A writer, Dobell actually had more success as an editor — for Time-Life Books, and American Heritage and Esquire magazines, where he helped establish the early careers of many writers, such as Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam, and Mario Puzo. For instance, when Wolfe was still a virtually unknown newspaper reporter, he pitched an article about Southern California’s hot rod and custom car culture. Dobell gave him the go-ahead, but the day before deadline, Wolfe confessed he had writer’s block — he had gathered so much information he didn’t know how to put it together. “O.K., [Byron] tells me, just type out my notes and send them over and he will get somebody else to write it.” Wolfe stayed up all night typing up his notes: 49 pages’ worth, as a memo, and delivered it to Esquire’s office the morning of the deadline. “About 4:00 p.m. I got a call from Byron Dobell. He told me they were striking out the ‘Dear Byron’ at the top of the memorandum and running the rest of it in the magazine.”
The article, published in November 1963, was a sensation, and was later expanded into Wolfe’s first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. “In my case he had ideas for stories that I didn’t think were worthy,” said Gay Talese, another Dobell protegé, “but when I did them — they were so successful. He was the center of [Esquire].” Dobell retired from editing in 1990 — and became a portrait painter, resurrecting an early art career. He was so successful that his portraits of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and New York Magazine founder Clay Felker are in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. His success as a painter was “not only astonishing to my friends,” he once said, “but totally astonishing to me.” Dobell died January 21 at his Manhattan home, after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease. He was 89.