written by Neil Genzlinger. Photo credit: George Paul Csicsery.]

Peter Collier, a prolific writer who midway into his career made a high-profile ideological shift from left to right, becoming a leading conservative voice as well as a publisher of others, died on Nov. 1 in a hospital in Sacramento, Calif. He was 80.

His wife, Mary Collier, said the cause was acute myeloid leukemia.

Mr. Collier, who often wrote with David Horowitz, was well regarded as a biographer of dynastic families. The two produced books on the Rockefellers (1976), the Kennedys (1984) and the Fords (1987), and in 1994 Mr. Collier wrote on the Roosevelts, with Mr. Horowitz contributing.

In reviewing “The Roosevelts: An American Saga,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “Mr. Collier once again displays the gamesmanship needed to streamline such family portraits into linear, eminently readable multigenerational dramas.”

But such biographies were only part of his output. He also wrote a novel (“Down River,” 1979), a children’s book (“The King’s Giraffe,” with his wife, 1996) and books honoring military figures like “Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty” (2003). And he and Mr. Horowitz, after working together on the New Left journal Ramparts in the 1960s and ’70s, made a 180-degree turn and began writing books and articles from the conservative side of the spectrum.

Their ideological shift drew at least as much attention as their biographies did. As The Los Angeles Times once put it, “They go like lumberjacks on a two-man saw, enthusiastically cutting through a forest of former beliefs.”

In February 1985, just after Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his second term as president, the two wrote an article for The Washington Post titled “Lefties for Reagan.” (“Our title was ‘Better Ron Than Red,’” Mr. Horowitz said in a telephone interview.) In it they explained that they had voted for Reagan out of disillusionment over the left’s hollowness once its great cause, the Vietnam War, ended, and its failure to recognize dangers like the Soviet Union’s incursions into Cuba and Central America.

“One of the few saving graces of age is a deeper perspective on the passions of youth,” they wrote. “Looking back on the left’s revolutionary enthusiasms of the last 25 years, we have painfully learned what should have been obvious all along: that we live in an imperfect world that is bettered only with great difficulty and easily made worse — much worse. This is a conservative assessment, but on the basis of half a lifetime’s experience, it seems about right.”

Mr. Collier and David Horowitz were well regarded for their books about dynastic families, including the Kennedys and the Roosevelts.

They elaborated in their 1989 book, “Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties,” attacking the nostalgia that had grown up surrounding that decade.

"The vision we see when we look into the glass of Sixties narcissism is distorted,” they wrote. “It may have been the best of times, but it was the worst of times as well. And by this we do not simply mean to add snapshots of the race riots at home and war in Vietnam to the sentimental collage of people being free. It was a time when innocence quickly became cynical, when American mischief fermented into American mayhem.”

Mr. Collier and Mr. Horowitz founded Heterodoxy magazine, which, as Mr. Collier described it, sought to “resemble the countercultural underground papers of our wicked youth — irreverent and provocative and willing to enter the house of power and rearrange its furniture.”

Its targets, as its masthead said, were “political correctness and other follies.”

Mr. Collier and Mr. Horowitz also founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative research group based in Los Angeles and intended as a counterweight to liberal influences in the entertainment industry. It was later renamed the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

In 1998 Mr. Collier founded Encounter Books, which has published a range of authors, many of them conservative.

Among Mr. Collier’s own books, “Medal of Honor,” whose third edition was published in 2016, may have been his most popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It contains biographical sketches of Medal of Honor recipients, accompanied by Nick Del Calzo’s photographs.

Ms. Collier said her husband donated all royalties from the book’s sales to the nonprofit Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Mr. Horowitz said the group had asked Mr. Collier if he could suggest a young writer to do the book, and that instead he volunteered to write it himself, for nothing, feeling he needed to make amends for the antiwar screeds Ramparts published during the Vietnam era.

“It was his way of paying our debt,” Mr. Horowitz said.

Peter Anthony Collier was born on June 2, 1939, in Los Angeles. His father, Donovan, sold insurance, and his mother, Doris (Cox) Collier, was a flight attendant.

Mr. Collier grew up in the Los Angeles area, graduating from John Burroughs High School in Burbank. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1961 and a master’s degree in English literature there in 1963. The university is also where he first met Mr. Horowitz, who was a graduate student and teaching assistant.

He taught for a time at Berkeley and met his future wife, Mary Josephine Giachino, in 1965 when she was his student. They married in 1967.

In 1966 he became a writer and editor at Ramparts, where Mr. Horowitz was also on the staff. Among those the magazine irritated was the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company; a 1972 issue was pulled from newsstands after the company threatened criminal prosecution over an article that suggested how to avoid long-distance charges.

“The richest irony,” Mr. Collier said at the time, “is that we make a career of taking on the C.I.A., the Pentagon and other institutions with good-sized clout, but the telephone company is the first to be able to suppress an issue, exercising a kind of prior restraint.”

But he and Mr. Horowitz would soon be reassessing the 1960s and early ’70s, as well as their support for leftist and radical causes. A catalyst in their conversion, Mr. Horowitz said, was when a woman named Betty Van Patter was found dead in San Francisco Bay in January 1975.

Six months earlier, Mr. Horowitz had recruited Ms. Van Patter, a Ramparts employee, to be the bookkeeper for a group related to the Black Panther Party.

No one was ever charged in the case, but Mr. Horowitz, as he wrote in Salon in 1999, became convinced that she was killed by the Black Panthers themselves. He has said that she asked too many questions about the Panthers’ finances.

“The Panther murder was a summary moment for both of us,” Mr. Horowitz said by email, adding, “We were affected significantly by the way all our progressive comrades defended the Panthers and claimed ‘the white power structure killed Betty’ (as one of my close friends said).”

Their 1984 book, “The Kennedys: An American Drama,” drew a favorable review from Bob Woodward in The Washington Post.

“This remarkable four-generation history of the Kennedy family boldly faces some of the major ghosts in American life,” he wrote. “It deals not just with individual Kennedys but with power, ambition, the presidency, family, the generational change and obligation, money, religion, narcotics, good luck and bad luck.”

The “Lefties for Reagan” article came shortly after.

“When it appeared, Peter — who was the realist between us — said, ‘Our literary careers are over,’” Mr. Horowitz said. Not quite.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of The New York Times called “The Fords: An American Epic” “their best book to date.” In 1991 Mr. Collier, writing on his own, published “The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Collier is survived by a daughter, Caitlin Collier; two sons, Andrew and Nicholas; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Collier saw a link between his early days on the left, opposing the status quo, and his later career as his own polar opposite, arguing against what he called the “feel-good ideology” of political correctness.

“We are the counterculture," he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1993. “We’re the people in opposition to what Orwell called the smelly little orthodoxies.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. @genznyt