Clifton Fadiman was an erudite essayist and editor whose affable wit delighted millions during his long reign as moderator of the popular "Information Please" radio quiz show and even longer tenure as senior editor of the Book of the Month Club.
A self-described "odd job man" of the American literary scene, Fadiman toiled long and hard in the world of words, serving as an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a book reviewer for the New Yorker magazine and for half a century a judge for the Book of the Month Club.
They were labors of love.
In 1993, Fadiman was awarded the National Book Award for distinguished contributions to American letters. Eight years earlier, he won the Dorothy C. McKenzie Award for his contribution to children's literature for editing "A World Treasury of Children's Literature" and other works.
The nonagenarian, who estimated that he had read more than 25,000 books, forever remembered his first, at the age of 4.
"It seemed like magic," he said.
"When I opened and read the first page of a book for the first time, I felt this was remarkable — that I could learn something very quickly that I could not have learned any other way . . . .
"Here I was, a rather dull boy, looking at an unopened book," Fadiman said. "Then, within a short time, the dull boy found he was entertained, amused, saddened, delighted, mystified, scared, dreamy, puzzled, astonished, held in suspense — all depending on what was on those pages."
After sailing through grammar school, high school and Columbia University, Fadiman worked as an English teacher, as a general editor for the Simon & Schuster publishing house and as a book reviewer for Harpers Bazaar magazine and the New Yorker, earning a reputation as "a man who wore his mantle of erudition with a debonair flourish."
His style caught the eye of Dan Golenpaul, a young radio producer who had come up with an idea for a new kind of quiz show — one featuring a panel of witty intellectuals.
Golenpaul, who called the show "Information Please," hired Fadiman at the then-generous salary of $250 a week to serve as master of ceremonies.
"The formula was simple," Fadiman said later. "People sent in questions, which I directed to the regular panel and special guests. The questions and answers became an armature on which we sculpted half an hour of lively conversation."
Listeners who sent in questions that stumped the experts were given a set of encyclopedias — not much, even in those days. But the public loved the show, which was such a hit that it survived until 1951, with a peak audience estimated at 9 million a week. The show, however, did not adapt well to television, and that brief experiment ran only four months in the summer of 1952.
"Didn't work at all. We gimmicked it up, pretty girls bringing in cards with questions on them, that sort of nonsense," Fadiman told The Times in 1963. "But it was not a visual program. It was leisurely, conversational. Radio was that sort of medium."
Audiences considered the radio program extremely enlightening, but Fadiman, melding his customary wisdom with wit, later told The Times: "That's preposterous. I was on it for years and didn't learn a thing."
After his initial broadcast success, Fadiman served as moderator on other radio and television shows — among them "Quiz Kids," "This Is Show Business," "Conversation" and "What's in a Word?" — but none of them achieved the popularity of "Information Please."
For the most part, he devoted the last 50 years of his life to what he loved the best: the written word.
There was an anthology of short stories, for which he wrote 63 commentaries and an introduction. There was the weekly essay "Uncommontary," which he wrote and delivered on "First Edition," a Public Broadcast Service program about books. There was a major entry he wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the history of children's literature around the world. To study the subject in the original, he learned to read Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Dutch when he was in his 70s. He already was fluent in French and German.
But there was also time for fun — especially puns, which he called "the rhymes that try men's souls."
He noted that Groucho Marx had found that when shooting elephants in Africa, the tusks were difficult to remove, "adding, however, that 'In Alabama, the Tuscaloosa.' "
"To the contrapuntalist," Fadiman wrote, "such a statement is quite irrelevant; to the propunent, it is pleasing because it shows what language can produce under pressure, in this case showing both the marks of strain and the strain of Marx."
Fadiman also had a fondness for people's last words, once penning an essay called "Some Passing Remarks on Some Passing Remarks."
In it, he said his favorite parting line was by the 18th century English writer Mary Wortley Montagu, who closed with: "It has all been very interesting."