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Soma Golden Behr, Longtime Senior Editor at The Times, Dies at 84

Soma Golden Behr, a longtime senior editor at The New York Times who was a centrifuge of story ideas — they flew out of her in all directions — and whose journalistic passions were poverty, race and class, which led to reporting that won Pulitzer Prizes, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 84.

Her death, in the palliative care unit of Mount Sinai Hospital, came after breast cancer had spread to other organs, her husband, William A. Behr, said.

Ms. Golden Behr, whose economics degree from Radcliffe led to a lifetime interest in issues around inequality, was instrumental in overseeing several major series for The Times that examined class and racial divides. Each enlisted squads of reporters and photographers for intensive, sometimes yearlong assignments.

“How Race Is Lived in America,” overseen with Gerald M. Boyd, who would become the paper’s first Black managing editor, peeled away the conventional wisdom that the country at the turn of the 21st century had become “post racial.” Its deep dives into an integrated church, the military, a slaughterhouse and elsewhere won the paper the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2001.

Another series, “Class in America,” was an examination in 2005 of how social class, often unspoken, produced glaring imbalances in society.

And earlier, Ms. Golden Behr oversaw a 10-part series in 1993, “Children of the Shadows,” which pushed past stereotypes of young people in inner cities. The reporter Isabel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer in feature writing for her searing portrait in the series of a 10-year-old boy caring for four siblings.

Hired by The Times as an economics reporter in 1973 after 11 years at Business Week, Ms. Golden Behr was often one of the few women, or the only woman, at the table. She was the first to lead the national desk, appointed in 1987, and after a promotion to assistant managing editor in 1993, she was only the second woman from the newsroom to appear on the masthead.

“At five feet, 10-and-a-half inches tall, her presence could fill just about any room, and she rarely had to worry about men talking over her, which gave her an advantage over many women at The Times,” Adam Nagourney wrote in “The Times,” a 2023 book on the contemporary history of the paper.

Mr. Nagourney described her as “cerebral, contemplative and explosive, all at once,” and quoted her in an interview: “I’m a word salad; I explode a lot.”

Jonathan Landman, a former deputy managing editor of The Times, whom Ms. Golden Behr plucked from the copy desk to edit national correspondents, said her style was markedly different from other desk heads.

“She wasn’t an editor who said we need x to write y,” he said. “She’d say, ‘We gotta think about housing!’ What would then come after that was interesting conversations and memos, and she’d get people thinking thematically in ways that were different. It was something.”

Though Ms. Golden Behr was a pioneer, and she mentored other women at the paper, she did not see herself as an ideological feminist.

In 1991, during her tenure as national editor, the paper came under heavy fire over a profile of a young woman who accused William Kennedy Smith, a nephew of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, of rape. Critics inside and outside the newsroom accused the newspaper of voyeurism and shaming the woman by quoting a friend who said she had “a little wild streak.”

At a contentious newsroom-wide meeting, Ms. Golden Behr defended the article. “I am shocked by the depth of the response,” she said, adding, “I can’t account for every weird mind that reads The New York Times.’’

Ms. Golden Behr was the first woman to serve as the newspaper’s national editor and only the second to be on the masthead.Credit…The New York Times

Soma Suzanne Golden was born on Aug. 27, 1939, in Washington, D.C., the oldest of three children of Dr. Benjamin Golden, a surgeon, and Edith (Seiden) Golden.

She graduated with a B.A. from Radcliffe College and an M.S. from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. In 1974, she married Mr. Behr, a social worker and a psychoanalyst. The couple lived in Manhattan and Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

Steven Greenhouse, a former business and labor reporter at The Times, recalled that when Ms. Golden Behr was lured from Business Week in 1973, where she was chief economics writer in Washington, it was considered a coup.

“Making the coup even bigger at the time, Soma was a star who was a woman,” Mr. Greenhouse said. “She was hugely respected in the economics field.”

Four years later, Ms. Golden Behr was named to the editorial board. She was the only woman exclusively writing editorials, often on women’s issues, gay rights and inequality.

“After a few years she said something like, I don’t know that I have any more opinions, I’ve said it all,” Mr. Behr recalled. She moved on to edit the Sunday business section for five years.

Besides her husband, she is survived by their daughter, Ariel G. Behr, who works for a nonprofit that finances affordable housing; their son, Zachary G. Behr, an executive at the History Channel; four grandchildren; and a sister, Carol Golden.

On retiring from journalism in 2005, Ms. Golden Behr became director of The New York Times College Scholarship Program, which paid four years of expenses for students who had excelled academically despite difficult circumstances like homelessness.

When its funding was cut back, Ms. Golden Behr and a partner, Melanie Rosen Brooks, created a similar independent program in 2010, Scholarship Plus — an extension of Ms. Golden Behr’s desire to address inequality. Scholarship Plus, funded by donors, supports 20 students from poor backgrounds annually, supplementing their college financial aid so they can avoid student loans, attempting to put its scholars on equal footing with affluent peers.

Ms. Golden Behr sometimes missed the camaraderie of the newsroom. She would invite journalists she had worked with over the years — all of them women — to her home on the Upper West Side. Until the pandemic ended the gatherings, as many as 30 women would attend, driving from as far away as Boston.

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