William Whitworth, who wrote insightful profiles in The New Yorker giving voice to its language themes and polished the prose of some of the country’s celebrated writers as an associate editor before transplanting that magazine’s meticulous standards to The Atlantic, where he was editor-in-chief for 20 years, died Friday in Conway, Arkansas, near Little Rock. He was 87 years old.

His daughter, Katherine Whitworth Stewart, announced the death. She said he was being treated in hospital after several falls and operations.

As a young college graduate, Mr. Whitworth abandoned a promising career as a jazz trumpeter to pursue a different type of improvisation as a journalist.

He covered breaking news for The Arkansas Gazette and later for The New York Herald Tribune, where his colleagues eventually included some of the most stimulating voices in American journalism, including Dick Schaap, Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe.

In 1966, William Shawn, the decorous but dictatorial editor of The New Yorker, courted Whitworth for the revered weekly. He accepted the job even though he had already accepted one at The New York Times.

At The New Yorker, he injected wit into thoughtful “Talk of the Town” vignettes. He also profiled the famous and the not-so-famous, including jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus (accompanied by photographs by his former Herald Tribune colleague Jill Krementz) and foreign policy adviser Eugene V. Rostow. He expanded his profile of Mr. Rostow in a 1970 book, “Naive Questions About War and Peace.”

Mr. Whitworth offered each individual he described ample opportunity to be cited, giving each of them equally ample firecrackers on which to hoist themselves.

In 1966, with characteristic detachment, he wrote about Bishop Homer A. Tomlinson, a kindly man from Queens who had run a small advertising agency and now, presiding over a flock of the Church of God, had proclaimed himself King of the World. Bishop Tomlinson claimed to have millions of parishioners, including all Pentecostals. “He thinks they are his,” Whitworth wrote, “whether they know it or not.”

Of Joe Franklin, the enduring radio and television host, Whitworth wrote in 1971 that his office, “if he were a person, he would be lazy,” but that “on the air, Joe is more cheerful and positive than Norman.” Vincent Peale and Lawrence Welk combined.”

From 1973 to 1980 at The New Yorker, and then at the venerable Atlantic Monthly, where he was editor until retiring in 1999, and later, when he worked on books, Mr. Whitworth was most valued as a nonfiction editor.

Aside from the writers he guided, pushed and protected, his role went largely unnoticed outside of the publishing industry. To his colleagues who often wondered why he was abandoning journalism, he suggested that he couldn’t beat them, so he joined then: he had simply gotten fed up with editors, particularly newspaper editors, trashing his prose which, of course, In any case, it would be published under his direction. signature.

“You want to fail on your own terms, not in someone else’s voice who sounds like you,” he said at the conference. Oxford American Summit for Ambitious Writers in 2011.

Whitworth edited relentless perfectionists like film critic Pauline Kael (who almost came to blows with Shawn) and Robert A. Caro (who was ultimately so pleased with the final excerpts of “The Power Broker,” his biography of Robert Moses, published in The New Yorker (after Mr. Whitworth interceded with Mr. Shawn) that when The Atlantic published a condensation of the first volume of its biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, it asked Mr. Whitworth to edit it).

How did you win over recalcitrant writers?

“As long as you kept them in the game and didn’t do things behind their backs, slowly explaining to them why this would be helpful to them, which would be, it would protect them, not us, and they accepted,” he said at the American Summit of Oxford.

For Whitworth, said essayist Anne Fadiman, who worked with him at The American Scholar after he left The Atlantic, “editing was a conversation and also a way of teaching.”

At times, Whitworth offered sage advice that went beyond editing.

After Garrison Keillor wrote an article for The New Yorker about the Grand Ole Opry, “I was prompted to do a Saturday night variety show myself, inspired by the Opry, which led me to ‘A Prairie Home Companion ‘, which provided me with employment for years to come,” Keillor said via email. “Unusual. Like a sportswriter who becomes a major league pitcher, or an obituary writer who opens a morgue. I’ve been grateful ever since.”

The New York writer Hendrik Hertzberg wrote on your blog in 2011 that, despite Whitworth’s capacity for self-deprecation, he and Shawn had much in common, “including a gentle manner, a keen understanding of writers’ neuroses, and a deep love of jazz.”

In 1980, Mr. Whitworth was considered the most likely candidate to succeed Mr. Shawn, who was stubbornly reluctant to be succeeded. Instead of being complicit in what he described to a friend as “patricide” in a plot to overthrow Shawn, he accepted the editorship of The Atlantic from its new owner, Mortimer Zuckerman. He didn’t regret it.

“I have long outgrown The New Yorker,” he wrote in a letter to Corby Kummer, former senior editor and food columnist at The Atlantic, which, he said, “met all my expectations and hopes.”

“I couldn’t have been so happy and proud in any other job,” he added.

Under Mr. Whitworth’s editorship, The Atlantic won nine national magazine awards, including the 1993 General Excellence Citation.

They also worked for months editing Renée C. Fox’s copy of “In the Field: A Sociologist’s Journey” (2011) in a snail mail exchange that went on for months without them meeting face to face.

Mr. Whitworth’s suggestions, Professor Fox recalled in Comment in 2011, “they were generally written in his characteristically terse style, always courteous, gentlemanly and modest in tone, sometimes self-deprecating and often dryly witty.”

“The editor,” he continued, “taught the author about the intellectual, grammatical, aesthetic, historical, and moral components of writing and editing that had previously been imperceptible or unknown to her.”

William Alvin Whitworth was born on February 13, 1937 in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His mother, Lois (McNabb) Whitworth, was a china and silver buyer at Cave’s Jewelers (where she often helped Bill Clinton buy gifts for Hillary). His father, William C. Whitworth, was an advertising executive.

He attended Central High School while working part-time as a copy boy in the advertising department of The Arkansas Democrat. After graduating, she majored in English and minored in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, but dropped out before her senior year to play trumpet with a six-piece jazz band.

He married Carolyn Hubbard; she died in 2005. In addition to his daughter, she is survived by a half-brother, F. Brooks Whitworth. A son, Matthew, died in 2022. Whitworth had lived in Conway since he retired from The Atlantic.

Literary agent Lynn Nesbit remembered Mr. Whitworth as an “astonishingly brilliant and insightful editor” whose “own ego never got in the way of his editorial brilliance.” Charles McGrath, another former New Yorker editor who later edited The New York Times Book Review, said that Whitworth, unlike Shawn, “was more loved than feared.”

But he was not easy to convince. While he often quoted Mr. Shawn as saying that “falling short of perfection is simply an endless process,” he more or less replicated what he called The New Yorker’s “neurotic system” of meticulous editing in The Atlantic.

“It taught me that the worst approach for an editor is to get your hands on a piece because you knew how to organize it and write it better,” said Kummer, who is now executive director of Food and Society at the Aspen Institute. .

“The writer’s name was on the article, not his,” he continued, “and no matter how fierce the arguments over wording, punctuation, paragraph order, or word choice, the writer had to be happy. with an article or it should not be published. .”

When he assigned Mr. Kummer to edit an article by George F. Kennan, the distinguished diplomat and historian, Mr. Whitworth warned him in no uncertain terms: “No matter how much work you think you need, remember: You are a giant. “

But when Kennan later complained that Kummer “put me through as much trouble as The New Yorker,” Whitworth responded, “That’s what I pay him for.”