From there, young Joe crafted a high-flying journalistic career that brought him national attention over four tumultuous decades, with time out for World War II adventures that included capture by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and involvement in the intense bureaucratic intrigue between those mutually antagonistic generals, Joseph Stilwell and Claire Chennault.
By age 27, Joe was a widely read syndicated columnist and regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, then the country’s great American magazine with some 3 million subscribers. He burnished his image by losing 65 pounds in a doctor-supervised health regimen at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He edified and terrorized official Washington while becoming famous as one of the city’s most powerful newsmen.
But his career was also poignant, with a touch of human tragedy in his later years as personality flaws intensified to undercut his professional standing — even as they also left his personal life in tatters. To many he became, as economist John Kenneth Galbraith maliciously put it, “a figure of fun.” What’s more, as a homosexual at a time when gays were expected to remain in the closet, he lived a dual life that included a secret so powerful that it would have instantly destroyed his career had it become publicly known, which it almost did.
Now the well-known New York playwright David Auburn has bundled elements of Joe’s life into a Broadway play that captures the sad decline of this commanding figure as he enters the twilight of his vocation. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, “The Columnist” opened Wednesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Manhattan.
The biographer and the dramatist have different functions in life, and the latter’s literary liberties may sometimes leave a sensation of discordance in the former. As a Joseph Alsop biographer, I found myself a bit disconcerted by Auburn’s willingness to alter the timeline of Joe’s life for dramatic purposes or his “imagined conjecture,” as he puts it, in creating conversations that never took place between people who had never met. As Auburn told theatergoers during a question-and-answer session after a preview, “No one should mistake this for a documentary.”
But, while the play may not be (and probably could not be) entirely accurate, it is entirely truthful in its portrayal of the tangled, contradictory, sometimes tender, often bellicose nature of this complex man who held people in thrall with his wit, flair, unpredictability and force of personality. It is all captured with dramatic elan by award-winning actor John Lithgow, who told me: “I wanted to be him, to fall in love with him, to understand him and the contradictions in his nature.”