Jonathan Mirsky, a journalist, historian and author who served in the foreign service for almost three decades in China, Russia and Mexico, died of a heart attack at his home in New York on June 28. He was 88.
Mr. Mirsky was born in Vienna on June 28, 1931, to German Jewish immigrants, his father, Yisrael Mirsky, being a successful Jewish book publisher. He said he named himself after the 18th-century philosopher John Locke, because he “simply loved thinking.” He began a short stint with the U.S. Army during World War II, and after spending two years in the Air Force in Vietnam, he attended Columbia University and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1945.
In 1948, Mr. Mirsky earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia and worked as a reporter for The New York Times. He went on to become a correspondent for the Times from 1953 to 1965. He also served in the Foreign Service from 1965 to 1973, most recently as spokesman for the Central American Affairs Bureau in Washington.
Mr. Mirsky began publishing as a nonfiction writer in 1969. After receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, he received the National Book Award for biography in 2002, for his book, The Poisonwood Bible, about the writer Upton Sinclair and the famed poisoning of Mary Ann Douglas, his then-wife and novelist, in 1911.
He also wrote five novels and three nonfiction works, including the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Death and the Silkworm.
Mr. Mirsky was highly respected by both Chinese and American officials. In 2015, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, traveled to visit him and his wife, Jacqueline Whitten, the consul general of Mexico in New York, as part of an effort to improve ties between the two countries. During that visit, Mrs. Whitten shared a photograph of the couple holding hands, taken by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the time.
Jonathan Mirsky lectured in a series of lectures at the Center for Chinese Studies at Columbia University from 2010 to 2017.
The phone call following the Sept. 11 attacks from then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin was the last call he ever received, Mr. Mirsky said. At that time, he had settled in China, as a journalist and as the host of Chinese-language programs on a Chinese television station. Mr. Mirsky’s book, Spring Fever: China’s First Women Generation, appeared shortly after the attack.
“I was sitting in my apartment at seven,” he said in a 2015 interview with Ms. Whitten, the consul general of Mexico.
Asked how he felt, he said, “Super-enamored.”
Mr. Mirsky left China in 1973. Three years later, he was offered the position of official Chinese writer-in-residence in Mexico, in a short stint he described to Ms. Whitten in 2015 as “ten hours a day, five days a week, six days a week, six days a week, six days a week, six days a week, six days a week,” demanding and lonely but enriching, and probably the most “liberating” thing he had ever done. He served for a year.
A year after that, he traveled to Russia, which he knew from his years in the Foreign Service. His broad, world-traveling itinerary included the Soviets. He spent two weeks in the USSR, but was not impressed by what he saw, he said in 2015. It was an account of his life that he would not update after leaving, he told Ms. Whitten.
“The great joy of Chinese life is not New Year,” he told her. “The greatest joy of Chinese life is meeting new people.”
In 2013, Mr. Mirsky, through a mutual friend, received an invitation to participate in the opening of the School of Russian Studies at Columbia University. For the two weeks he spent there that summer, he discovered that the school was more than about Russian studies. It was also a place of exploration and even, in his case, friendship.
He was an active member of the American Friends of Russia Association, which he traveled to for events and a Russian dinner in his honor. The next year, he became its honorary president.
Mr. Mirsky was the author of more than 40 books, including a biography of Pope Francis. His work was published in six languages, and he wrote and published The Penguin Dictionary of Eastern Culture, which was a collaboration with Elijah M. Lewis, a leading authority on Russia.
In 2005, Mr. Mirsky received the Mayor’s Medal for Social