Ben Bradlee, the storied newspaper editor who defied the Washington Establishment by publishing Watergate scoops and the Pentagon Papers, is very much a product of Boston’s own Establishment.
In other words, he’s a Brahmin.
The ‘C’ in Benjamin C. Bradlee stands for Crowninshield – on both his mother’s and father’s side. Bradlee is a corruption of Bradley, as in Nathan Bradley, who was born in the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1631.
According to New Yorker editor David Remnick, who worked for Bradlee:
Bradlee’s family was a concoction of seventeenth-century Yankees and semi-comic Vanity Fair-like European royalty. Bradlee’s mother, Josephine deGersdorff, was at the end of a long line of European kings, queens, and counts. And with his gray hair slicked back, his eyes actually twinkling, and his chest fairly bursting from a Turnbull & Asser shirt, Bradlee, too, had the self-confident carriage of an emperor.
A King and a Queen
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born Aug. 26, 1921, in Stockbridge, Mass., and grew up in Boston. His mother, Josephine de Gersdorff, was the granddaughter of artist Frederic Crowninshield. She was a direct descendant of King John II of France and a distant cousin of Queen Victoria.
Bradlee’s father, Frederick Bradlee, was a football star at Harvard who went into investment banking. The Great Depression put an end to his life of wealth and ease. Ben Bradlee wrote of his father, nicknamed Beebo, or B:
After football, ‘B’ Bradlee rose quickly like all Brahmin athletes of that era from bank runner, to broker, then vice president of the Boston branch of an investment house called Bank America Blair Company. And then the fall. One day a Golden Boy. Next day, the Depression, and my old man was on the road trying to sell a commercial deodorant and molybdenum mining stock for companies founded and financed by some of his rich pals.
Nonetheless, Ben Bradlee had a typical Brahmin education: the Dexter School, then St. Mark’s, then Harvard. He finished college in three years because of World War II, and received his naval commission two hours after graduating. He married his first wife, Jean Saltonstall, in 1942. Bradlee fought in 13 naval battles during World War II.
After the war, he became a reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News. Two years later, he joined the staff of the Washington Post, and the rest is history.
Today Ben Bradlee is living with his third wife, Sally Quinn, in Washington, D.C., and in Drayden, Md.