Ed Cray, a journalist and educator who explored a broad spectrum of Americana with well-regarded biographies of Woody Guthrie, Chief Justice Earl Warren, the California serial killer Juan Corona, George C. Marshall and the bluejeans maker Levi Strauss, died on Oct. 8 in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 86.
The cause was congestive heart failure and complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter, Jennifer Cray, said.
Trained in college as an anthropologist, Mr. Cray invited readers along as he quenched his curiosity about American life and American figures in 18 book-length odysseys.
He delved into broad subjects, including police misconduct and medical care (“The Big Blue Line” in 1967 and “In Failing Health,” in 1970) and entrepreneurship (“Levi’s: The Story of Levi Strauss & Co.” in 1978 and “Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times” in 1981).
And he mined folklore, assembling “The Erotic Muse: A Completely Uncensored Collection of the Songs Everyone Knows and No One Has Written Down Before” and “Bawdy Ballads” (both in 1969) and several sequels.
His “Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie” (2004), the music critic Robert Christgau wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “vividly conveys how difficult Guthrie’s life was and how heroic his achievement.”
The author Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor and Guthrie fan, told The Times in 2012 that the “two great biographies” of Guthrie were by Mr. Cray and the political columnist Joe Klein (“Woody Guthrie: A Life,” 1980).
“Ed was a meticulous craftsman of American biography with a penchant for deep research,” Professor Brinkley said in an email. “What mattered most to Ed was being a judicious judge of the past. There are no false notes in his body of work.”
In 2010, Mr. Cray and Bill Nowlin were nominated for a Grammy Award for writing the liner notes for “My Dusty Road,” a four-CD set of Guthrie’s music released the year before by Rounders Records.
Reviewing “Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren” (1997) in The Times, Herbert Mitgang described the book’s view of Warren as “idealized,” but added that its account of decision making by the court made the profile a “readable and innovative work.”
His Warren biography won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award.
Professor Joe Saltzman, a former colleague at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, where Mr. Cray also taught, said in an email, “Although his books were not best-sellers, they always offered solid reporting and new insights into his subjects.”
In “Burden of Proof: The Case of Juan Corona” (1973), Mr. Cray, who worked as an investigator for the defense, argued that Mr. Corona was convicted in 1973 of killing 25 migrant workers because he had failed to prove his innocence even though the burden of proof was on the prosecution.
His conviction was voided because of what an appeals court ruled was incompetent legal representation. Mr. Corona was convicted again, still insisting he was innocent, but in 2011 he admitted his crimes at a parole hearing. He died in March while serving 25 concurrent life sentences in prison.
Edward Beryl Cray was born on July 3, 1933, in Cleveland to Max and Sara (Negin) Cray. His mother was a teacher, and his father, a French Canadian, was a truck driver.
Growing up in California, Ed was a newsboy for The Los Angeles Mirror and a copy boy for The Los Angeles Daily News as a teenager. After serving in the Army in Korea, he enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles, and graduated in 1957.
In addition to writing freelance articles, from 1965 to 1970, he was the director of publications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and later a publicist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
He joined the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1976, took a leave in 1983 to help The Los Angeles Times establish a training program for minority journalists, and retired as a professor of journalism in the Annenberg School in 2014.
In 2017, Mr. Cray moved from Santa Monica to Palo Alto, Calif. In addition to his daughter, Jennifer Cray, from his marriage to Marjorie Lee, which ended in divorce, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Naomi Kovacs; a stepson, Josh Kovacs; and two granddaughters. His second wife, Diane Markson Kovacs, whom he married in 1985, died in 2006.
If you are getting married, reserve the day at the Lightner Museum, the best of st Augustine wedding venues .