Remembering Barron’s Columnist Alan Abelson

Alan Abelson.

Alan Abelson.

When looking back on the career of Alan Abelson, the longtime Barron’s columnist who died last week at age 87, one gets the sense that he could have written about any subject if he had wanted to.

Mr. Abelson was known as much for his elegant prose as he was for his keen insight into the financial sector, and in his weekly column, “Up & Down Wall Street,” he combined literary panache with a “congenitally skeptical view,” as he put it, to give the reader something more than dry stock market analyses.

“Basically, our function is to piss in the wind,” Mr. Abelson said in an interview in 1999, on the eve of the dot-com bust. “Somebody should be standing here pointing out that maybe things are getting out of hand, maybe things are not as rosy as they seem.”

Mr. Abelson’s views often extended beyond the realm of investment advice.

“His best stuff was typically bigger-picture and forced you to question your assumptions about the world,” said Mark Gongloff, chief financial writer at The Huffington Post. “His goal was to steer your entire worldview, not just your day-to-day trading. His role was almost shamanistic.”

Mr. Abelson earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa and counted newspaper titans like Red Smith and H.L. Mencken among his heroes. He liked to quote Mencken’s maxim that the “only way a reporter should ever look at a politician is down,” according to Jim Grant, the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.

“Alan was happiest throwing bombs at over-priced stocks and over-inflated egos,” said Mr. Grant, who worked at Barron’s in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when Mr. Abelson was managing editor. “He could have made lots of money by going to work for a brokerage house or investment bank, but he would have hated himself–really hated himself–for selling out.”

Mr. Abelson’s most popular column was most likely the one from 1996, in which he responded to an annual report from Berkshire Hathaway, the company owned by Warren Buffett. Mr. Abelson thought the report was too cheery, and he delivered this succession of zingers:

“To Warren Buffett we say, truth wounds, cynicism kills–think on what ye hath wrought and repent! There’s still time to revise that prospectus. A small phrase–‘just kidding’–inserted on the front page right below those caveats will do the trick.”

Mr. Abelson had been on medical leave for three months when he died from a heart attack on Thursday. His last column, titled “Boneyard Blues,” which playfully linked the recent discovery of Richard III’s remains to a slightly languid stock market, was published on February 11.

“He really did combine a wonderful style with a financial acumen that was unparalleled,” said his daughter, Reed Abelson, a health care reporter at The New York Times. “He taught me never to assume that someone shouldn’t be able to explain what they were doing.”

Mr. Abelson instilled that skeptic’s viewpoint–probably his greatest legacy–in a number of writers, like Floyd Norris and Edward Wyatt, former Barron’s staffers who are also at the Times.

Mr. Abelson started his career in newspapering as a copy boy at the New York Journal-American. He joined Barron’s in 1956 and began writing “Up & Down Wall Street” 10 years later. Randall W. Forsyth will continue the column.

“I hope there are enough of us to keep his memory alive by trying to do work that’s at least half as good as his,” said Mr. Gongloff. “This world needs more Alan Abelsons. Unfortunately, there was only one.”