The year 1935 marked the Washington arrival of Joseph Wright Alsop V, a hefty, amusing, arrogant, 25-year-old reporter for the old New York Herald Tribune who quickly managed to take the town by storm. It helped that the occupants of the White House were known to the young man affectionately as “Cousin Franklin” and “Cousin Eleanor,” and they weren’t above slipping juicy morsels of inside information to their blood relative.
Family connections got him immediately pulled to the collective bosom of those rich capital denizens, known as “cave dwellers,” who dominated social Washington from their mansions along Massachusetts Avenue or around the city’s famous traffic circles.
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.”
Auburn, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner for his 2000 play “Proof,” begins his tale with Joe’s dark secret: a hotel-room encounter with a young man in Moscow who turned out to be a KGB operative bent on turning him into an agent of influence. The real-life Joe, though mortified, reacted to KGB blackmailers with defiance, then went directly to the U.S. Embassy to report the incident. Debriefed extensively by the CIA and FBI, Joe secured immunity from blackmail, but his homosexuality remained vulnerable to exposure — either by Soviet agents seeking to undercut his relentless Cold War hawkishness or even by some in his own government agitated by his hard-hitting journalistic ways.
Yet, as Auburn demonstrates, no mere threat of destruction could induce Joe to trim his reporting style or even his personal arrogance. Courageously, he proceeded in life as if no such specter were hovering over him. Still, Auburn’s insight is that it must have weighed heavily upon his consciousness, perhaps contributing to the accentuated personality traits that eroded his performance and stature. Auburn uses the episode to generate dramatic tension emanating not just from Joe’s dual life but also from the audience now knowing something significant that others on stage don’t know.
Auburn says he became fascinated by a man clinging to his convictions even when the price becomes difficult to bear. “Part of what got me working on the play,” he said, “was the toll it took on him — it destroyed him in a way in the end.”
The issue was Vietnam. Joe saw the Cold War as a struggle of the age, like the Greeks’ struggle against Persia or Rome’s against Carthage. He felt the United States had to pursue the epic conflict wherever communism threatened to open up a beachhead. He became obsessed not only with the looming threat of Southeast Asian communism but also with America’s lack of resolve to combat it aggressively. He raged when early reporters on the scene — notably the New York Times’s David Halberstam — sent back dispatches questioning the soundness of the military effort or the character of America’s client dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem.
When he finally concluded that Diem indeed lacked sufficient force to get the job done, he filed a bizarre column blaming the U.S. press corps in Saigon for helping “mightily to transform Diem from a courageous, quite viable national leader, into a man afflicted with galloping persecution mania.” He then trashed Halberstam and others in private conversations with his close friend in the White House, John Kennedy. Such actions naturally infuriated Halberstam and rendered Joe a marked man to rising journalists.
Auburn captures all this by placing on stage a Halberstam character (played by Stephen Kunken) who vents to Joe’s brother Stewart (Boyd Gaines), also a noted Washington writer whose fate was to spend most of his career in Joe’s shadow. Auburn’s Halberstam, in Saigon, fulminates to Stewart:
“He doesn’t know the country, he breezes over here for a week, he stays with Lodge at the Embassy, he gets his Army car and driver, Harkins puts a helicopter at his disposal, he gets whatever he wants . . . Meanwhile, the rest of us are killing ourselves here, living in hovels, earning crap, and taking literally endless s--- back home for trying to tell a sliver of a fraction of the truth about this . . . place, and he saunters in with his pressed suits and his cigarette holder and his phony . . . Andover WASP Harvard accent, and his connections.”
The conversation never took place, but the sentiments were real. And they reflected a rift in American journalism that Joe couldn’t withstand as he had withstood previous controversies with powerful men, such as the red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin; Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, whose Pentagon budget cutting contributed to the Korean War; Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, who went after Joe’s friend Robert Oppenheimer; or Dwight Eisenhower’s budget-cutting Defense bureaucrats.
They all despised Joe, but they didn’t have access to the media and hence couldn’t fight back effectively. Now his enemies were young reporters, and soon prominent newspapers and magazines were sprouting dismissive profiles that portrayed him pretty much as Auburn’s Halberstam portrayed him to Stewart — as a pampered, self-absorbed, arrogant know-nothing who had ceased doing any serious reporting.
Before portraying this unraveling, however, Auburn renders a tender scene that captures Joe at his apogee. It was inauguration night 1961, with snow falling outside and the many inaugural balls winding down. Stewart arrives at Joe’s Georgetown home to find Susan Mary Patten, whom, Joe reveals to Stew, he plans to marry. Susan Mary (Margaret Colin) was a beautiful and glittering woman, a model for Dior and Balmain in her youth, who had spent 15 glorious years in postwar Paris before her husband’s death the year before. Says Joe: “I can’t believe my luck, honestly. She’s everything I want.”
Joe is no less enamored with the prospect of his friend John Kennedy in the White House. “How many nights do we get like this?” he asks Stewart. “He’s our man. A tough man and a thoughtful one, too — the kind we’ve been dreaming of.”
It’s difficult, in today’s post-Dallas, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, to imagine a hardened Washington newsman expressing himself with such idealism bordering on naivete. Yet the scene accurately captures Joe’s fervent expectation at that pregnant moment in American politics.
Joe seems to be expecting guests on this evening, though it is 1 a.m. When queried about it, he responds vaguely that he wants to be prepared with plenty of champagne just in case. But of course, as history knows, he was expecting Kennedy himself, who showed up for terrapin soup and conversation. Kennedy got back to the White House at 3:21 a.m., and Joe’s reputation as a Washington insider soared.
When we later see Joe in the mid-1960s, things aren’t going so well. Kennedy is dead, the Vietnam war effort is coming unhinged, protesters are taking to the streets — and his marriage to Susan Mary seems to be generating more irritation than serenity. He is a man out of sorts, lashing out at the slightest provocation and registering his general displeasure with the world. Increasingly, it is an alien world, with popular music, clothing styles, idiomatic expressions and vogues of political thought that “set his teeth on edge,” to use a favorite expression of his.
Auburn uses Stewart during this time as a foil to Joe, as a potential steadying influence whose more self-effacing persona could light a path for his brother through his turmoil, if he would only take it. Stewart also serves as an interlocutor between Joe and the young Vietnam reporters so agitated by his behavior. This works on a dramatic level, but there’s something missing in the Stewart character. True, he spent most of his career in Joe’s shadow, but he possessed a physical stature and heavy quiet that were commanding and served as a barrier that Joe could never quite get around. In the play, Stewart generally gets rolled by Joe whenever they enter their numerous heated exchanges.
Further, a substantial poignancy in their story lay in the fact that, in the end, Stewart emerges as the greater journalist. Though he toiled for a decade at the Saturday Evening Post during its decline, he eventually nabbed the coveted back-page slot in Newsweek during its days as the “hot book’’ in American magazine publishing. His use of that prominent space as a forum for his clear-headed reporting and lilting prose propelled him past his faltering brother and significantly equalized the relationship between the two.
Auburn does capture the turmoil in Joe’s marriage to Susan Mary, a product of the husband’s increasing tendency to belittle her whenever other people were around. It was as if he couldn’t allow his wife to shine socially lest she diminish his own luminance. When Auburn’s audiences cringe at Joe’s behavior, it matches the feelings of many real-life friends. Auburn sees the marriage, like Joe’s brother, as a possible leavening influence if Joe simply would have embraced it. But he couldn’t, and Susan Mary eventually fled to an apartment in the Watergate — causing lingering anguish for Joe that was well captured by Auburn.
And so he lived out his life in greater isolation than he had ever before experienced — quitting the column shortly after Stewart died of leukemia in 1974, losing himself in a massive book project on the history of art collecting, taking long walks through Washington and touching lampposts as he passed like a latter-day Dr. Johnson. He represented a slice of history, and now a slice of that slice can be seen — sensitively rendered, with human insight aplenty — on Auburn’s stage.
Robert W. Merry, editor of the National Interest, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy, including “Taking On the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop — Guardians of the American Century” (1996, Viking). His next book, on the American presidency, is due out June 26 from Simon & Schuster.
appears at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Manhattan through June 24.