Arthur Schlesinger, Hip to History

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2000

There is something time- warpadelic about the man, something positively freeze-frame. Dapper in gray flannel suit, white-collared blue shirt and black-and-yellow bow tie, he is so wonderfully retro.

Glancing at the slight fish-and-fowl offerings on the menu at the Jefferson Hotel recently, he observes, "This is a ladies' club menu! Waiter! I'd like some meat!"

Cue Austin Powers flute music.

He orders a Bombay martini, steak and french fries.

You gotta love this guy.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: International Man of History!

Yeah, baby!

He listens to classic jazz and watches movies from the 1930s on TV. He says pro baseball died the day the Braves moved out of Boston. He's never sat through a whole pro football game. "It's very hard to find bow ties nowadays," he says.

World-class historian, engaging raconteur, former Ivy League professor, presidential pal (he even served a stint with the spymasters of World War II's Office of Strategic Services!), Schlesinger is a fixed point in a swirling world. At 83, he is in the middle of writing a two-part autobiography. "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950" has just been published.

The son of a renowned Harvard historian, Schlesinger has led a charmed existence. We only get a hint of it in Volume 1. Part 2, "Unfinished Business, 1950-2000," should be even more intriguing.

After all, the man has had a profound effect on the writing of American history. His book "The Age of Jackson," written when Schlesinger was just 28, won the Pulitzer Prize. He penned three volumes on Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1961 he became special assistant to John F. Kennedy and in 1966 won another Pulitzer for "A Thousand Days," his account of the Kennedy presidency (some historians believe he got a little too close to JFK to be objective). He also wrote a biography of Robert Kennedy. He taught at Harvard from 1947 to 1961 and at City University of New York from 1967 until 1995.

"He has developed a number of ideological positions that have had an impact on the field," says University of North Carolina historian William Leuchtenburg. "Each one has been controversial. But each one has also created an intellectual ferment."

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