He was a great man and also, just as importantly, a great guy. Funny, gutsy, down-to-earth, aristocratic in bearing but democratic in temperament, a great raconteur and a great listener, possessor of a wonderful booming belly laugh, a devilish grin, and a sailor’s vocabulary, he’s one of the few men in my life I’ve unabashedly loved. The first time he told me, “Fuck you, Tarloff,” it felt like a benediction.
I never met anyone else so comfortable about being himself. Whether because of his aristocratic birth, his good looks, his natural charm, his first-rate education, his World War II Navy service — whatever it was — he clearly relished being Ben Bradlee and seemed confident that you would relish his being Ben Bradlee too. And a lifetime of social and professional successes obviously reinforced that notion. There was no artifice, no calculated self-presentation, no self-consciousness. He behaved the way he wanted to behave without worrying that it might displease anybody. And he rarely set a foot wrong. And of course, eventually, simply by virtue of its belonging to him, that foot was by definition usually set right.
You could say anything to him. No airs, no high horse, no evident amour propre. I once twitted him about Janet Cooke. I don’t remember what I said, but it was out of left field, and he initially appeared startled. That might have been the time he first said, “Fuck you, Tarloff.” But he also laughed. I also once told him that I knew that he was being disingenuous in his book With Kennedy when he denied knowing about JFK’s philandering. Interestingly, instead of insisting on his position, he said, “Oh yeah? How do you know that?” I said, “Because I was a twelve-year-old kid on the other side of the continent with no connection to politics and I knew it. And you were his closest friend in Washington.” He didn’t say “Fuck you, Tarloff” that time, just shrugged and gave me his quizzical, “I guess I’m busted” grin.
He was so at home with himself, so either indifferent to the impression he made or confident that the impression he made was perfectly fine, that he didn’t hesitate to show whatever emotion he was feeling. I was seated next to him at a special screening of Schindler’s List, and in the more melodramatic passages, he sobbed like a baby, unembarrassed by the tears running freely down his face. “Oh noooo,” he’d groan as the next Nazi outrage occurred. The “oh no” was directed at the enormities portrayed on the screen, of course, but also seemed to represent a rebuke to Stephen Spielberg, sitting a row or two away, next to President Clinton, for subjecting Ben to their depiction.
In connection with Ben, it’s worth mentioning a word or two about the indispensable, wonderful Kay Graham. She and Ben had one of the great Platonic love affairs, and Sally Quinn shared in it. They all adored each other, absolutely relished each other’s company (and Sally did an uncanny, pitch-perfect Kay Graham impression). They were like soldiers who had been in combat together; their mutual trust and mutual admiration went far beyond the ordinary. And they were temperamentally better suited than a casual observer might have suspected. Kay’s grande dame persona masked an unexpected and very impressive saltiness. When Ben was angling for the job of Managing Editor at the Post, he told Kay he’d give up his “left one” for the job. That probably clinched the deal. I’m sure it amused the hell out of her. (Once, at a dinner party, she mentioned she was writing her memoirs — the memoirs that eventually won her a Pulitzer Prize — but said she was stumped about what to call the book. I hesitated, aware that I was about to tread on very thin ice, and then screwed up my courage and proposed she invoke John Mitchell and call it “Tit in a Wringer.” A terrifying few seconds of silence, and then she threw her head back and delivered a really satisfying belly-laugh.)
Ben was also enormously principled. When Germaine, owner of of the eponymous restaurant Germaine’s — for several years a trendy pan-Asian restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue — was reported to have uttered an anti-Semitic sentiment, Ben refused to ever set foot in the place again. And held to the pledge, even after Richard Cohen granted her (very conditional) absolution.
Along similar lines, the last time I saw him was a small dinner party at his and Sally’s house a little less than a year ago. He was already in serious decline, but when I sat at the table, he peered at me for a few seconds, broke into his patented beatific grin, and exclaimed, “Bubeleh!” Which was as much a benediction as his “Fuck you, Tarloff.”
God, I’ll miss him. But it was an incredible privilege to know him.
Tags: All Our Yesterdays Ben Bradlee erik Tarloff JFK Kay Graham Sally Quinn Schindler's List Washington Post