William vanden Heuvel, a public-minded lawyer and former diplomat who was an adviser to Robert F. Kennedy and an advocate of improving conditions for inmates in New York City jails, died on Tuesday. He was 91.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his daughter Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and former editor of The Nation.
Vanden Heuvel was associated with Kennedy through much of the 1960s, serving as a special assistant when Kennedy was United States attorney general and advising his campaigns for the Senate and the presidency.
In the Justice Department, from 1962-1964, vanden Heuvel was active in the civil rights struggle that would define Kennedy's tenure as the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement official. Assigned to Prince Edward County, Virginia, he helped negotiate the creation of a free school system, open to Black students, after the county had shut its public schools rather than allow them to be integrated, as required by the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Admiring his effectiveness in Prince Edward County, Kennedy often turned to vanden Heuvel for strategic advice and support in his successful 1964 campaign for a seat in the United States Senate from New York.
"Kennedys always liked to have things, difficult things, done through intermediaries, especially when it came to personal relationships in politics," said Milton Gwirtzman, a former close adviser to the Kennedy family. "When he was senator he was always asking vanden Heuvel to make certain calls for him that he didn't want to make himself."
He and vanden Heuvel were co-authors of the political biography "On His Own: Robert F. Kennedy 19641968," published in 1970.
Vanden Heuvel was also among the trusted advisers who helped Kennedy plan his presidential campaign in 1968. Kennedy's meetings with his inner circle were often held in vanden Heuvel's Manhattan apartment.
After Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year, vanden Heuvel continued to push civil rights reforms in other areas. In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay appointed him chairman of the New York City Board of Correction only weeks after inmates in jails across the city rioted in protest of unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, brutality by guards and long detention periods before court appearances. There were also reports of rampant sexual assaults within the cellblocks.
Vanden Heuvel fought for greater public awareness of prison conditions and encouraged the news media to help expose them. In one instance he asked food critics, including one from The New York Times, to report on prison fare. In 1972 he arranged for James Brown to perform at Rikers Island.
"The quickest way to end the insanity of our criminal justice system is to let the press and broadcasting reveal it," he wrote in a 1972 paper in The Columbia Journalism Review. "The right to know in a democracy frequently depends on the demand to know by the media."
On Christmas Day 1970, with Nicholas Gage, a reporter for The Times, in tow, vanden Heuvel toured the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, better known as the Tombs, and was showered with complaints as he passed by cells. Though a Christmas meal of chicken and sweet potatoes was being served that day, one rail-thin inmate said he had lost 70 pounds while awaiting trial for 26 months.
In another cell an inmate said his cellmate needed medical attention for an infectious cut at the back of his head that he said had been draining for two months.
"The man was lying in bed covered with a blanket," Gage wrote. "When Mr. vanden Heuvel asked him to come closer to the bars, so he could see the wound, the man said he couldn't get up because he had no clothes.
"'Someone stole them,' he said."
William Jacobus vanden Heuvel was born in Rochester, New York, on April 14, 1930, to Joost and Alberta (Demunter) vanden Heuvel. His father, a Dutch immigrant, was a factory worker at the R.T. French Co. His mother was a Belgian immigrant.
Raised in a working class family in the 1930s, vanden Heuvel was inspired early on by the populist ideals of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose fireside chat radio broadcasts were a formative influence.
"Those who heard him never forgot the experience," he wrote in The Huffington Post (now The HuffPost) in 2013. "I was one of them."
At 14, on learning of Roosevelt's death, he hitchhiked alone to the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York, to attend the funeral. Initially turned away by the Secret Service, a sympathetic Eleanor Roosevelt intervened, granting him special permission to attend.
After completing the two-year curriculum at Deep Springs College, a junior college in California, he transferred to Cornell and graduated in 1950. He went on to earn a law degree there and serve as editor in chief of Cornell Law Review.
His marriage in 1958 to the writer Jean Stein, who died in 2017, ended in divorce in 1969.
In addition to his daughter Katrina, from his marriage to Stein, vanden Heuvel is survived by another daughter from that marriage, Wendy M. vanden Heuvel; his wife, Melinda F. vanden Heuvel, whom he married in 1979; his stepchildren Ashley von Perfall and John vanden Heuvel Pierce, two grandchildren; and five step-grandchildren.
He published a memoir, "Hope and History," in 2019.
While he worked in private practice as an attorney throughout most his life, vanden Heuvel's legal career was often eclipsed by his political activities.
In 1973, when he ran for Manhattan district attorney, his prominent support for liberal politicians and causes in preceding years led many, including The Times, to question his neutrality. He lost to the incumbent, Frank Hogan, in a Democratic primary.
Vanden Heuvel went on to become Jimmy Carter's New York state campaign chairman in the 1976 presidential election. In 1977, Carter appointed him ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations; two years later, he named him deputy United States representative to the United Nations.
In his later years, vanden Heuvel's attentions turned back to Franklin Roosevelt, whose values and ideals informed so much of his career. He was the founder and chairman of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, where he helped establish the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York to honor the former president's legacy.
"I'm not someone who's interested in making Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt saints," vanden Heuvel said in an interview with PBS in 2011. "I'm interested in reminding Americans that the America that they envisioned and that they helped to create is the America that I embrace and I hope Americans will embrace."