Ben and Sally.
And now, just Sally.
If the funeral of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee marked the end of an era in Washington journalism, the invitation-only funeral reception marked the end of another kind: A last hurrah for the A-list gatherings hosted by the legendary Washington Post editor and his personal life of the party, Sally Quinn.
An invitation to the couple’s historic Georgetown home was one of the most coveted status symbols in the nation’s capital, an entry to an elite salon of the powerful, talented and witty. For Ben’s final sendoff, his wife of 36 years invited 800 or so friends and colleagues to the house for a party on her tented back lawn. The favored packed in like sardines. The uninvited — who not only wanted to pay their respects to the family but wanted the world to see them paying those respects — sulked at home and complained to friends.
It was, observed one journalist inching his way through the crowd, a unique collection of bold-face names and media heavyweights from around the country. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of course, plus former Post publisher Don Graham, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Tom Brokaw, Charlie Rose, Nancy Pelosi, Jim Lehrer, Ted Koppel, Al Hunt, Norman Lear and billionaire Jeff Bezos, the new owner of The Post who flew overnight to attend the funeral and reception. “It’s clear to me that Ben’s courage, verve and swagger are still deeply embedded in the Post,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to be here.”
Cameras flashed, hugs were exchanged and the tent quivered with the casual bonhomie of exclusivity, proving Sally’s famous adage: “Good luck and good timing are great, but ultimately, a Washington party rises and falls with its power quotient.”
The guests had come directly from the two-hour service at the National Cathedral, a carefully orchestrated blend of tributes, music and ecumenical prayers (a touch more suited to Sally’s latter-day spiritual awakening than Ben, the eternal optimist who barely worried about tomorrow, much less the afterlife). She placed a single white rose on Ben’s coffin because that was the flower he always sent her on their anniversary. The speakers were affectionate, funny and lighthearted except for youngest son Quinn, who barely made it through his emotional eulogy. It was a searing reminder that this was not just a public celebration but also, for some, a deeply personal loss.
“I didn’t want it to end because I knew when it ended, it would be over,” Sally said of the service. “I just wish I could sit there forever and just listen to music and people talking about Ben. I wanted to stay there forever.”
But there was a party waiting, designed by Washington’s most famous hostess.
From the moment she walked into the tent, Sally was surrounded by well-wishers who threw their arms around her, sharing a comforting word or memory. She wore all black except for a vivid gold and enamel necklace and earring set — a family heirloom presented to George Crowninshield (Ben’s great-great-great-grandfather) in 1815 by Pauline Bonaparte when he tried to save her brother from Elba, then was given to Sally by Ben. “He gave them to me and I wore them on my wedding day,” she explained.
Unless you were there in the 1970s and 80s, it’s hard to fully understand the collective glamour of Ben and Sally. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg met the couple in 1976 at the peak of their fame: “Bradlee was fifty-five years old then; Sally, thirty-five. The charisma — the vitality, the sheer erotic energy — that radiated that day from him, and from the two of them together, was stronger than anything of the kind I’ve since felt from any of the movie stars, rock stars, and politicians whose paths journalism has put me in,” he wrote last week.
By virtue of his job, charisma and elan, Ben was arguably the most powerful man in Washington. Sally started as the clever young reporter who dissected — with surgical precision — the corpus of Washington elite, then became his girlfriend and finally his beloved third wife.
The two presided over Washington’s version of a royal court, and invitations to their parties were always at a premium, especially their annual New Year’s Eve party. They were, by all accounts, the best of the era when dinner parties still mattered, nights designed by Sally to amuse her easily bored husband, who tired of most things but not journalism — or his wife.
“My children all know that Sally Quinn has made me enormously happy for 30-umpteen years, and that is more important to them than anything else, I think,” he once told a reporter, acknowledging the tensions in his complicated personal life. (Ben Jr. and daughter Marina attended the funeral along with Quinn; son Dino was “stuck in another country.”) Whatever passed between them privately, Ben Jr. graciously thanked his stepmother for his father’s happiness in his public remarks Wednesday.
And so, a final toast to Ben. There were two bars, three food stations (shrimp, salmon, ham and biscuits, brownies) and passed hors d’oeuvres of chicken, crab cakes and bacon. Ben’s photos were sprinkled around the room, and a poster-size version of his book cover greeted guests at the door.
People stepped into the tent and — as if a giant switch had been flipped — slipped into party mode. Aside from the predominance of black, it felt and sounded like your average Washington cocktail party, complete with the requisite catching up and sucking up.
The only thing lacking was the exuberant vitality of Ben, who electrified any room he walked into. It was a well-behaved crowd, less profane and fun than Ben — and less daring. It was Ben who famously led the toasts at the 1979 memorial to his great friend, Post reporter Larry Stern, and Ben who ended his with “L’chaim!” and smashed his glass against the brick wall on the Post’s rooftop garden. Accounts vary on what happened next (much alcohol was consumed) but by the end of the party the floor was littered with broken glass. Ben proudly displayed the framed bill from the caterer for years.
Alas, no toasts Wednesday afternoon, but plenty of fond memories, air kisses and a touch of the party gossip he reveled in. One journalist at the reception, who received an effusive hug from a unknown woman, whispered to her friend: “Who did I just kiss hello?”
“You won’t believe it,” was the reply, followed by the name of a Washington notable who had Zellwegered herself into unrecognizability.
“Ben would have loved it,” said the journalist with a giggle.
As for Sally? Well, there was no time or inclination for gossip on this day. She was in a reflective mood, looking both to the past and the future.
“I’m going to start my memoir next week,” she said. “Now I feel I can start writing again.”