Marvin Barrett was born on May 6, 1920, in Des Moines, Iowa, to a professor and his wife. He attended Harvard University, where he recieved his Bachelor's of Arts in 1942. He later went to Drake University, recieiving his Master's in 1976. After being in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1942-46, and becoming a lieutenant, Barrett acted as a contributing editor at Time, New York City, from 1948-52, and on October 14, 1952, he married a writer, Mary Ellin Berlin, with whom he had four children, Elizabeth, Irving, Mary Ellin, and Katherine. He then worked as a freelance writer for three years, and he followed that up with a career as a radio-television editor at Newsweek in New York City, from 1955-59. Publishing his first book, The Jazz Age, in 1959, Barrett was editor at various publications in New York until 1967, when he turned once again to freelance writing. He also served from 1968-83 at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University as a faculty member, as well as publishing numerous books. His books include the following titles:
- The Jazz Age, 1959.
- The Years Between, 1961.
- Meet Thomas Jefferson, 1964.
- Survey of Broadcast Journalism, 1969.
- Year of Challenge, Year of Crisis, 1970.
- State of Siege, 1971.
- The Politics of Broadcasting, 1973.
- Moments of Truth?, 1975.
- The End of the Party, 1976.
- Rich News, Poor News, 1977.
- The Eye of the Storm, 1980.
- Broadcast Journalism, 1979-1981, 1982.
- Spare Days, 1988.
- Second Chance: A Life after Death, 1999.
- Gathering Sparks: Interviews from Parabola Magazine, 2001.
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