His hand moved across the paper, copying Greek poetry from a thick anthology. Then, abruptly, mid-sentence, it stopped. He slipped the paper inside the book and set it aside. His room was on the 16th floor of the towering Bethesda Naval Hospital. It was 2 a.m. Sunday, 50 years ago. Exactly 50 years ago yesterday. His name was James Vincent Forrestal.
Forrestal was an American hero during America's most heroic era. Tough and combative, small but dashing, he combined the ascending genius of American capitalism with the can-do drive of a New Deal bureaucrat. The result, when results mattered most, was that he transformed a ramshackle Navy into the most powerful armada the world had ever seen. He'd been instrumental in winning a war, The War, and was among the first to clearly perceive the dark shape of its aftermath and the looming Cold War with Soviet Russia. His life had been as glamorous as it was successful, but he had attracted powerful and bitter enemies, not the least of which, perhaps, was his own tortured soul.
For one who had lived in great wealth, his hospital room was simply furnished -- a narrow bed, a straight-back chair, an Oriental carpet on the dark tile floor, a rotating fan on the wall by a closed widow. Closed and locked. Three windows in the room, all securely locked.
He went across the corridor to a small lablike kitchen, with locked filing draws, white tile walls, stainless steel and glass cabinets. There, above a radiator, an open window. He pulled out a screen, stepped onto the sill, leaped into the void.
Later, after they found him, broken, 13 floors below on a low roof, they searched his room for clues to his last moments. There was the book, "An Anthology of World Poetry," still open to an excerpt from Sophocles' "Ajax," still containing the paper on which he'd copied the poet's words:
" `Woe, woe!' will be the cry -- No quiet murmur like the tremulous wail Of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale," he'd begun, stopping short, in mid-word. "Night -- " he wrote. Then jumped out a window.
Most Likely to Succeed
Forrestal's life was pure Jazz Age, the kind of man who peopled F. Scott Fitzgerald's fiction. From humble beginnings he rose to become a New York millionaire and then Washington power broker. Money, power, glamour, treachery, sex and an untimely death were the themes.
He was born in upstate Matteawan, N.Y., not far from FDR's Hyde Park, in 1892. His family was lower middle class, Irish and strict. The young Forrestal was known as a serious student and a hard worker. The editor of the Matteawan Journal, where Forrestal worked after high school, noted he was "far beyond range of his age level."
He applied to Princeton, just one more needy, bright student from Nowheresville reaching for the gold ring, and was turned down. But he kept at it, got accepted, found a way to afford the Ivy League. He quickly established himself, becoming editor of the Daily Princetonian, member of Senior Council, and voted "Most Likely to Succeed."
In 1915, Forrestal's senior year, he abruptly withdrew just before graduation. This became one of the unplumbed mysteries of Forrestal's life. He never spoke of it. The era was one that allowed certain anomalous events in the private lives of public servants to remain private. Eight-tenths of a century later, Princeton has no records that can shed light. His biographers can only speculate.
What is clear is that his abrupt departure was not a happy one. He did not return home, and appears to have permanently severed ties with his parents. He moved to Newark and found a job as a clerk/handyman, then spent 15 months working well below the station of his Princeton classmates, before he landed a position with William A. Read and Co., a New York investment banking firm that later became Dillon, Read and Co.
Though he began modestly, selling bonds in Upstate New York, he charged back on track. His ascension in the financial world was interrupted by World War I. He earned his wings as a naval aviator and a commission before being posted to Washington for the duration when his superior officer refused to part with such an able administrator.
Back at Read and Co., he made partner at 31, ahead of many of his colleagues. Flush and on the rise, he shared an apartment on Washington Square and fell in with a high-living group that became known as the "Four Horsemen." Forrestal's new life featured weekend parties with debutantes and the moneyed at Oyster Bay, suits made in London, and trips to the opera accompanied by various eligible, connected women.
In 1926, at 34, Forrestal married Josephine Ogden at a civil ceremony without friends or family present. The two had begun an affair a year earlier after a cocktail party on Paris's Left Bank. Jo, as she was known, was willful and independent, and a few years before had had a monthly column in Vogue. Jo's portrait was taken by Cecil Beaton, one of the premier photographers of the day. Tall and slender, she decked herself out in furs and jewels, frequented speak-easies and was invited to parties where she met the likes of George Gershwin and P.G. Wodehouse.
From their first apartment on Washington Square, the couple bought a 30-acre estate on the fashionable north shore of Long Island, where they continued their torrid social careers. Forrestal accompanied eligible young women to "21," and his wife held court at the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel, where she began to drink too much.
Forrestal's life embodied much of what was thought to be bold in a bold era. He is almost certainly the model for Alfred Eaton, the protagonist in John O'Hara's novel "From the Terrace," who goes to Princeton, then the Navy in World War I, then banking, finally becoming assistant secretary of the Navy in World War II and a "tough-minded civilian warrior" indifferent to personal relationships. One critic wrote of Eaton: "His frenetic drive to the top carries with it the seeds of its own destruction."
All the partying did not slow Forrestal's rise. By 1932 it was estimated he was worth $5 million, which today would be roughly the equivalent of $300 million. In 1933 Forrestal had built at the corner of 49th Street and Beekman Place a five-story Georgian-style house with a brick library and circular staircase. One night, returning home on her own from the Plaza, Jo was robbed at gunpoint of $50,000 worth of jewelry while her husband slept upstairs. The circumstances of the crime were reported in the New York Times.
The couple had two children, Michael in 1927 and Peter in 1930. By most accounts, James and Jo were too self-absorbed to be good parents. According to the 1963 biography "James Forrestal: A Study of Personality, Politics and Policy," by Arnold A. Rogow, Forrestal understood this shortcoming, and kept a black notebook inscribed with a Siamese poem describing American families as short on love, too tired, too preoccupied to engage emotionally.
Forrestal was not a tall man, but tough-looking, gritty and manly in the hard-boiled style. At Princeton he had taken up boxing and he continued to box at the New York Athletic Club while on Wall Street, twice breaking his nose.
"He looked like Jack Dempsey, like a prizefighter," says James Symington, a Washington lawyer and former congressman who was the son of Forrestal's protege-turned-political-rival Stuart Symington. "He was terse, tough, but also cordial and nice to young people."
Paul Nitze, a Wall Street colleague of Forrestal, recalls meeting him as a young man in 1929. Nitze, now 92, had recently become special assistant to Clarence Dillon of Dillon, Read. He was impressed with Forrestal: "He was full of confidence, the world was his. He was highly regarded, and everyone liked him. He had many friends on Wall Street."
But Forrestal's prominence and success also attracted the attention of a 1933 congressional panel investigating the stock exchange. Forrestal was called to appear before the investigators to answer questions about his creation of a company in 1929 into which he put $896,000 of tax-sheltered income. Though the insinuation was clear -- that he may have been attempting to evade tax obligations -- nothing came of it.
From all accounts Forrestal handled the questions well, but according to biographer Douglas Brinkley, the experience affected him for weeks afterward, weakening his confidence and causing him to scratch at psoriasis scabs on his neck till he drew blood.
In 1940, after 20 years on Wall Street, Forrestal worked connections and was offered a job in Washington, eventually as undersecretary of the Navy. Before making up his mind, Forrestal sought counsel from the younger Nitze, Nitze recalls.
"I asked him, `Do you think you'd be any good at it?' He said `I don't know.' I asked, `Well, what do you have to lose, what would you do if it didn't work out?' He answered that he would come back to Dillon, Read. So I said, `Well, won't you regret it if you don't give it a try?'
" `Damn you,' he said to me, smiling. `I'll do it. But on one condition: that you come with me.' `Is that legal?' I asked. `Who cares?' he replied.' "
Nitze, then 33, became Forrestal's assistant.
The frantic pace of the war effort -- retooling a country that had enormous potential but was woefully unprepared -- matched Forrestal's seven-day-workweek personality. He proved an able administrator and a dedicated public servant, though his annual salary had dropped to $10,000 a year, compared with something like 20 times that in New York.
To popular acclaim, Forrestal succeeded Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy in May 1944 after Knox died suddenly of a heart attack. He continued to drive the service along at his own pace. When he had come to Washington, the fleet had comprised some 1,100 vessels and 161,000 officers and sailors. By 1945 there were some 50,000 warships and 3.4 million men and women in blues.
Though some observers called Forrestal humorless and obsessed, Nitze saw it differently. "He thoroughly believed in the Navy and what it could do," Nitze says. "People genuinely liked him, the easy, witty confidence."
Nobody disputes that Forrestal got the job done. From construction to procurement, organization, doctrine and war fighting, the U.S. Navy set a pace that no other nation could match, bringing the drive, efficiency and innovation of American business to state bureaucracy.
Wartime photographers caught Forrestal, vigorous and intense-looking, touring battle sites in the Marshall Islands, France, the Mediterranean. At Iwo Jima he went ashore just four days after the bloody invasion, the battle still raging, against the advice of his admirals, and saw Marines raise the flag on Mount Suribachi. As the flag went up, Forrestal is said to have turned to Marine Corps Gen. Holland "Howling Mad" Smith and said, "Holland, raising that flag means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years."
As his Navy helped turn the tide of war overseas, his family began to disintegrate at home. The Forrestals took a house at 3508 Prospect Ave. NW in Georgetown, and Jo boarded her horse at the Auchincloss estate in McLean, where it was exercised by a young Jacqueline Bouvier.
Jo, bored in the sedate confines of official wartime Washington, was drinking more heavily than ever. Within the drunkenness, something even darker emerged. She was tormented by screaming hallucinations, paranoid fantasies that the "Reds" were after her and her family. She underwent brief treatment in New York, but Forrestal was frequently called from work to deal with his wife's crises. He never discussed her illness, and the sometimes public incidents must have been deeply painful to him, like the time she passed out at the dinner table at a function at the British Embassy, or when she suddenly kicked at a small child walking along Connecticut Avenue.
Najeeb Halaby, a young defense and foreign affairs adviser who began working in Forrestal's office in 1948, observed the corrosive effects of Forrestal's personal problems. "There wasn't any sort of home for him where he could relax," Halaby recalls. "He went to work early and came home late, and there wasn't any surcease."
One widely repeated story about this period in Forrestal's life has it that an aide, finding him in his office at 9:30 one evening looking haggard and miserable, suggested that he go home, prompting Forrestal to reply bleakly, "Go home? Home to what?"
As Forrestal's marriage collapsed, his name became linked to leading Washington socialites of the day. Many close to him assumed he had serial affairs. His life had become a combination of personal instability and professional triumph. But with the war's end, and victory, came a new president and a new era in which Forrestal's political life would become defined by conflict and, ultimately, diminishment.
Forrestal was among the first to recognize the potential threat posed by the postwar Soviet Union. A student of the intellectual underpinnings of the Russian Revolution, he became convinced that the Soviets were driven by ideology to attempt world domination, and thus found himself a key roadblock in the way of President Truman's desire to reap the rewards of victory by drastic reduction of defense spending.
In fact, Forrestal found himself standing against his president on other key issues -- he opposed making the support of the new state of Israel a pillar of American foreign policy (at least in part because he was keenly aware of the Navy's dependence on cheap Arab oil) and fiercely campaigned against Truman's desire to curtail the Navy's independence by unifying all branches of the military.
Forrestal was no meager opponent for a new president, and his influence in the shaping of the half-century to follow was powerful.
"He is someone who has not been given his proper due as far as postwar foreign policy is concerned," says John Lehman, secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, during the Reagan administration. Lehman, who pointedly installed Forrestal's desk in his office, beneath Forrestal's portrait, says, "He was the real author as far as I am concerned of America's policy of containment of the Soviet Union."
Paul Nitze reveals that Forrestal even entertained higher ambitions. "He said to me he thought he would like to run for president, but was worried about what Truman would think of his idea if he found out."
Despite Forrestal's angry opposition to Truman's goal of a unified military, and possibly in part because of it, in 1947 Forrestal was appointed the country's first secretary of defense after Secretary of the Army Robert Patterson, the chief advocate of service unification, turned it down. All of a sudden it was in Forrestal's interest to quiet his rebellious admirals and make unification work.
But his appointment did not end interservice rivalry, nor did it secure Forrestal's position. In the well-received recent biography "Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal," authors Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley argue that conflict with his own secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, a passionate advocate of the supremacy of air power, played a key role in his professional and personal decline.
Forrestal had been a longtime ally of Symington, using his contacts to help Symington achieve the presidency of Emerson Electric in St. Louis, a company that prospered through the war thanks to contracts to build electric gun turrets for Air Force bombers. Two of the men's sons, both 11, even befriended each other in 1938 at St. Bernard's school in New York, collaborating on a scam to outfox their teachers, who insisted on mano a mano boxing matches the boys abhorred.
"You used to have to stand toe-to-toe on a chalk line," recalls James Symington. "The minute your toes moved from the chalk line, you lost. So we dreamed up the "Forrestal Convention," where we agreed to throw lots of leather but never hit each other. The teachers couldn't understand how we were taking so much punishment."
Their mock battles oddly prefigured their fathers' coming political fisticuffs. Stuart Symington, 46 when he came to Washington, was also connected to Truman through important Missouri affiliations, including Clark Clifford, who by 1947 was the president's special counsel. Despite Symington's career debt and political ties to Forrestal, in his new role he seems to quickly have become one of Forrestal's chief antagonists.
An escalating round of disputes reached a breaking point in July 1948, when Symington departed from preapproved remarks in a speech in Los Angeles and criticized the Defense Department leadership for supporting the maintenance of aviation wings in the Army and Navy, both of which he regarded as behind the times.
The press reported Symington's remarks, and Forrestal, furious, called Symington on the carpet. According to Brinkley and Hoopes, Symington at first denied ever having said anything contentious, but was forced to admit it when a Navy lieutenant produced a tape of his speech.
Forrestal considered firing Symington, but fear of being accused of anti-Air Force bias stopped him, disappointing advisers who felt Symington was a serious threat.
Symington's son Jim disputes that the two men disliked each other, or that his father, later a senator, had it in for Forrestal.
"They differed over the roles of the Air Force, and there was a disagreement about that speech, but all that was patched up later."
Halaby, like other Forrestal partisans, found Symington an ideologue whose effect on Forrestal was corrosive. "Symington was galvanic, intense, on a personal mission," Halaby says. "He just wanted to separate the Air Force, make it king of the national defense establishment."
Battles of Defense
The problem between the two was complicated by Forrestal's ambiguous position: Though he was the superior, Symington had more of Truman's confidence.
Forrestal's emergence as both a leader in the formation of postwar policy and a vulnerable figure within the Truman administration made him a lightning rod for two powerful members of the Washington media who specialized in personal attacks. Beginning in 1947 and intensifying in the fall of 1948, Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson both frequently slammed Forrestal for his Wall Street ties and his hawkish policies.
Pearson in particular was relentless, going after any chink in Forrestal's past, real or concocted. Pearson broadcasts cast Forrestal as a tax evader based on no more than the 1929 testimony to Congress concerning his tax shelter. The 1937 robbery in front of Beekman Place was retold to imply, without citing evidence, that Forrestal had watched from an upstairs window while Jo was robbed, and fled the house in fear of his own life.
Marx Leva, a Forrestal aide, told biographer Brinkley that he and others close to the defense secretary believed Stuart Symington might have supplied Pearson with some of the dirt on Forrestal. Brinkley quoted Pearson's widow as acknowledging that the journalist and Symington were good friends.
"I think Symington was feeding Pearson with false information on Forrestal, and I thought he was reprehensible for doing it," says Nitze.
But what ultimately may have proven more toxic to Forrestal's career in government were not false reports about him, but his secret support for the presidential candidacy of Republican Thomas E. Dewey, who opposed Truman in the 1948 campaign.
At the time, the stories of Forrestal's secret support for Dewey were only rumor. But Dewey did later tell Rogow, Forrestal's 1963 biographer, that he had indeed met with Forrestal during the run-up to the election to discuss the possibility of retaining him in a Republican Cabinet.
Dewey lost, and on Jan. 11, 1949, Forrestal met with Truman at the White House and learned that Louis Johnson would be appointed his successor, a stark defeat not only for Forrestal personally but for the policy he had championed most passionately. Johnson wanted to slash America's defense spending. In contemporary news accounts, Forrestal's fall from power was reported as a resignation "for reasons that were never entirely clear."
Psychiatrists who later treated Forrestal would backdate the onset of his depression, insomnia, restlessness and weight loss to this period. Forrestal's strength, energy and composure deserted him. His double-breasted suits began to hang looser and looser. He appeared to age years in the space of weeks.
Nevertheless, he was present at Johnson's swearing-in at the Pentagon on March 28. At the White House for his final goodbyes, he was moved and flustered to find that Truman had assembled the entire Cabinet and Joint Chiefs of Staff to honor him.
The next day he was warmly received at a special meeting of the House Armed Services Committee. Also present were the three service secretaries, including Symington. Forrestal praised his longtime political opponent for his "zeal and high devotion to his beliefs."
When the meeting was over, Forrestal prepared to drive back to a special transition office to answer congratulatory letters sent to him from across the country. His mood was buoyant, as Forrestal aides Leva and John Ohly later recalled.
Ohly and Leva said Symington asked to accompany Forrestal on the ride back to the office. According to Forrestal biographers Hoopes and Brinkley, when Leva, who followed in another car, arrived at Forrestal's office a short time later, Forrestal was in a chair with his hat still on, staring at the wall:
"A troubled Leva inquired if everything was all right. Forrestal did not reply and seemed unaware of everything around him. Leva persisted. Forrestal finally responded, saying, `You are a loyal fellow,' a phrase he repeated several times."
Without further explanation, he stood up and went home.
According to a private memo by journalist Arthur Krock, written May 6, 1949, and based on the recollections of those involved, Ferdinand Eberstadt -- Forrestal's lifelong friend and Princeton classmate -- called on Forrestal and said he wanted to come visit.
Forrestal's voice was strange. "For your own sake, I advise you not to," he replied. Eberstadt, now concerned, went anyway. The door was opened by the servant.
Forrestal came down the stairs looking thin and haggard, his skin hanging loose at his neck. He was babbling anxiously: The house was wire-tapped, and strangers were watching him from the street corner. He was terrified that the communists were after him.
Eberstadt arranged for Forrestal to be flown to Hobe Sound, Fla., where Jo and some friends were staying. Eberstadt also arranged for William Menninger, one of the country's most prominent psychiatrists, to fly to Hobe Sound. It was decided that as soon as possible, Forrestal would be admitted to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for extended treatment.
That night Forrestal slept soundly with the help of a sedative. Early the next morning, a siren went off, but Forrestal slept through it. Eberstadt awoke, though, and went down to the beach for a swim. According to the Krock memo, someone reported back to Pearson that Forrestal rushed out of the house when the siren blew (in reality likely Eberstadt going for his swim), thinking the Russians were invading. Even in Florida, his mental state hanging by a thread, Forrestal was not safe from leaks.
Those who trace Forrestal's last decline from a buoyant mood at his farewell to near stupor in his transition office wonder if Symington said something during the shared car ride that pulled the legs out from under him.
Symington's son Jim doesn't believe his father meant Forrestal any harm. If the men had felt animosity, he asks, why would they have ridden alone together in a car on that day of all days? But he has a theory: "I would speculate that Forrestal was suffering at having to give up his post. Perhaps my father said something like, `Look, Jim, you should have stuck with the boss [Truman], rather than throwing in with Dewey.' "
Symington also maintains that Forrestal called his father from Bethesda after his hospitalization, asking for a lawyer. It is unclear why.
"My father recommended Clark Clifford," he says. "I can tell you they had a good conversation, and why would he have called Dad if they were enemies?"
No records remain to confirm this story, though the news release issued by Bethesda on the day of Forrestal's death does note that the improving patient had been allowed visitors and free use of the telephone.
On April 2, Forrestal was admitted to Bethesda with what was called "reactive depression." News reports called him "worn out" and the diagnosis for public consumption was "operational fatigue." As he stepped out of the limousine that had brought him, he told Eberstadt and Menninger he did not expect to leave the hospital alive.
Forrestal was assigned to the VIP suite at the top of Bethesda's tower, although mental patients were generally accommodated in a nearby one-story building.
According to contemporary medical reports, Forrestal had shed 22 pounds from his already wiry physique in the previous three months. Naval corpsmen kept round-the-clock shifts on Forrestal's accommodations, and he was also looked in on by physicians. They noted that his anxiety increased on the days of a Drew Pearson broadcast.
Forrestal apparently spent May 21 in a relatively healthy state of mind, eating a large steak for lunch. Special suicide-watch restrictions had been lifted, and he had been given back his robe with a sash belt. His regimen of tranquilizers had been reduced, and he declined the one pill he was offered Saturday night. He stayed up late, reading. A regular corpsman whom Forrestal liked had just gone off watch at midnight and was replaced by a new man. He checked in on Forrestal at 1:45.
The date was now May 22, Sunday, the day of Pearson's weekly broadcast, which had become so agitating to Forrestal.
Forrestal was reading the poetry anthology, and began to copy from "Chorus From Ajax" on Pages 277 and 278. He stopped after the first syllable of the word "nightingale" and -- apparently during the guard's five-minute break -- walked out of his room, across a hall, into the adjoining kitchen. He took off the sash from his robe and tied one end to the radiator under the window, the other end around his neck, undid a screen and climbed out the window.
According to the coroner's report, Forrestal likely then jumped out the window and hung for some seconds suspended. The report also notes scuff marks on the cement work underneath the window, indicating reflexive kicking, or possibly terrified second thoughts. To no avail: The sash gave way and Forrestal fell 13 floors, landing on an asphalt-and-crushed-stone surface of a third-floor passageway roof. Death was instant.
The coroner noted that the sash was still wound tightly around his neck. The front of his skull was crushed, his abdomen slit, and his lower left leg severed. The report notes that his watch was still running.
Why would a man about to kill himself copy an ancient Greek poem, but not complete it? Was there any connection between the words he copied and his last, desperate act? Hoopes and Brinkley believe that more than mere chance might be at play. They note that after the end of World War II, the National Security Council authorized the recruitment of members of former Ukrainian death squads, who had worked for the Nazis exterminating Jews and Red Army supporters, to work clandestinely within the Soviet Union assassinating communists. The name of the group was Nachtigall, or Nightingale. Ironically, while one wing of the CIA was secretly bringing Nightingale's leaders to the United States to train them, another wing of the agency was in Europe working to bring them to trial in Nuremberg. The secret program, which Forrestal almost undoubtedly helped bring about, failed, however. The biographers postulate that Forrestal, in his unsedated state, may have felt a shock of guilt -- or, given his reds-under-the-bed delusions, paranoia -- that may have triggered suicide.
But perhaps there is another, less strained connection between Sophocles' verse and Forrestal's tragic end. Perhaps the key was in the verse that immediately followed the one containing the word "nightingale," the verse Forrestal could not bring himself to copy:
Oh! when the pride of Graecia's noblest race
Wanders, as now, in darkness and disgrace,
When Reason's day,
Sets rayless -- joyless -- quenched in cold decay,
Better to die, and sleep
The never-waking sleep, then linger on,
And dare to live, when the soul's life is gone.
CAPTION: Above, in 1948, Secretary James V. Forrestal, left, and President Harry S Truman relax in Key West. Right, Josephine Ogden Forrestal in a 1946 formal portrait.
CAPTION: James Forrestal walked across the hall from his guarded hospital room to find this unlocked window (above) on the 16th floor of the Bethesda Naval Hospital (left at arrow). He had left this copy of "An Anthology of World Poetry" (below) open to a poem by Sophocles, which may have contained clues to his final thoughts.