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Ben Bradlee, Boston Brahmin, Takes Down a President (The One Who Wasn’t His Friend)

Ben Bradlee, the storied newspaper editor who defied the Washington Establishment by publishing Watergate scoops and the Pentagon Papers, was very much a product of Boston’s own Establishment.

In other words, a Brahmin.

And when it came to the U.S. presidents he knew, Bradlee protected the scion of another wealthy New England family and went after the middle-class striver from California.

Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee

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, 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 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.

His great-great-uncle was Ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate; and his great-uncle was Francis ‘Frank’ Crowninshield, who created Vanity Fair.

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.

Newspapering

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. On that same day he married his first wife, Jean Saltonstall, the daughter of Leverett Saltonstall, then-governor of Massachusetts. 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. 

Bradlee with JFK on a golf outing. Photo courtesy National Archives.

Bradlee divorced and married twice more. His son from his first marriage, Ben Bradlee, Jr., worked for many years at the Boston Globe.

In 1954, he went to work for Newsweek as a reporter. He became friends with then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, who was also, for a while, his next-door neighbor in Georgetown.

“Kennedy’s impact on me as a person, and as a journalist lately come to the glamor of Washington, was so strong — and remains so even today, fifteen years later — that I can still quote verbatim whole chunks of conversations with him,” he wrote in his book, Conversations with Kennedy.

And when Kennedy became president, Bradlee wrote, “it dominated my life.”

Kennedy

He described Kennedy as “graceful, gay, funny, witty, teasing and teasable, forgiving, hungry, incapable of being corny, restless, interesting, interested, exuberant, blunt, profane and loving.”

In 1960, Kennedy ran for president as a Democrat against Republic Richard Nixon in 1960. Bradlee covered them as a reporter. Kennedy found reporters stimulating, he wrote, while Nixon found them annoying.

A Kennedy press conference. Photo courtesy JFK Library, taken by Abbie Rowe.

“Kennedy was instinctively graceful and natural, Nixon was instinctively graceless and programmed,” he wrote.

The president invited Bradlee and his then wife, Tony Pinchot Pittman, to join him and Jackie for small White House parties and weekends at Palm Beach. When Bradlee desperately needed a babysitter so he could take Tony, in labor, to the hospital, the president sent him a Secret Service agent to watch the children.

Bradlee conceded that the press protected Kennedy, “as they protected all candidates” from his excesses of language and his sometimes outspokenly deprecatory characterizations of other politicians.” What he left out, of course, was Kennedy’s many extramarital affairs.

Nixon

Nearly nine years after Kennedy’s assassination, Bradlee had risen to executive editor of the Washington Post. On Saturday, June 17, 1972, two young metropolitan reporters named Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had the assignment to cover a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate apartment complex. The reporters kept digging into odd aspects of the burglary — why did one of the burglars have an address book with the White House phone number in it, for example? Or, Bradlee said,

You had a lot of Cuban or Spanish-speaking guys in masks and rubber gloves, with walkie-talkies, arrested in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at 2 in the morning. What the hell were they in there for? What were they doing?

Richard Nixon

Bradlee backed them up, letting them rely on an anonymous source known as Deep Throat.

“The story was always there if you knew where to find it,” Bradlee said. “There were signals along the way. In four, five days it was a political story with enormously interesting unanswered questions.”

The story ended up with Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency because the White House had covered up his re-election committee’s involvement in the burglary.

The Legend of Ben Bradlee

The Watergate scandal made Ben Bradlee a legend. Called “the quintessential newspaper editor of his era,” the Post won 18 Pulitzer Prizes with Bradlee at the helm, including one for Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein wrote a best-seller, All the President’s Men, which featured Bradlee as a charming but profane aristocrat. The film of the same name was a smash hit, with Jason Robards. Jr., playing Bradlee.

Bradlee retired from the Post as executive editor in 1991.. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bradlee suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his later years. He died on Oct. 21, 2014 at his home in Washington, D.C.


This story was updated in 2021.

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