Donald Forst dead, former New York Newsday and Village Voice editor was 81

Former Village Voice editor-in-chief Don Forst is pictured

Former Village Voice editor-in-chief Don Forst is pictured in his office in this June 6, 1997 photo. Forst, who was editor in chief of New York Newsday from 1985 to 1995, then held the same position at the Village Voice until 2005. He died on Jan. 4, 2014. He was 81. (Credit: AP)

Former New York Newsday editor Don Forst, a newsroom leader and mentor whose career spanned nearly six decades, died Saturday at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany. He was 81.

He recently had undergone chemotherapy for colon cancer, according to his companion, Val Haynes.

Forst was remembered Saturday as an inspirational figure who brought a new energy to Newsday on Long Island, where he rose to managing editor during the 1970s, and to the staff he led at New York Newsday in the 1980s and '90s.

Forst reveled in vying for readers in one of the nation's most competitive markets. But friends and former colleagues -- often one and the same -- said that brought out their best.

"He was one of the most competitive newspaper people I knew, and wanted not only to beat the competition but to burn their houses, drive off their cattle and poison their wells," said Tony Marro, the editor of Newsday from 1986 until 2002.

"He also made working in newsrooms a lot of fun," Marro added.

Forst arrived at Newsday in 1971 as national editor and rose to managing editor. He helped supervise reporting on "The Heroin Trail," a definitive report on the illicit narcotics traffic in the United States and abroad, by 13 reporters and two photographers, that won a 1974 Pulitzer Prize.

Controversy was not something he shied away from, said Rita Ciolli, Newsday's editor of the editorial pages. When coma-stricken Karen Ann Quinlan of New Jersey in 1985 was allowed to die after a lengthy battle, Forst ran her picture on the front cover, with a headline that said: "They Can Pull the Plug."

In 1985, while New York City was reeling from crack, homelessness and AIDS, Forst turned New York Newsday into an influential newspaper that bridged the gap between the older tabloids and The New York Times. It also won Pulitzers -- for Jim Dwyer's commentary on New York City and for staff reporting on a fatal New York City subway crash.

Some writers were already established before their stints at New York Newsday, and its roster included Dwyer, Gail Collins, Pete Hamill, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin and Mike McAlary (on whom Nora Ephron based the play "Lucky Guy.")

John Mancini, the former Newsday editor, said: "We all kind of loved him."

Mancini added: "He pushed reporters and editors straight into the heart of events. To not come back with answers to the questions that occur naturally to readers triggered the only kind of shame he acknowledged as healthy."

After New York Newsday closed, Forst had a brief stint at the Daily News, then served as the editor of The Village Voice from 1996 until 2005. That weekly newspaper also captured a Pulitzer under his tenure.

Tom Robbins, a former Village Voice investigative reporter, said, "He would support you through hell and high water; he was exciting, he was scary, he was everything . . . you would imagine a big city editor to be." He added: "In my mind, he was the best."

A native of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who graduated from the University of Vermont and held a master's from Columbia University School of Journalism, Forst also worked at one time or another for the New York Post and the Herald Tribune as well the Boston Herald and Boston Magazine. Other stops along the way included the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and the Newark Star-Ledger.

Forst married Gael Greene, New York Magazine's food critic, in 1961. They met while they both were working at the Post.

"He knew more about New York restaurants than I did when I came to New York and I thought he seemed very sophisticated about food," Greene said.

Forst's talent for friendship was renowned. "I think people were attracted to his spirit, his joy of life," Greene said.

Though Forst and Greene divorced in 1974, the two remained close, advising and counseling each other whenever life's events took a turn.

Forst later married Starr Ockenga, a photographer and a writer of gardening books.

Forst was remembered Saturday for helping journalists achieve their dreams.

"Don was a hard-charging editor and a generous mentor," said Debbie Henley, editor of Newsday. "Whatever he did, he was all in."

Dwyer, a former New York Newsday columnist who now writes for the Times, recalled that Forst's intuition and encouragement allowed him to first express a desire to become a columnist.

"He reached down my gullet and pulled the words out of me -- it was an ambition I had, but he liberated it."

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