A fourth generation Californian, David Victor Harris was born in Fresno on February 28, 1946, the younger of two children born to Clifton Gordon Harris Jr., an attorney, and Elaine Jensen Harris, a housewife. Clifton Jr. was from Magna, Utah, where Clifton Sr. drove trains in and out of the open pit copper mines. Elaine was from Fresno, where her grandfather, Levi Barringer, settled as a sheep rancher in the 1890’s and her father, Daniel Jensen, was a master woodworker at the Fresno Planing Mill. David grew up in Fresno, with the exception of a year spent in Richmond, California as an infant while his father, a veteran of World War II, finished law school on the GI Bill at the University of California’s Boalt Hall. He attended public schools and graduated from Fresno High School in 1963, where he was an honors student, a football letterman, a champion debater, and Fresno High School Boy of the Year.
Harris was admitted to Stanford University on a partial scholarship, which he supplemented by waiting on tables and working in the San Joaquin Valley packing sheds outside of Fresno during the summer. In his sophomore year, he left school for a month to join the civil rights movement’s Mississippi Project, conducting voter registration with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Quitman County. Harris marched in his first demonstration against the Vietnam War in late 1964, upon his return to Stanford from Mississippi. He was elected Stanford Student Body President in 1966 on a “radical” platform calling for student control of student regulations, equal rights for men and women students, and an end to University cooperation with the War. He was also an honors student in Social Thought and Institutions, a winner of the Stanford poetry prize, and a clerk at the landmark local literary outpost, Kepler’s Books.
Upon leaving Stanford, Harris became an organizer in the anti war and draft resistance movements, publicly refusing to cooperate with military conscription and organizing others to do likewise. He was ordered to report for military duty in January 1968, refused, and was almost immediately indicted on felony charges. Harris married folk singer Joan Baez in March 1968 while out on bail and was placed on trial for his draft refusal that May, convicted, and sentenced to three years in Federal prison. He remained free for the next year while his case was under appeal and entered the Federal prison system in July 1969. His and Joan’s son, Gabriel, was born five months after his incarceration. Harris was held for a month in San Francisco County Jail, seven months in a minimum-security Federal Prison Camp in Safford, Arizona, and twelve months in a maximum security cell block at the Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna, Texas, including three months in punishment cells for having helped organize four different strikes among his fellow prisoners. He was released to the custody of the U.S. Board of Parole in March 1971 for the remainder of his sentence.
David Harris continued to organize against the war until peace agreements were signed in March 1973. Now divorced from Joan Baez, he began his career as a journalist at Rolling Stone Magazine after writing Stone’s founder and publisher, Jann Wenner. Wenner gave Harris a tryout and then made him a contributing editor. Harris’s last significant episode as a political organizer came during the 1976 national elections when he won the Democratic Party nomination for Congress in California’s 12th Congressional District, representing most of what is currently known as Silicon Valley. After losing the general election to the Republican incumbent, he returned to journalism full time.
In 1977, David married New York Times correspondent Lacey Fosburgh. Their daughter and only child, Sophie, was born in 1983. Harris began an almost ten-year tenure at The New York Times Magazine in 1978 after being recruited by legendary editor Arthur Gelb. Then, having already written five books, he moved to writing books exclusively—except for an assignment with the New Yorker and a return stint at Rolling Stone during 1996 and 1997. Lacey Fosburgh died of breast cancer in 1993.
Harris’ career as an author began in 1970 with the Richard Baron Press’s publication of Goliath. Edited by E.L. Doctorow, Goliath is a rumination by Harris on America and his own work as an organizer, written during the last few months before he was sent to prison. It was published while he was incarcerated. That book was followed by I Shoulda Been Home Yesterday: Twenty Months In Jail For Not Killing Anybody, a memoir about his time in prison, written while he was still on parole and published by Delacourte and Seymore Lawrence in 1976. His next book, The Last Scam, grew out of a cover story he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1978 recounting his trip into the Mexican state of Oaxaca with a marijuana smuggler. Harris’s publisher at Delacourte, Seymore Lawrence, commissioned him to turn that material into a “nonfiction novel” about the smuggling world. Edited by Billy Abrahams, The Last Scam came out in 1981.
Harris followed that in short order with Dreams Die Hard: Three Men’s Journey Through the Sixties, a tragic story built around the 1980 murder of former Congressman Allard Lowenstein by former civil rights and anti-war activist Dennis Sweeney. Harris had been close to both men at Stanford and in his days as an organizer. After investigating the murder for The New York Times Magazine, he expanded his account into a book exploring the Sixties through the lens of this murder after the decade was long since over. Under the direction of editor Joyce Engleson, St. Martin’s Press published it in 1982. Dreams Die Hard was then optioned for a miniseries by CBS. Harris spent a year producing the first draft of a script, but CBS dropped the project. Dreams Die Hard was reissued in paperback in 1993 is still used in collegiate history classes.
David Harris’s career as a writer reached maturity in 1983 when he teamed up with his agent, Kathy Robbins and The Robbins Office. The first contract Robbins found for him was a three-book deal with Bantam Books and its publisher, Linda Grey. The first of those books was The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL, an investigative account of the inner workings of the ownership circle of the National Football League and the conflict between the Commissioner and the clubs over who would control the most lucrative entertainment enterprise in the history of American sport. Publishers Weekly named The League one of 1986’s ten best nonfiction books and it is still the definitive source on the business of the NFL.
Next, however, Harris’s rise as an author hit a significant speed bump. For his second book with Bantam, he entered into an arrangement to write the authorized biography of William S. Paley, founder of CBS and the Twentieth Century broadcasting industry. According to his arrangement with Paley, while Harris had complete control of the text, Paley had the right to kill the project should he see fit. After three years work, Paley’s attorney, acting due to his client’s mental incapacity, exercised that right and the project died halfway through its first draft. Harris sank into a demoralized state in the aftermath and spent the better part of a year pulling himself out of it.
He then went to work on another book for Bantam, The Last Stand: The War between Wall Street and Main Street Over California’s Ancient Redwoods, recounting the takeover of a northern California lumber company by a Wall Street raider fueled by junk bonds and chronicling the legal and environmental conflict that takeover set off. In the middle of his research for that project, however, his wife Lacey was diagnosed with breast cancer. When that cancer metastasized a little more than a year later, Harris stopped working on The Last Stand and spent the next year nursing her through a series of intense and demanding procedures to try and keep the cancer at bay. Those efforts ended with her death in January of 1993. Harris returned to The Last Stand,only to be again derailed by a bout with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that kept him from working for another year. By then Linda Grey had left Bantam and the company, now under new ownership, dropped his contract. After a long search for a publisher, the book was finally taken up by Times Books and its editor, Steve Wasserman. The Last Stand was published in 1995, almost a decade since one of Harris’s books had last been in the stores.
His career now resumed speed. As did his personal life. Harris soon began a thirty-year romantic relationship with Cheri Forrester, a physician, that culminated in their eventual marriage and his role as stepfather to Cheri’s daughter, Eva Orbuch.
Harris’s contract with Times Books called for a second book, this one to be—at Wasserman’s insistence—a memoir about David’s days as a legendary anti-war organizer. He dedicated it to Cheri. The result was Our War: What We Did to Vietnam and What Vietnam Did to Us, a thin volume of reflections at age 50 on the ten-year war that had defined his generation as it was coming of age.
Harris followed that with a two-book contract for Little, Brown and Company, instigated by its publisher, Sarah Crichton. Chrichton edited the first of the two, Shooting The Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt Unlike Any Other, Ever. Published in 2001, Shooting the Moon tells the story of the Miami Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega that eventually led to the decision by the George H. W. Bush administration to invade Panama and seize Noriega for trial and imprisonment in the United States on cocaine trafficking charges. Sarah Crichton left Little, Brown before Harris’s second book there so The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah; 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam was edited by Geoff Shandler. The Crisis was published in 2004. A history, it recreates the 1979 overthrow of Iran’s monarch, the ensuing Iranian revolution, and the 444-day hostage crisis between the Islamic Republic and the United States that led to the downfall of Jimmy Carter, the rise of Ronald Reagan, and the emergence of Islamic government.
In a break from geopolitics, Harris next returned to the subject of professional football. The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty was written for Mark Tavani and Bob Loomis at Random House. It is a biography of the most seminal figure in the game’s Super Bowl era, tracking Bill Walsh’s decade as President, General Manager, and Head Coach of the San Francisco Forty Niners. Constructed out of a series of interviews over the last year of Walsh’s life—with Walsh, his players, associates, friends, and loved ones—it was published in time for football season, 2008.
For the next decade, David Harris was in semi-retirement, researching several different nonfiction projects that never came to fruition as well as a couple attempts at fiction. Then he joined forces again with Steve Wasserman, his old editor for The Last Stand and Our War, who had moved on to Publisher at Heyday Press. First Heyday reissued The Last Stand, then commissioned an essay from him, “My Redwood Confession” as the lead text in a 2019 collection, The Once and Future Forest; California’s Iconic Redwoods. Harris’ essay was nominated for the Pushkin Prize.
David Harris was diagnosed with both stage 4 prostate cancer and stage 4 lung cancer in 2018. His’ last book was a 2020 collection of his magazine journalism, again engineered by Wasserman and Heyday, My Country Tis of Thee; Reporting, Sallies, and Other Confessions.
In October 2022, Heyday awarded Harris its lifetime achievement award.
Harris died from lung cancer at his home in Mill Valley on February 6, 2023, at the age of 76.