Robert L. Heilbroner Was Economist and Author

Robert L. Heilbroner, an economist and acclaimed author whose lively books were an inspiration to generations of students, died on Jan. 4 at the New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan after suffering a brain stem stroke. He was 85, and had been a summer resident of Chilmark for more than 40 years.

His book, The Worldy Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, is still one of the most widely read economic books of all time, and was written before he earned his doctorate. He also authored 19 other books, many of which became standard college textbooks.

He was a professor emeritus on the graduate faculty of political and social science at the New School University in New York city.

In a 1999 interview he said: "The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system - the political, sociological, the psychological, the moral the historical. And modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much and leave modern economists without a true understanding of how the system works."

The Worldly Philosophers was published in 1953 and is still in print. Mr. Heilbroner was often shunned by the mainstream economists, and he himself was the first to admit that he was not an economist's economist. He said his chief accomplishment was that he conned millions of students into thinking that the field of economics was interesting and in tune with their social ideas.

Robert Lewis Heilbroner was born on March 24, 1919 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the third child and only son of Louis and Helen Heiler Heilbroner. His father had grown up poor in North Carolina but later prospered with a chain of men's clothing stores that he founded in New York. He died when Robert was five years old, and the family business was sold.

He enrolled at Harvard University and planned to major in writing, but then took a course in economics and found his calling. After graduating from Harvard he went to work at the New York retail chain founded by his father, but hated it. He earned his doctorate in economics 23 years after leaving Harvard.

At the start of World War II he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked with the Federal Office of Price Administration until he was drafted by the Army. He was assigned to intelligence and sent to the University of Michigan to learn Japanese. During the war he interviewed 2,000 enemy prisoners in the Pacific and learned that he had a gift for language and words. After the war he had a brief stint at a Wall Street commodities firm, and then began to write freelance articles for magazines on economics. His work caught the attention of editors at Simon & Schuster, who suggested that he write a book.

In 1952 he married Joan Knapp, an author of children's books, and they had two children, Peter and David. They were divorced in 1975 and he married Shirley Eleanor Davis.

Mr. Heilbroner and his first wife began coming to the Vineyard in the 1950s as summer visitors. In 1962 they bought the old school house on South Road in Chilmark from the Eugene Hoffmans.

He was an active member of the Vineyard summer community, where he was called on from time to time as a speaker and lecturer. In 1970 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Gazette raising concerns about the possible threat to public health from pollution in the Menemsha Basin. Mr. Heilbroner urged town authorities to pay careful heed to to warnings from the state Division of Water Pollution Control.

"Failure to act courageously and effectively today may be the cause of irreparable damage tomorrow," he wrote.

He is survived by his two children as well as his first and second wives.