The Magazine

A Celebrated Editor

The curious case of Benjamin Bradlee

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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I had been aware of certain Bradlee shortcomings well before I started working at the Post, because during my year at Columbia’s graduate school of journalism I had worked part-time for French television, and in that latter capacity had interviewed Bradlee for a documentary. Naturally, after meeting him—he was already becoming legendary for his daring, as was the Post—I peppered him with letters begging for employment, and each one of these pleas was answered in pretty vague terms until the end of the response, at which point the great editor would always ask, pointedly: When is the program with my interview airing in France? And when can I see the documentary?

He was, in other words, a lot vainer than other famous journalists I had met (the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, interviewed for the same show, never sent me those queries), maybe a lot more superficial, and underneath everything—the patrician air, the WASPish bearing that Himmelman pants about quite embarrassingly and at length—fairly insecure. Bradlee, I sensed, needed to see himself on television.

What took me aback, what really struck me most forcefully on finally arriving at the Post a few years later, was Bradlee’s calculated and dangerous distance from most things and most people in the newsroom, with the notable exception of the Style writer Sally Quinn who, by then, was his acknowledged girlfriend (she had previously been his unacknowledged girlfriend). You could see Bradlee—the door to his office was made of glass—but unless you worked in the Style section, you didn’t get to see him up close. So I can say for a certainty that, in my five years there, the only time I knew Bradlee to take a stance or hold a strong opinion on anything I or most people wrote—anything at all—was when I interviewed a transsexual former FBI agent. 

“How could you have allowed me to shake hands with her?” Bradlee asked, his voice rising. He wasn’t kidding. He was mad. I had interviewed the transsexual at the Madison Hotel’s restaurant, where Bradlee also happened to be eating. But once back at the Post, when told my subject’s history, the editor stared at the hand that had shaken hers with unfeigned horror. Then he set about editing my copy, and all words pertaining to details of the gender change were as cleanly excised as the ex-agent’s sexual organ. 

Once upon a time, as Woodward recalls in the book, Bradlee was famous for coming up to his favorite reporter, absorbing every last detail “in two minutes,” and then saying, “Where is this coming from? How sure are you?”—as though, Woodward adds, “what you’re doing is blessed.”

Well, that was then.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, wasn’t the only one struck by the impropriety of his visits to the Style section; but aside from Howard Simons—the managing editor who made no secret of his loathing for Brad-
lee and Quinn both, a loathing that unsettled everyone—Graham was the only one who dared voice her concerns. For the rest, almost all editors fell into line. For years and years, for hours and days on end, Quinn’s every sentence would be parsed, pored over by an array of editors, scrubbing, polishing, buffing her words into whatever they thought Ben might like to read during his drop-bys, or over breakfast.

(Some of this extraordinary treatment faded when Shelby Coffey became Style editor in 1976. So much so, in fact, that Sally Quinn invited me to lunch—a unique experience in our relationship—to beg me to join her in her fierce campaign to unload Coffey. I demurred, but did ask, “What does Ben think of what you’re doing?” She swallowed a tranquilizer before replying: “He told me if I don’t like Shelby I should just quit.”)

Himmelman writes about none of this, for two simple reasons. One, he doesn’t appear to have interviewed, likely by choice, anyone willing to discuss much that would detract from the purity of the Bradlee legend. And two, he can’t bring himself, even when the facts indicate this might be appropriate, to criticize the subjects of his ardor. I imagine that’s what happens when you have a biographer who writes of his subject: “He’s bigger than you are, than everyone is.” And: “I would be content if the picture I have of him grinning and holding my newborn daughter is the only thing that I keep with me for my time spent working on this book.”