Two Legends, and the Gifts They Gave
By Geoffrey Colvin/Editorial Director

(FORTUNE Magazine) – One of them wrote what Bill Gates calls "probably the best book to read if you want to read only one book about business." The other originated a phrase and an anticonformist idea that still shape our thinking 40-some years later. Both were great characters and great FORTUNE writers, and when both died recently, we knew we wanted to tell you a little about them.

John McDonald ghosted My Years With General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan's book about building GM into a colossus. Still in print after 35 years and required reading in business schools, this is the book Gates finds "inspiring." McDonald was deeply serious and intellectual, gifts he resolutely applied in the forms of fun he loved: poker, fly-fishing, and horseracing, all of which he wrote about for us. His books on fly-fishing are classics and quite valuable; his devotion to poker led to his meeting the originators of game theory at its birth, and to a gem of a book called Strategy in Poker, Business, and War--in print since 1950. In his 92 years, McDonald collected a circle of friends that may set a record for eclecticism: Sloan, Leon Trotsky, photographer Walker Evans, novelist Robert Penn Warren, mathematician John von Neumann, real estate tycoon Bill Zeckendorf, and racehorse owner Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, among many others.

When William H. Whyte Jr. published The Organization Man in 1956, the phrase almost immediately entered the language and even the dictionary, where you'll still find it. Whyte, who died at 81, was fascinated by the sociology of business, though he had no hypothesis in mind when he began research on the series of articles that led to the book; he just knew there was something interesting in the phenomenon of the middle class moving to the suburbs. He maintained that the best articles came from giving writers lots of time and rope, and he spent his career here proving it. Whyte was a wonderfully felicitous writer, though he always insisted that when he arrived here he was terrible ("I was so bad that I was not fired, but kept on as a kind of exhibit"). After leaving FORTUNE he built a distinguished second career studying why public spaces in cities work (or don't), and his research shaped urban planning and policy around the world.

Journalists fear that their work by its nature is forgotten soon after it's done. These two legends not only produced memorable work but did something better: They advanced knowledge. Brave authors always, they were not pursuing wealth, only their own deep-rooted interests, leading who-knew-where. As it happened, the pursuit led to genuine contributions, gifts to the world. When McDonald and Whyte left this life, both knew their work would be read and valued by millions for a very long time. That is something all journalists want (though the tougher-seeming ones may claim otherwise). Few achieve it. These two did, and in the realm of business journalism, none have achieved it more luminously.