The Magazine

At Least He Isn't a Traitor to His Class

The all-too-familiar story of W. Kendall Myers.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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To the amateur of treason, there is something wonderfully familiar about the Kendall Myers saga--and it has nothing to do with his ideas or his teaching. Rather, it is the class markers--markers that make a spy-hunter of the old school feel like it's the first day of grouse season. Myers's patrician upbringing and manners disarmed suspicion. But they also injured him in a way that could only be healed by personal attachment to the ill-mannered man who turned Cuba into a charnel house.

A decade ago, Edward Luttwak declared that "snobs made better spies." In America, we have our own set of patrician disloyalists and admirers of mass murder. The Communist party, famous in the 1930s and 1940s for having the best-looking girls, commanded the enthusiasm of some very well-tailored men and chic women: Frederick Vanderbilt Field of Hotchkiss and Harvard, Corliss Lamont (Exeter and Harvard), Ralph Ingersoll (Hotchkiss and Yale), Alger Hiss (Hopkins and Harvard Law), Michael Whitney Straight of Dartington Hall and Cambridge (and son of Dorothy Payne Whitney), Martha Dodd (Vassar), Donald Ogden -Stewart (Yale and the Algonquin Round Table), Molly Day Thacher of Vassar (Mrs. Elia Kazan and the daughter of a Yale president). Et in Chicagoland ego: Ernest Hemingway and Bill Ayers.

To these gentlemen and ladies, Myers is about as close as Gatsby gazing over from West Egg at the Buchanans in East Egg. Although the Post's Sheridan announced on NPR that he was a "man from one of Washington's most prestigious and storied families, a prep school background, elite universities," she neglected the crucial point. Myers's accomplishments were deeply mediocre measured against what his family and he himself must have expected.

On his mother's side, he was the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. His grandmother married into the Grosvenor-Hubbard dynasty, which organized Bell Telephone and founded the National Geographic Society (and still chairs its board). Myers's mother married a soon to be successful Washington cardiologist, Walter Kendall Myers (Princeton and Johns Hopkins). Until 2009, journalists could always get a paragraph out of the Bush dynasty and their Skull & Bones memberships. Myers's great-uncle Alphonso Taft, father of Willam Howard, founded Bones.

And Kendall himself? Like Henry Adams in his Autobiography, "no child, born in the year, held better cards than he. He could not refuse to play his excellent hand." But something went badly wrong. Instead of a first-rate New England or Delmarva prep school, Myers attended the third-tier Mercersburg Academy in his father's Pennsylvania hometown. He went to an Ivy League college, but it was Brown (don't scream, Gen-Xers, long before you were born or attended Brown or desperately wanted to or pretended that you had, it was, in the 1950s and 1960s, known as the "armpit of the Ivy League").

There were also emotional issues: After his father's death in 1964, Myers stopped being Walter Jr. and styled himself as W. Kendall. His Johns Hopkins doctorate earned him an assistant professorship at SAIS from 1972 to 1979, but for some reason--probably having to do with the eternally unpublished dissertation (you can find it cited in scholarly books for decades as "the yet-unpublished writings of Kendall Myers")--he did not discern tenure in his future. According to the Post's narrative, based on the accounts of his friends, "his life was rocked by tragedy and difficulties" in the mid-1970s. In 1975, "Myers was driving a car that slammed into a 16-year-old girl in Northwest Washington, near his childhood home, killing her. Myers felt terrible about the crash." In 1977 he divorced his first wife, Maureen Walsh. On the basis of her name alone, it seems likely she had not fit well in the Grosvenor world. Myers's second wife, a South Dakota divorcée called Gwendolyn Steingraber Trebilcock would have been just as unwelcome at Wildacres, the Grosvenor estate near Bethesda.

Myers went to Cuba in 1978 at the invitation of the Cuban mission to the U.N., according to the Post. "[T]he son of privilege fell in love with the communist revolution." But like many chic radicals, Myers must have felt inwardly that he was not a legitimate son of privilege. His academic failure--the dissertation only in the beginning of its long career of nonpublication, the disappointing academic career, his inability to play up and play the game--made him ready for conversion.

In a diary entry made during his Cuban idyll in 1978, we can see this child of privilege projecting his sense of self-disappointment onto his country. The robber barons disappoint him--but so do their victims: