William A. "Bill" Whitworth, speaking at an Oxford American event in 2011. The Oxford American

William A. “Bill” Whitworth, who followed Charles “Buddy” Portis, his pal and seatmate in the newsroom of the Arkansas Gazette, to New York City and then to the pinnacle of the magazine publishing world, died Friday at the age of 87.

Whitworth wrote for the old New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper celebrated for writers such as Portis, Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, and then became a writer and editor for The New Yorker. There, he established a reputation as the publishing world’s fussiest, most meticulous editor. The magazine’s writers endured multiple editing drafts by Whitworth — often of every sentence, in order that it achieve total clarity and compliance with every rule in some edition of the venerable Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.


When he was about to be named editor to succeed The New Yorker’s legendary William Shawn, who had hired him, Whitworth instead took the job of editor-in-chief at The Atlantic, the 125-year-old cultural and literary magazine headquartered in Boston that had featured such eminent 19th-century writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Whitworth returned to Little Rock after The Atlantic was sold in 1999, and continued to edit laboriously into every night — mostly books — at his home on White Oak Lane. The Atlantic masthead continued to list him as editor-in-chief emeritus.


William Alvin Whitworth was born in Hot Springs on Feb. 13, 1937, son of William Cecil Whitworth and Lois McNabb Whitworth. They moved to Little Rock, and Whitworth graduated from Central High School in 1955. Music was his passion, then and forever. Later, he would write profiles and reviews of such performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and Bernie Glow. He played in the high school band and worked a little on the side as a copy boy at the Arkansas Democrat, the city’s afternoon newspaper.

He enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, divided about whether to pursue journalism, literature, philosophy or music. He continued working summers part-time for the Democrat and played music, eventually forming his own jazz band, the Bill Whitworth Orchestra. After getting his bachelor’s degree, he returned to Little Rock and landed a job in January 1960 as a reporter for the Gazette.


He covered the Little Rock school district and its board, which were in the final throes of the school integration crisis that began with Gov. Orval Faubus’s deployment of the National Guard to keep nine Black youngsters out of the high school from which Whitworth had graduated five years earlier. He also covered North Little Rock city government, then under the reign of the colorful Mayor William F. “Casey” Laman. Like his deskmate Portis, who was writing the paper’s daily “Our Town” column, Whitworth often found humor in the mundane doings around town.

Music was still a consuming interest. He was offered a job playing trumpet in Jimmy Dorsey’s band, although Dorsey had died, and was approached about a similar job with a Stan Kenton band that was to feature a new instrument, the mellophonium, similar to a trumpet, Whitworth’s specialty. Whitworth decided that however much he enjoyed it, he didn’t have the great talent that it would take to pursue a career as a musician.


“I knew that people who were better than me were a dime a dozen,” he told Bob McCord in an oral history for the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 2000.

While at the Gazette, he became a lifelong friend of Dizzy Gillespie, the great trumpeter, composer and band leader. Whitworth met Gillespie on a trip to St. Louis with Pat Crow, a friend from Central High School. (Crow at the time was a roommate of the author of this obituary; he would later follow Whitworth to the New York Herald Tribune and The New Yorker as an editor.) Whitworth invited Gillespie to come to Little Rock to perform, and the musician stayed at Whitworth’s mother’s house in North Little Rock. Gillespie would later reminisce about the visit with The New Yorker. He said he had gotten a letter from Whitworth saying: “You should know that your being a guest in our house was a crowning achievement. … The sheets you slept in haven’t been washed, and all the brass players come from miles around to kiss them.”


Buddy Portis eventually left Little Rock and drove to New York City, where he showed the managing editor of the Herald Tribune some of his pieces in the Gazette. The paper hired him, and soon decided to send Portis to London as its European correspondent. His editors asked if there was anyone back in Little Rock who could write like him. “Sure,” Portis said, “Bill Whitworth.”

The editor called Whitworth and told him to pack up and come to New York. Over the next two years, Shawn, the New Yorker editor, admired some of Whitworth’s pieces and invited him several times to chat, eventually suggesting that he come over and write for the magazine. Simultaneously, Abe Rosenthal, editor of The New York Times, offered him a job. Whitworth took the magazine position.


At The New Yorker, Whitworth wrote long profiles of media stars like the CBS News team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the Kentucky Fried Chicken king Colonel Harland Sanders, and Bishop Homer A. Tomlinson, a Pentecostal preacher and frequent presidential candidate who traveled the world from the Kremlin to the Arkansas Capitol crowning himself king of each domain. Whitworth had crossed paths with Tomlinson at his self-coronation in Little Rock in May 1960, which happened alongside a Little Rock prankster’s coronation of his pet monkey as the queen of Arkansas and the universe. Whitworth thought his newspaper underplayed Tomlinson’s stunt (a few paragraphs on the front page), but he gave the preacher his full due six years later in The New Yorker.

Whitworth told Shawn the magazine needed more editing and he wanted to do it. Shawn said OK: six months editing, then six months of writing. At the end of the first six months, Shawn said he could edit full time.

Whitworth persuaded Shawn to bring his old friend from Central High School and the Gazette, Pat Crow (later the novelist C.P. Crow), to join the magazine as an editor and frequent contributor to the weekly Talk of the Town essays at the front of the magazine. While at The New Yorker, he published a book, “Naive questions about war and peace: Conversations with Eugene V. Rostow,” based on interviews with an undersecretary of state under President Lyndon Johnson.

In 1969, Whitworth married Carolyn Satterfield in Little Rock. They would have two children.


In 1980, Shawn decided it was time to retire and told Whitworth he expected him to become his successor, a plan seconded by the magazine’s principal owner. Whitworth was dreading the day — the pressures, the potential criticism, the staff turmoil — when he got a call from Mort Zuckerman, a New York real estate mogul who had bought the historic but stodgy Atlantic monthly and thought Whitworth might reinvigorate it as editor. He took the job and found the next 20 years the most rewarding of his life.

The Atlantic regained much of its renown under Whitworth. He published his old friend Buddy Portis’s memoir and short stories, criticism by architect and writer Witold Rybczynski, and humor by Ian Frazier. In 1992, The Atlantic received the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.

When Zuckerman, who had acquired an empire of publications, sold The Atlantic in 1999, he asked Whitworth to edit one of his other magazines. But Whitworth chose to retire and return home to Little Rock and to do freelance editing, including such books as the autobiographies of actress Anjelica Houston and British publishing mogul Conrad Black.

In the summer of 2023, Whitworth fell at his home in Little Rock and fractured a hip. A succession of surgeries and falls followed, and he never left the rehabilitation center.

Survivors include his daughter, Katherine Whitworth Stewart, and a half brother, F. Brooks Whitworth.