The Magazine

Dramatic License

The character in ‘The Columnist’ is not the Joseph Alsop I knew.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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As the perpetrator of two historical novels and other fictional pieces that place real people in imaginary situations, I can’t be sanctimonious about what follows. But my history genes are in turmoil over the new play about Joe Alsop, the late Washington columnist, and the commentary the play, called The Columnist, inspires.

Picture of Joseph Alsop, 1963

Joseph Alsop, 1963

John Rous / AP

Joseph W. Alsop (1910-1989), for those stumped by the name, was perhaps the most influential columnist of the 1940s to 1970s generation, and certainly the most assertive and best connected. Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite sister was Alsop’s grandmother, and elite schooling at Groton and Harvard stamped him like a row of chest ribbons and medals. In his later years (when I knew him), he held court at his Georgetown house and kept a gourmet table for select friends and sources. 

When he died in 1989, I examined the rich Alsop papers at the Library of Congress and decided to write a book about him, half history and half personal reminiscence. In truth, I had hung about him like a lesser Boswell. I interviewed Joe’s friends and relatives, and my book emerged in 1995 as Joe Alsop’s Cold War. It focused on his paradoxical double role in the 1950s as a heroic foe of the McCarthyite inquisition and resolute cold warrior.

Alas, while I suspect my book and others may have been drawn upon in the making of the play, playwright David Auburn’s Joe Alsop is a distasteful parody of the man I knew. I can’t entirely disclaim responsibility. As far as I know, I was the first to tell, in print, the disturbing story of his entrapment by the KGB in a Moscow hotel homosexual tryst, which now constitutes the opening scene of the play. (It is as if his distant kinsman Franklin D. Roosevelt were characterized by his paralysis.) Moreover, like so many friends of this gaudy American original, I was amused by his sometimes self-satirizing gruffness: “Here you are,” he barked at me one night at a Washington party when I failed to identify and present some late-arriving Carter administration bigwig—“Here you are, the brains of a great newspaper, and you don’t know a goddamned thing.” 

I laughed and he laughed. But many subjected to such Alsopian blasts did not grasp the tone, took offense, sulked, and joined Joe’s detractors. It was presumably this misimpression that prompted the New York Times reviewer of the play to remark, with wild inaccuracy, on Joe’s “tendency to treat people as less than human.” 

When I was researching my book, I invited a sophisticated mutual friend who had known Joe well to dinner for an interview. As we were leaving the restaurant, he asked: “How are you going to handle the Moscow incident?”

“What incident?” I asked, in innocence. He then told me what little he knew of the KGB entrapment. I was astonished. Even now, the most diligent sleuth would not learn the story from the scanty evidence in the Alsop papers. Joe’s friends and enemies in Washington knew the story, I soon discovered, but, with more restraint than in the blogging age, kept it to themselves. 

I faced a dilemma. I had grown up in a decorous Southern world in which the human foibles and frailties that absorb most of us (sex, divorce, misspent wealth, death, etc.—but chiefly sex) were mentioned in hushed tones, and by mandarin indirection. I was uncomfortable in the role of history gossip. Yet the heroic story of Joe’s Cold War could not be told in the round if the buried Moscow mishap were left out.

Fortunately, Joe’s former wife, the kind and urbane Susan Mary Jay Patten Alsop, serenely provided the missing pieces when I overcame my embarrassment and asked. While Joe, when he proposed marriage, had told her frankly of his sexual orientation, the persistent effort of the KGB hoodlums to blackmail Joe became an ordeal for her as well. For instance, someone had scrawled “Joe Alsop is queer” in big letters on the dusty windshield of a car parked outside their house. When she probed, however, even relatives disclaimed interest. 

The ugliest sequel was that the Russians circulated explicit photos to various Washington recipients, including Joe’s friends and colleagues—even, absurdly, Art Buchwald, with whom Joe had quarreled over Buchwald’s play, Sheep on the Runway, which had featured a pompous and suspiciously named columnist, Joe Mayflower. No recipients of the naughty pictures reacted, other than with disgust at the senders. Perhaps the KGB did not know that Joe had filed a full account of the incident with old CIA friends, as a safeguard against blackmail. But the harassment persisted until the late Richard Helms threatened drastic reaction in kind through back channels. 

There is a journalistic sequel. One evening in Lexington, Virginia, where I was then teaching, Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, one of the great reporters of our day, learned that my book was in galleys and ready for launch. I told Jack that I was about to spring this hidden tale for the first time, and was far from comfortable about it. He asked if he could write the story. Trusting his craftsmanship, taste, and judgment, I “leaked” the relevant chapter to him and he wrote an excellent piece, rounded and nuanced. His story was seen the day before it appeared in Los Angeles in the Washington Post newsroom, and the Post’s press reporter phoned. He demanded a briefing. Otherwise, he said, Jack’s story and mine would get little play in the Post. I explained that I had promised Nelson an exclusive and would stick by it, but the Post the next day ran a stunted fragment of Jack’s piece.

I was embarrassed and angry and so was Katharine Graham, Alsop’s close friend and publisher of the Post. I told her the story of the version that had appeared in her paper. She pronounced the curtailment of the -Nelson story “stupid” and ordered up a lengthy treatment of the tale. It duly appeared under a fitting headline: “The Hawk and the Vultures,” an allusion to Joe’s notoriously hawkish views on Vietnam, and also to those who exploited his sexual embarrassment, notably J. Edgar Hoover.

End of story? Not quite, since today the vulnerable, all too human, brilliant, gifted, and irascible Joe Alsop has become a theater caricature. The excellent actors, including John Lithgow, I do not blame for this infantile distortion; it is ever the way of the world that, as eras fade, the past becomes increasingly susceptible to whimsical and ignorant pastiche. But generations to whom Joe is a stranger, and who haven’t a clue what he was like, need to know what a paltry, walking shadow they see on the stage. 

Joe could be bearish, and occasionally his manners slipped; but he had his values straight. Read, for instance, his centennial appraisal of the character of his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt—it is a sure mirror of his own. And he could be generous. One evening, at a joint birthday celebration with Margaret Jay (his 70th, Margaret’s 40th), he turned to Margaret, then joint ambassador with her husband Peter at the British embassy, and said: “What, after all, do we wish of friends? Intelligence, physical beauty, and a good heart.” 

Perhaps an eccentric idea of physical beauty had betrayed him that far-off night in Moscow. But of his own fundamental benevolence and his good heart there was not the slightest doubt.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.

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