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Ben Bradlee

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Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee
Bradlee in November 2010f
Born Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee
(1921-08-26)August 26, 1921
Boston, Massachusetts
Died October 21, 2014(2014-10-21) (aged 93)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Residence Laird-Dunlop House, Washington, D.C.
Nationality American
Education Dexter School, St. Marks School
Alma mater Harvard College
Occupation Newspaper editor
Employer The Washington Post
Known for Role in exposing the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal
Spouse(s) Jean Saltonstall (m. 1942; divorced)
Antoinette Pinchot (m. 1957; divorced)
Sally Quinn (m. 1978–2014; his death)
Children Ben Jr., Dominic (Dino), Marina, Quinn

Benjamin Crowninshield "Ben" Bradlee (August 26, 1921 – October 21, 2014) was executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991.[1] He became a national figure during the presidency of Richard Nixon, when he challenged the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and oversaw the publication of Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's stories documenting the Watergate scandal. At his death he held the title of vice president at-large of the Post.

He was also an advocate for education and the study of history,[1] including working for years as an active trustee on the boards of several major educational, historical, and archeological research institutions.[1]


  • Early life, education, and ancestry 1
  • World War II 2
  • Post-World War II 3
  • Government work 4
  • The Washington Post 5
  • Other work 6
  • Later life and death 7
  • Volunteer service 8
  • In popular culture 9
  • Books 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12
  • External links 13

Early life, education, and ancestry

A member of the Boston Brahmin Crowninshield family, Bradlee was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 26, 1921. His father was Frederick Josiah Bradlee, Jr. (1892–1970), a direct descendant of Nathan Bradley—the first American Bradley, born in the colony of Massachusetts in 1631. His mother, Josephine de Gersdorff (1896–1975), was awarded the French Legion of Honour for starting an orphanage that sheltered children from Nazi Germany during World War II.[2] Bradlee's maternal grandfather, Carl August de Gersdorff (1865–1944), the son of a German immigrant,[3] was a wealthy New York lawyer. Bradlee's maternal grandmother was Helen Suzette Crowninshield (1868–1941), daughter of artist Frederic Crowninshield (1845–1918), another member of the Crowninshield family.[4] His great-great-uncle was American lawyer and ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate, and his great uncle was Francis "Frank" Welch Crowninshield, the creator and editor of Vanity Fair, and a roommate of Condé Nast. He had a brother named Frederick Bradlee (1919-2003), a writer and Broadway stage actor.[5][6]

Josephine de Gersdorff, Bradlee's mother, was a direct descendant of Heinrich XXIX, Count of Reuss-Ebersdorf, who was a lineal descendant of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, King John of Denmark, King Casimir IV of Poland, King John II of France, Bonne of Bohemia and John V, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. Bradlee's maternal great grandfather was Dr. Ernst Bruno von Gersdorff, who was a third cousin of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom through Heinrich XXIX.[7][8]

Bradlee, the second of three children, grew up in a wealthy family with domestic staff.[9] With his brother, Freddy, and sister, Constance, he learned French, took piano lessons, and went to the symphony and the opera.[10] The stock market crash of 1929 decimated the family's wealth however. During the Great Depression, Bradlee's father worked odd jobs to support his family, including keeping the books for various clubs and institutions and supervising the janitors at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.[10]

Bradlee attended Dexter School before finishing at St. Mark's School, where he played varsity baseball.[9] While attending St. Mark's, he contracted polio.[9][10] He exercised regularly at home and developed strong arms and chest. He was able to fight off the effects of polio and could walk without limping.[9][10] Thereafter he attended Harvard College, where he was a Greek–English major and joined the Naval ROTC.[10]

World War II

Bradlee received his naval commission two hours after graduating in 1942, joined the Office of Naval Intelligence, and worked as a communications officer in the Pacific during World War II. His duties included handling classified and coded cables, serving primarily on the destroyer USS Philip fighting off the shore of Guam and arriving at Guadalcanal with the Second Fleet. Bradlee's main battles were Vella Lavella, Saipan, Tinian, and Bougainville. He also fought in the biggest naval battle ever fought, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines Campaign, in the Borneo Campaign, and made every landing in the Solomon Islands campaign.[11]

Bradlee's first marriage was to Jean Saltonstall, who also came from a wealthy and prominent Boston Brahmin family.[12] They married on August 8, 1942,[10] and had one son, Ben Bradlee Jr.,[13] who became a deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe.[14]

Post-World War II

After the war, in 1946, Bradlee became a reporter at the New Hampshire Sunday News, a venture he helped launch. After he sold the paper, in 1948 he started working for The Washington Post as a reporter.[10] He got to know associate publisher Philip Graham, who was the son-in-law of the publisher, Eugene Meyer. On November 1, 1950, Bradlee was alighting from a streetcar in front of the White House just as two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to shoot their way into Blair House in an attempt to kill President Harry S. Truman.[15] In 1951 Graham helped Bradlee become assistant press attaché in the American embassy in Paris, France.[10]

Government work

In 1952 Bradlee joined the staff of the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), the embassy's propaganda unit. USIE produced films, magazines, research, speeches, and news items for use by the CIA throughout Europe. USIE (later known as USIA) also controlled the Voice of America, a means of disseminating pro-American "cultural information" worldwide. While at the USIE, according to a Justice Department memo from an assistant U.S. attorney in the Rosenberg Trial, Bradlee was helping the CIA manage European propaganda regarding the spying conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953.[16]

Bradlee was officially employed by USIE until 1953, and he began working for Newsweek in 1954.[10] While based in France, Bradlee divorced his first wife and married Antoinette Pinchot in 1957.[10] At the time of the marriage, Antoinette's sister, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was married to Cord Meyer,[17] a key figure in Operation Mockingbird,[18] a CIA program to influence the media. Antoinette Bradlee was also a close friend of Cicely d'Autremont, who was married to James Jesus Angleton. Ben Bradlee became friends with Angleton.[17][18]

In 1957, while working as a reporter for Newsweek, Bradlee created controversy when he interviewed members of the FLN. They were Algerian guerrillas who were in rebellion against the French government at the time. According to Deborah Davis, author of Katharine the Great about Katharine Graham, this had all the "earmarks of an intelligence operation". As a result of these interviews, Bradlee was forced to leave France.[18]

The Washington Post

As a reporter in the 1950s, Bradlee became close friends with then-senator John F. Kennedy, who had graduated from Harvard[19] two years before Bradlee, and lived nearby. Bradlee's wife at the time, Jean Saltonstall, was related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy through her father's sister Rosamund who married Charles Auchincloss.[20] In 1960 Bradlee toured with both Kennedy and Richard Nixon in their presidential campaigns. He later wrote a book, Conversations With Kennedy (W.W. Norton, 1975), recounting their relationship during those years. Bradlee was, at this point, Washington Bureau chief for Newsweek, a position from which he helped negotiate the sale of the magazine to The Washington Post holding company. Bradlee maintained that position until being promoted to managing editor at the Post in 1965. He became executive editor in 1968.

After Bradlee and Pinchot divorced, Bradlee married fellow journalist DiGeorge syndrome and Shprintzen syndrome (named after Dr. Robert Shprintzen, who first identified the disorder in 1978 and who also diagnosed Quinn Bradlee).

Bradlee retired as the executive editor of The Washington Post in September 1991 but continued to serve as vice president at large until his death.[10] He was succeeded as executive editor at the Post by Leonard Downie Jr., whom Bradlee had appointed as managing editor seven years earlier.

Under Bradlee's leadership, The Washington Post took on major challenges during the Nixon administration. In 1971 The New York Times and the Post successfully challenged the government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers.[18] One year later, Bradlee backed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they probed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.[18] According to Bradlee:

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? The follow-up story was based primarily on their arraignment in court, and it was based on information given our police reporter, Al Lewis, by the cops, showing them an address book that one of the burglars had in his pocket, and in the address book was the name 'Hunt,' H-u-n-t, and the phone number was the White House phone number, which Al Lewis and every reporter worth his salt knew. And when, the next day, Woodward—this is probably Sunday or maybe Monday, because the burglary was Saturday morning early—called the number and asked to speak to Mr. Hunt, and the operator said, 'Well, he's not here now; he's over at' such-and-such a place, gave him another number, and Woodward called him up, and Hunt answered the phone, and Woodward said, 'We want to know why your name was in the address book of the Watergate burglars.' And there is this long, deathly hush, and Hunt said, 'Oh my God!' and hung up. So you had the White House. You have Hunt saying 'Oh my God!' At a later arraignment, one of the guys whispered to a judge. The judge said, 'What do you do?' and Woodward overheard the words 'CIA.' So if your interest isn't whetted by this time, you're not a journalist.[21]

Ensuing investigations of suspected cover-ups led inexorably to congressional committees, conflicting testimonies, and ultimately to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. For decades, Bradlee was one of only four publicly known people who knew the true identity of press informant Deep Throat, the other three being Woodward, Bernstein, and Deep Throat himself, who later revealed himself to be Nixon's FBI associate director Mark Felt.[22]

In 1981 Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for "Jimmy's World", a profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict. Cooke's article turned out to be fiction: there was no such addict.[10] As executive editor, Bradlee was roundly criticized in many circles for failing to ensure the article's accuracy. After questions about the story's veracity arose, Bradlee (along with publisher Donald Graham) ordered a "full disclosure" investigation to ascertain the truth.[23] Bradlee personally apologized to Mayor Marion Barry[24] and the chief of police of Washington, D.C., for the Post's fictitious article. Cooke, meanwhile, was forced to resign and relinquish the Pulitzer.

Other work

Bradlee published an autobiography in 1995, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. He had an acting role in Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Prior to receiving the honorary degree, he taught occasional journalism courses at Georgetown.

In 1991 he was persuaded by then–governor of Maryland William Donald Schaefer to accept the chairmanship of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission and continued in that position through 2003. He also served for many years as a member of the board of trustees at St. Mary's College of Maryland,[1] and endowed the Benjamin C. Bradlee Annual Lecture in Journalism there. He continued to serve as vice chairman of the school's board of trustees.[26]

In 1991, Bradlee delivered the Theodore H. White lecture[27] at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His message: Lying in Washington, whether in the White House or the Congress, is wrong, immoral, tearing at the fiber of our national instincts and institutions — and must stop. He said, "Lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years, that we've all become immunized to it." He went on to suggest that the deceit was degrading the respect for the truth.

In the fall of 2005, Jim Lehrer conducted six hours of interviews with Bradlee on a variety of topics, from the responsibilities of the press to Watergate to the Valerie Plame affair. The interviews were edited for an hour-long documentary, Free Speech: Jim Lehrer and Ben Bradlee, which premiered on PBS on June 19, 2006.

Later life and death

At The Washington Post, Bradlee carried the title vice president at large. He and Quinn lived at the Porto Bello, their home in Drayden, Maryland.[28]

Bradlee received the French Legion of Honor, the highest award given by the French government, at a ceremony in 2007 in Paris.[2]

Bradlee was named as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on August 8, 2013,[29] and was presented the medal at a White House ceremony on November 20, 2013.

In late September 2014, Bradlee entered hospice care due to declining health as a result of Alzheimer's disease.[30] He died of natural causes on October 21, 2014, at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 93.[9][10] His funeral was held at the Washington National Cathedral on October 29. He was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. afterwards.

Volunteer service

For many years Bradlee served on the board of trustees of St. Mary's College of Maryland.[1] He was very active on the board and also played key roles in the establishment of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the college, where he also served on the advisory board.

He is also known for his work on the board of trustees of the Maryland colony.

In popular culture

Actor Jason Robards portrayed Bradlee in the film All the President's Men, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. G. D. Spradlin played the role of Bradlee in Dick, a spoof of Watergate. Henderson Forsythe played Bradlee in the romantic comedy Chances Are.


  • Bradlee, Ben. Conversations With Kennedy (W W Norton & Co Inc, November 1, 1984) ISBN 978-0-393-30189-2
  • Bradlee, Ben. A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (Simon & Schuster, October, 1995) ISBN 978-0-684-80894-9

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e "Ben Bradlee—Career Timeline". The Investigating Power project.  
  2. ^ a b "Honors". The Washington Post. December 2, 2007. Retrieved October 22, 2014. 
  3. ^ Patrick (July 7, 2006). "The Ultimate Paper Trail". FishbowlDC. Archived from the original on October 23, 2014. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  4. ^ Welch, Charles Alfred. Welch Geneaology. pp. 35–36. 
  5. ^ "Frederic Bradlee -- Actor and Writer, 84".  
  6. ^ Frederick Bradlee; Internet Broadway Database accessed September 5, 2015
  7. ^ Roberts, Gary Boyd. "Surprising Connections #6 and 7: Boston Cousins of Queen Victoria and Yankee Anecestors of Mrs. Thomas Philip "Tip" O'Neill Jr.". New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845. Retrieved May 23, 2012. 
  8. ^ Roberts, Gary Boyd (2008). The Royal Descendants of 600 Immigrants to the American Colonies or the United States. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company. p. 910.  
  9. ^ a b c d e Kaiser, Robert G. (October 21, 2014). "Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post editor, dies at 93". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Berger, Marilyn (October 21, 2014). "Ben Bradlee, Editor Who Directed Watergate Coverage, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  11. ^ Bradlee, Benjamin C. (n.d.). "Answering the Call: Benjamin C. Bradlee". Archived from the original on October 22, 2014. Retrieved October 25, 2014. 
  12. ^ Karr, Ronald (2007). Weir, Robert, ed. Class in America: An Encyclopedia [3 volumes]: An Encyclopedia Vol 3. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 90.  
  13. ^ Byers, Dylan; Gold, Hadas (October 21, 2014). "Ben Bradlee dies". Politico. Archived from the original on October 22, 2014. Retrieved October 24, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Ben Bradlee Jr.". The Boston Globe. 2004. Archived from the original on November 4, 2013. Retrieved October 24, 2014. 
  15. ^ Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr., American Gunfight: The Plot To Kill Harry Truman - And The Shoot-Out That Stopped It, Simon & Schuster (2005), ISBN 0-7432-6068-6.
  16. ^ Mr. Maran (December 13, 1952). "Office Memorandum". United States Government. Retrieved October 25, 2014. 
  17. ^ a b "The Bizarre Tale of Ben Bradlee, JFK, and the Master Spy". Daily Beast. Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  18. ^ a b c d e Reed, Christopher (October 21, 2014). "Ben Bradlee obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on October 22, 2014. Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  19. ^ Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. "John F. Kennedy graduates from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, June 1940.". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  20. ^ Alumni Horae (1991). "Obituary:Richard Saltonstall Auchinchloss". Ohrstrom Library Digital Archive. Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  21. ^ "Biography and Video Interview of Ben Bradlee at Academy of Achievement". Retrieved May 24, 2012. 
  22. ^ Helton, John; Leopold, Todd (October 22, 2014). "Washington Post's Ben Bradlee dies". CNN. Archived from the original on October 25, 2014. Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  23. ^ "Remembering Ben Bradlee: Legendary newspaperman and tenacious leader". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  24. ^ "Legendary Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, of Watergate Fame, Dies". Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  25. ^ James, Alayna. (2013, February 17).Vance Series Adds to its Tradition of Distinguished Guest Speakers. New Britain Herald. Retrieved on 2013-5-29.
  26. ^ St. Mary's College of Maryland Board of Trustees from the college's website
  27. ^ "Theodore H. White lecture" (PDF). 
  28. ^ Brown, Ben (n.d.). "Porto Bello Restored". Southern Accents. Archived from the original on March 4, 2009. Retrieved March 28, 2011. 
  29. ^ "President Obama Names Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients". Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. August 8, 2013. Retrieved August 8, 2013. 
  30. ^ Diamond, Jeremy (September 29, 2014). "Washington Post's Ben Bradlee in hospice care". CNN. Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved October 24, 2014. 

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