“Hey, Tiger.” He said things like that. He had lusty greetings, exotic epithets and obsolete profanities he got away with. He was unabashed, uninhibited. Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, who died Tuesday at age 93, was a Boston Brahmin but enjoyed being an improper one. A lesbian friend from his postwar Paris days wasn’t just “gay,” she was “gay as a goose.” A newly divorced editor with a revived sex life was “finally getting his ashes hauled.” The primal motive driving Jackie Kennedy Onassis was “she needs a lot of dough.”
Men were divided into two camps: those whose private parts “clanked when they walked” and those whose, alas, didn’t. Women were judged differently. The only ones Bradlee didn’t seem to appreciate were humorless. “A prude,” he’d say, as though nothing were more distasteful.
He passed on his sensibilities to Style, the groundbreaking “soft” feature section he invented and launched at The Washington Post in 1969, which replaced the toothless For and About Women. Style wasn’t for prudes. It was designed to entertain, delight, provoke, surprise and occasionally horrify, reflecting its founder’s infinite curiosity about society, appreciation for vivid storytelling and deep love of troublemaking.
Nothing pleased Bradlee more than a piece that nailed the corrupt, pricked a narcissist, uncovered a creep, exposed a phony, felled a climber and really told it like it was.
Pursuit of the ultimate Style section mix was his passion and Holy Grail. Sobering stories justified the silly ones. So along with penetrating profiles of authors, artists and Cabinet secretaries — which, at 6,000 words, readers groused were too long — there were delectable bites of gossip, takedowns of inflated movie stars and scathing reviews of overhyped TV shows.
And if, by some miracle, a Style reporter was reeling in a big story — such as the time it was discovered that the body of statesman Averell Harriman was not in the casket at his funeral, or deposited into his grave, because his third wife, Pamela, preferred that he not be buried with his second one, Marie — Bradlee would sit on the edge of a reporter’s desk, ask for updates while chuckling to himself, barely able to contain his glee.
Sometimes, while you were still writing, he’d saunter by your desk and say encouraging things like, “You better get it right, Sherrill. Don’t f--- it up.”
Even his polio-affected walk was studly — he’d been stricken at 14 — as though he were leaning into the room, leaning into trouble. His rakish persona was the real thing, seemed sprung from his marrow, as though somebody in his noble ancestral line had bedded (one of his favorite words) a pirate or gunslinger. Or perhaps it had been honed during his youth in the Depression when his father, a downwardly spiraling blueblood and former Harvard football star who drank, was reduced to odd jobs and overseeing maintenance at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. “We lived,” Bradlee used to say, “on the wrong side of Beacon Hill.”
Whatever caused it, Bradlee was scrappy — and loved scrappy people. He hated airs, pomposity, prima donnas. His ultimate put-down for any story, any publication and any person was a one-word adjective: “limp.” He was fearless, and inspired fearlessness. Just hearing his gravelly baritone as he descended the stairs to the sunken pit that was Style’s home in the 1980s and 1990s gave all of us spine and moxie.
Unlike his peers in the Washington media establishment, he never seemed too fascinated by policy. What he loved about politics wasn’t the battling of ideologies, but the pure theater, how it captured the scope of human experience — in particular, how low a person could sink. He delighted in romantic peccadillos and any form of embarrassing scandal. He lived for the moments when the newspaper caught a powerful individual in a lie. He was fixated on the foibles and frailties we all struggle with, and told humbling stories about himself with almost as much enthusiasm as he told them about others. (He’d gone to a seedy porn theater, he’d confessed, on a primary election night in 1960 with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.)
While Watergate may be his lasting legacy, he said more than once that another accomplishment was more personally rewarding, perhaps because it was his alone. “I suspect when all the smoke has cleared, my time at this newspaper will be remembered for the Style section ahead of anything else,” he wrote to an admiring reader in 1984.
The smoke did clear, and his prediction did not prove true. But for a time, this brilliant, colorful, intoxicatingly charming man made the reporters and editors in Style believe that what we were putting out every day was what he loved most.
He called me “Legs” when I was hired as a fashion news aide in 1985, because I’m tall and because he didn’t know my name. Eventually I had a byline, a better job and I became “Sherrill.” In Bradlee’s newsroom, you knew you’d made his team when your first name disappeared down the memory hole. Only Don Graham, then publisher, seemed to have retained his. Bradlee often referred to him paternally as “Donnie.”
Before I knew him better, I heard the Bradlee stories and legends that swirled in the air around him. Some of them inspired fearlessness. Others just inspired fear. As a young reporter, he had climbed onto a ledge 100 feet above Pennsylvania Avenue to watch D.C. police trying to persuade a suicidal man not to jump. As executive editor, he had walked by a messy desk of a Style critic he wasn’t so crazy about and, with one long sweep of his arm, cleared it to the ground. I heard how he’d fired reporters for making up quotes, lying on their résumés and fabricating expense reports. “If someone would lie about where they ate lunch,” he once said, “I think they’d lie about anything.”
Rarely distracted, and never wishy-washy, Bradlee brought all of himself to the office — his strong dislikes, his loves and prejudices, his shrewdness, clarity, intelligence, animal hunches and instincts. He’d shout “Holy s---” in a loud growl when he was mad. He cried just as easily.
He didn’t really hang out in Style, wasn’t one to lounge around and kibitz. Mostly he wandered in, panther-like, to visit Mary Hadar (he called her “Bubbie”), whom he had handpicked to run the section a few years after the departure of his other favorite Style editor, Shelby Coffey. Strolling past the rows of desks and giant Raytheon monitors, he tried not to catch anyone’s eyes — as though sneaking into the room. But it was impossible for him to sneak in anywhere. A giant spotlight seemed to follow him — and if he stopped to talk to you, you felt it on your shoulders, and down your back.
Could he have been more handsome? That craggy face, the tight conspiratorial smile, the broad shoulders, strong arms, and year-round tan? The sheer aliveness? Even under the harsh fluorescent lights of the newsroom, he put Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday” to shame. The actor Jason Robards, who played Bradlee in the film “All the President’s Men,” prepared you for meeting the real man — but at the same time, never came close.
Bradlee was safe to flirt with — a lost art — and this was partly because, in the back of your mind while you were flirting with him stood the formidable figure of Sally Quinn, his magnificent wife, who had been Style’s biggest, most provocative byline. “Sal,” as he called her, or “Quinn” — before they gave their son that name — was always doing things that he claimed drove him nuts. Renovating grand old houses, redesigning gardens, writing saucy novels, throwing giant parties. But you knew he loved all that — and her — with passion.
She’d even been allowed to redesign him. We’d all seen the photos of the clothes Bradlee wore before he married her. Sometimes a pair of zip-up Beatle boots and other vestigial items from his old life would turn up on his body, as if pulled from the dark recesses of his closet, memories of the days before he’d become dapper in Turnbull & Asser shirts with those French cuffs. But in Bradlee’s case, the clothes did not make the man. They only made him more Ben.
Features writers are the ice skaters of the newsroom. They don’t play hockey, don’t knock out teeth or bring down presidents. Their job is finer, done with smaller blades, requiring a different kind of athleticism and artistry that Bradlee, our patriarch, appreciated.
In other quarters of The Washington Post, where weighty matters of the day were debated, the doings of the Style section were often dismissed. We were the subject of newsroom jokes and quiet envy. The pit where the features writers toiled was, in their minds, a place filled with children, pop culture addicts and neurotic artistes.
But Bradlee appreciated the skills it took to survive there — not just the knack for finding and reporting a story, but then, unlike quite a few of our breaking-news colleagues, knowing how to “write the hell out of it,” as he liked to say.
Inspired by New Journalism and his instincts about what drew readers to the paper, he goaded us to experiment, reimagine, discard old formulas and invent new ones. With his investment in us, and his presence — the built-in spotlight — he created a place where many did the best work of their lives.
When he sent us notes to compliment a story, he would often remark on its smallest, most writerly moment: how we’d described somebody’s facial mole or irritating machine-gun laugh, or the expression of a man seen across a dance floor as he smelled his own armpit.
Bradlee’s other secret: He left us alone. He never told us what the story was, how he wanted it written, or what it was supposed to prove that he already believed. You were in charge. And when you’d had your say, he stood by you, battling the detractors, defending your choices, answering all charges of incompetence with praise for your guts and good sense. “You can’t do any better than surround yourself with the best people you can find,” he wrote in his memoir, “A Good Life,” “and then listen to them.”
But when he was done defending you, he would sometimes appear at your desk to let you know the pain you’d caused him. “God Almighty, Sherrill, can you tone it down next time? I just got chewed a new a------.”
As much as he pushed us to be bold and brash, he despised overstepping and sensationalizing. He hated the cheap move that covered up a lack of legwork. And when an ordinary citizen — not an elected official or public person — was being written about, he insisted on sensitivity and compassion.
Once, at an annual retreat for his management team, he introduced the father of a young woman who’d been written about negatively. Bradlee wanted the top editors to hear how the man’s family had been destroyed by a Washington Post story.
“Tell me again why we’re running this?” he’d ask repeatedly when a person’s reputation or job was at stake. “Tell me again why we need to ruin this person’s life?”
When he retired in September 1991, I was assigned to write the Style story about his last day as editor — the cheers in the newsroom, teary speeches, hilarious toasts, the slicing and serving of the traditional goodbye cake. The next day, a vibrant personal note from him arrived in my office mailbox. I kept a copy of it with me, tucked in a succession of Filofaxes, then in a succession of wallets, for the next 23 years.
All that time I thought I’d meet another like him, but eventually I stopped looking.
Martha Sherrill was a Style writer for 10 years. She is the author of four books, most recently “Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain.”