Photo of Ed Cray

In memoriam: Ed Cray, 86

Ed Cray, prolific author, expert in American folklore and beloved professor emeritus of journalism, died on Oct. 8 at the age of 86. An award-winning writer and mentor to faculty and students alike, Cray was esteemed for his nonfiction work, including biographies of folk singer Woody Guthrie and Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Cray died in Palo Alto, California, after suffering from congestive heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Ed exemplified the best of journalism — in practice as well as through education and scholarship,” said USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay. “His was an incredible career that spanned decades and inspired generations of journalists.”

Since the early ’60s, Cray wrote more than 500 newspaper and magazine articles published in many of the country’s leading newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, in addition to 18 books examining social, legal and corporate issues.

His most recent work was Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (Norton, 2004), an unvarnished look at the Depression-era folk singer, that also served as the source material for a 2006 PBS American Masters documentary. Cray’s 1995 book, Chief Justice (Simon & Schuster), a biography of Earl Warren, won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award for best book on the law of that year.

“We are deeply saddened by Ed’s passing,” said Gordon Stables, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “He was a highly respected colleague, a passionate and uncompromising teacher, and a journalist whose writings influenced the way we understand so many significant people and cultural experiences of the last century.”

University Professor Geoffrey Cowan, who served as dean of USC Annenberg from 1996 to 2007, recalled the friendships Cray cultivated as a mentor across the school’s faculty, staff and students.

“He cared deeply about his students and about the fate of his craft and his school,” Cowan said. “Ed was a fine journalist and a first-rate biographer.”

Joining USC Annenberg in 1976 as a senior lecturer, Cray taught a wide range of journalism courses, including “Public Affairs Reporting,” “Advanced Interpretive Writing,” and “History of News in Modern America,” which he also developed.

Cray was known as a passionate teacher of traditional print journalism who encouraged a disciplined writing style and sound, unbiased reporting. Professor of Journalism Joe Saltzman recalled recruiting Cray to the university, the affinity they shared, and the integrity Cray consistently demonstrated.

“Ed and I were cantankerous, opinionated journalists often at odds over some journalism course or curriculum idea,” Saltzman said. “He was always a wonderful colleague who really cared about journalism, about students, and about what is right and wrong.”

In 1990, Cray collaborated with Associate Professor of Journalism Jonathan Kotler and former journalism lecturer Miles Beller to publish American Datelines (Facts on File), the first anthology of American journalism edited to provide an overview of American history.

Over the course of his 38-year career at USC, Cray rose to the rank of professor of journalism before retiring in 2014.

Professor Emerita of Journalism Judy Muller called Cray “a class act.”

“Ed was a mentor to me when I joined the USC Annenberg faculty in 2003, and over the years we became dear friends,” she said. “His standards of rigorous research, which produced so many wonderful biographies, served as a model for his students as well as his colleagues.”

Félix Gutiérrez, professor emeritus of journalism, remembered Cray not only as a “good friend and great colleague,” but was an “advocate for people and causes needing advocating.” He pointed to Cray’s early and effective commitment to diversity. 

“In 1983, he took a year’s leave from USC to help develop and launch the Los Angeles Times Metpro training program, recruiting and training young journalists of color,” Gutiérrez said. The program served all Times-Mirror papers as an effort to build diverse newsrooms and continues under Tribune/Tronc.

Born on July 3, 1933, in Cleveland, Ohio, Cray came to Los Angeles as a young child, growing up primarily in the Fairfax district. Among his first jobs was as an inspector of walnut crates at age 13 in the San Fernando Valley. His entrance into the world of journalism came two years earlier, selling the Los Angeles Mirror on the streets. Cray said one of his frequent customers was mobster Mickey Cohen.

Cray went from news hawk to the newsroom in 1948 as a copy boy for the Los Angeles Daily News. He would later work as a wire reporter for City News Service in Los Angeles and worked and freelanced at many Southern California newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter.

After serving in the U.S. Army in Korea, Cray returned to L.A. and graduated from UCLA in 1957 with a degree in anthropology. In the ’60s, he published several books that examined social issues of the time. They include In Failing Health, a look at the healthcare industry, and The Big Blue Line about police malfeasance and corruption.

Some of Cray’s other books include Burden of Proof (Macmillan), a 1973 account of the trial of California serial killer Juan Corona; Levi’s (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), a history of the San Francisco clothing company and the challenges it faced in the 1970s; Chrome Colossus (McGraw-Hill), a 1980 social history of General Motors; and General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman (Norton, 1990), a biography of the World War II general and namesake of the Marshall Plan.

From 1965 to 1970, Cray was the director of publications for the ACLU of Southern California. He also worked in the early ’70s as the publicist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In his later years, Cray devoted most of his time to the study of American folklore, a continuation of work started in his early-career book, The Erotic Muse (Oak Publications, 1969). In 2011, he edited two volumes of Bawdy Songs of the Romantic Period, a four-volume set of songbooks with extensive margin notes on the folklore of the mid-nineteenth century.

In 2017, Cray moved from Santa Monica to Palo Alto, where he lived at Palo Alto Commons, an assisted living facility. Cray is survived by his daughter, Jennifer of Palo Alto, and her husband, Marc Igler; a stepdaughter, Naomi Kovacs of Santa Barbara; a stepson, Josh Kovacs of Long Beach; two granddaughters, Emily and Tessa Igler; a niece, Jordanna Potter; and grandnephew, Ryan Potter. Cray's wife, Diane Kovacs, preceded her husband in death.

Services to be announced.

Marc Igler and Emily Cavalcanti contributed to this article.