Edelstein, Alex (1919-2001)

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 8/23/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7447
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Alex Edelstein was a noted communications theorist and a professor at the University of Washington School of Journalism, where he taught for a third of a century and served for eight years as director. He retired as professor emeritus in 1989. He was the author of numerous articles and books on journalism, public opinion research, and propaganda, including Total Propaganda: From Mass Culture to Popular Culture, published in 1997.

Refugee from Revolution

Alex Gurvich Edelstein was born in Russia in 1919 amid the chaos of the post-revolution Civil War, during which his father died. His mother escaped with him to Turkey and later joined her sister in San Francisco. Edelstein developed an early interest in journalism and apprenticed at the San Francisco Call Bulletin before World War II. He then talked his way into a lieutenant's commission with the U.S. Navy and served five years, chiefly aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise.

After the war, he took his degree at San Francisco State University and earned a master's in communication from Stanford University in 1948. The University of Washington recruited him in 1955, where he became a popular and influential professor in the School of Journalism and served as its director from 1972 to 1980. He also taught abroad extensively, including a 1963 Fulbright professorship in Denmark, and guest lectureships in Yugoslavia, Japan, China, Norway, and Germany.

Teacher, Scholar, and Adviser

The University named Edelstein professor emeritus upon his retirement in 1989. He was particularly proud that several of his students, notably Seattle Times reporter Peter Reinearson and Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial cartoonist David Horsey, went on to earn Pulitzer Prizes. He led the campaign to save the School of Journalism when it faced severe budget cuts in the early 1990s. He also championed preservation of the Blue Moon Tavern and was a generous supporter of Allied Arts and other civic causes

Edelstein developed an international reputation as an expert on public opinion, propaganda, and other political persuasion techniques. He wrote or co-authored numerous papers, articles, and books on these subjects, and served as an adviser to government agencies. He tested his theories as a polling consultant to many political candidates, including U.S. Senators Henry Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson, former Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), and Seattle City Council member Jim Compton.

Friend of the Masses

He remained an active scholar and consultant, and published his last major book, Total Propaganda: From Mass Culture to Popular Culture, in 1997. He was especially fond of outings at his Lummi Island retreat, "Camp Alex," where he regaled friends with his stories and puns, and savaged them in ruthless games of Scrabble and cards.

Work on additional books, including a memoir of childhood, was interrupted by the diagnosis of cancer. Although the disease was in remission, he reacted poorly to chemotherapy and died at Swedish Hospital on May 16, 2001. Alex Edelstein was survived by his wife Florence, sons David and Douglas, daughter Jane Goetz, and by his longtime friend and companion Jean Godden (b. 1931).

Sources: Jack Broom, "Passion for Information Shaped Professor's Life, "The Seattle Times, May 16, 2001; Candace Heckman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 17, 2001; Jean Godden, "Memories of Alex Edelstein and Life at Warp Speed," The Seattle Times, May 18, 2001.

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