Harriet Van Horne, a pioneer radio and television critic whose tough-minded crusades for educational programming and against “women’s chatter programs, the vulgar outpourings of the soap opera and the bad taste of commercials” attracted a wide following in the New York World-Telegram and other Scripps-Howard newspapers for a quarter of a century, died Thursday at New York Hospital.
She was 77 and lived in Manhattan.
Van Horne, who later wrote a syndicated column for the New York Post, died of breast cancer, said a friend, Leslie Rubinstein.
Van Horne liked to say she got into television criticism “the day they invented it.” Jack Gould of the New York Times; John Crosby, the syndicated columnist of the New York Herald Tribune, and Van Horne were the early critics most admired and feared in the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
In those days many programs originated in New York and were broadcast live. It came to be known as television’s golden age, but she remembered it as a less precious metal.
In 1976 she was interviewed by Nora Ephron for Esquire. Ephron asked her to think about all the years she had spent listening to the radio and watching television.
She liked radio well enough, she said, until it occurred to her that by thinking and writing about it, she had become “as dull and as intellectually sterile as everybody else in the radio business.”
But when she considered her work in television, it made radio programming look positively metaphysical.
“It destroyed me,” Van Horne said. “I did a television column for 20 years, five columns a week, and I was always in a little screening room in the afternoon and at the television set at night. My reading program went to hell. Had I stayed in television, it would have killed me. Imagine reviewing ‘I Love Lucy’ 20 times. Imagine reviewing ‘Gunsmoke’ 20 times. It would rot anybody’s brain.”
In later years she had fond memories of shows like “Playhouse 90” especially when she compared it with “all the canned shows from Universal and all the crime and cowboys and so on.”
Later in her career, Van Horne became a syndicated columnist for the New York Post, writing about almost anything three times a week. The column contained the old wit and graceful prose that her readers had prized, but it was not picked up by many papers in syndication because it could not be categorized.
“It’s really not totally suitable for the editorial page because it’s often frivolous and womanish,” she told Ephron. “On the other hand, it is often serious in a political sense and therefore, not entirely right for the women’s page.”
Harriet Van Horne was born in Syracuse on May 17, 1920, and graduated from the College for Women of the University of Rochester in 1940.
She got her first full-time newspaper job at the Greenwich Time in Connecticut, by running an ad in Editor and Publisher that began, “Blue-eyed blonde with a nose for news and a way with words, fresh out of college.”