Julia Reed, an irreverent, expansive chronicler of politics, food and Southern life, died on Aug. 28 in Newport, R.I. She was 59.
The cause was cancer, said the historian Jon Meacham, a family friend. She had been on vacation visiting friends.
In reporting for Newsweek, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine and other publications, Ms. Reed covered presidents and their spouses, notably both Bushes and the Clintons, along with powerful women, country music, Southern rogues and Southern food. Her canvas was the foibles of power, and even though (or perhaps because) she was the daughter of a Nixon-era Republican grandee, she was cleareyed about the vices and virtues of both parties.
In her profile of Laura Bush in the run-up to the 2000 election, Ms. Reed wrote of the night early in her husband’s political career when Mrs. Bush told him a speech he had delivered wasn’t very good. “He drove into the garage wall,” Ms. Reed reported. “They’ve both grown a lot since then.”
In a statement to The New York Times, the Bushes wrote: “Julia was a longtime friend of ours. We loved to be with her because she was charming, observant, funny and irreverent. We’ll miss listening to her stories and laughing with her.”
Al Gore, Mr. Bush’s opponent in the 2000 election, also sent a statement. “She was an original,” he said, “one of the last who combined, among other things that seem to have passed, a deep knowledge and love of the self-conscious South and a command of the newsrooms in which she worked.”
Deeply imprinted by the Mississippi Delta traditions she grew up with, Ms. Reed was as well known for her entertaining as her journalism. In one of her many food columns for The New York Times Magazine, she described a New Year’s Eve party that had gone off the rails. There was a fistfight, more than one bathroom dalliance, the unmasking of an arms dealer, a fainting, a fire and more — all of which she missed but heard about secondhand by phone when she awoke with a hangover the next day.
“I have always said that danger — or at least the possibility of it — is a crucial element of any good party,” she wrote. “Parties thrive on secrets that are made or told, alliances formed, dalliances done, someone striking a match in someone else’s inappropriate heart.”
Ms. Reed earned her first byline at 19, when she was a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington and a part-time library assistant and phone answerer, as she put it, at Newsweek, a job she had help since she was a student at Madeira, an all-girls boarding school in Virginia.
When the school’s headmistress, Jean Harris, murdered her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, the celebrity doctor and creator of the Scarsdale Diet, Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief sent Ms. Reed to get the Madeira angle. As Ms. Reed wrote, he woke her up with an order to head back to her old school. When she wondered why, he barked, “You idiot, your headmistress just shot the diet doctor!”
Ms. Reed liked to say she was sorry the doctor had to give his life in service to her career as a journalist.
Julia Evans Reed was born on Sept. 11, 1960, in Greenville, Miss. Her mother, Judy (Brooks) Reed, came from a prominent Nashville family in the Belle Meade neighborhood there. Her father, Clarke Reed, was a businessman and Republican power broker who traveled frequently — “Saving the free world,” he liked to tell his daughter when she asked what he was up to — and entertained enthusiastically. Ms. Reed grew up cooking for William F. Buckley Jr. and George and Barbara Bush, among others.
Greenville was a place, as she wrote in “Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties: An Entertaining Life With Recipes,” “where cooking was of paramount importance. We give food away as presents and peace offerings, and sometimes because it is just so incredibly good we have to share it. We tote it to people in times of grief (when my grandparents were killed in a car wreck, the first thing my mother told me to do as she ran out the door was to empty the refrigerator); we use it to say bon voyage or welcome back.”
Ms. Reed was the author of eight books, many of them collections of her essays on food and the good life.
Mr. Meacham described her as a foreign correspondent in her own land, “filing dispatches about the sacred and the profane.”
Colleagues at Vogue recalled her as both larger than life and free from hubris — a rare combination at 350 Madison Avenue, Condé Nast’s old headquarters, where egos roamed free.
“We were both children of the South, but from opposite ends of the spectrum,” said André Leon Talley, the longtime Vogue editor. “She was like a brassy marquise at Versailles, and at the same time a big hunky dose of Babe Paley, Nancy Mitford, Rosalind Russell and Tallulah Bankhead, with that cognac whiskey voice.”
In the wake of her death, many tried to describe her distinctive baritone. “She sounded like Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Meet John Doe,’ if Stanwyck was from the Mississippi Delta,” Hilton Als of The New Yorker wrote on Instagram.
Mr. Talley also recounted the story of Ms. Reed’s aborted marriage to a charming Australian foreign correspondent. She canceled the wedding, a full-on Southern affair with nearly 1,000 guests, but the couple went on their honeymoon anyway — it was paid for, after all — ending up at the Ritz in Paris, where they met Mr. Talley, and holding court in the bar until the early hours of the morning, with characters as various as Madonna’s bodyguards, Kate Moss, Johnny Depp and Arlene Dahl.
“It was couture week, so everybody was there,” Mr. Talley explained.
Writing about that night six years later in Vogue, Ms. Reed called it “one of the most memorable evenings of my life.”
Ms. Reed’s marriage to John Pearce, a New Orleans lawyer with whom she renovated a house in the garden district there, ended in divorce in 2016. She is survived by her parents and a brother, Clarke Reed, Jr. Another brother, Reynolds Crews Reed, died in 2019.
Ms. Reed was a sought-after speaker, by all accounts a born entertainer — energetic, savvy and hilarious. In 2013, she took over the Delta Hot Tamale Festival in Greenville, turning a small local fair into three-day national literary and culinary extravaganza to benefit her hometown. The event concluded with a raucous barbecue on a sandbar.
Last year, Ms. Reed opened an online home goods store, Reed Smythe & Company, with her friend Keith Smythe Meacham. The store sells pieces inspired by Ms. Reed’s own taste — bronze drawer pulls shaped like the head of her beagle, Henry; porcelain plates; engraved note cards — many of which are made by Southern artisans. Last year Mississippi’s arts commission named Ms. Reed a cultural ambassador to the state. A few months ago she also opened a bookstore, Brown Water Books, in downtown Greenville.
David DiBenedetto, the magazine’s editor, explained what it was like working with Ms. Reed. “We had standard deadlines and Julia’s deadline,” he wrote in an email. “And her excuses for filing late were often as entertaining as the actual columns or features themselves.”
On one particularly hairy occasion, he said, it was really down to the wire. The editors were sending pages to the printer when Mr. DiBenedetto received an email from Ms. Reed. It read: “Just landed in Dallas this second. Polished up at least 1,500 words before computer ran out of juice. Gonna send that when I get to the hotel and will finish the rest tonight after dinner with Laura Bush. She doesn’t drink so it will happen.”
“The piece was fabulous, as always,” he said, adding, “We were all voyeurs, in a way, her readers and editors, to a life so much larger — and more fun — than our own.”