Charles L. Bartlett, a political reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for helping expose professional misconduct by the secretary of the Air Force but whose more enduring claim on history was having arranged a blind date between two of his most eligible friends — Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy — died Feb. 17 at his home in Washington. He was 95.
The cause was a heart ailment, said his wife, Martha Bartlett.
Mr. Bartlett’s friendship with the future president and first lady stemmed from their overlapping social circles as children of vastly wealthy Catholic business executives. Mr. Bartlett, the son of a Chicago stockbroker, was a seventh-generation Yale graduate whose family wintered in South Florida near the Kennedys. Mr. Bartlett briefly dated Bouvier, who reportedly found him too buttoned-down for her taste.
He and Kennedy cemented a friendship in 1946. Both were back from wartime service in the Navy and on the cusp of careers in journalism and politics, respectively. They ran across each other at a Palm Beach, Fla., nightclub called Ta-boo. There was “a lot of common ground,” Mr. Bartlett later said.
Both wound up in Washington. Mr. Bartlett by that time was working as a correspondent for the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times, a publication that carried little clout in the city’s political life. Kennedy reportedly offered a brotherly scold: “It’s a shame to keep writing that stuff and sending it down to die in Chattanooga.”
By his admission, what Mr. Bartlett lacked in burning career ambition he made up for in exceptional connections. In 1955, he had been tipped off to apparent conflicts of interest regarding the business affairs of Harold E. Talbott Jr., then serving as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of the Air Force.
Talbott was a partner in Paul B. Mulligan and Co., a management consulting company in New York that also held government contracts, and his continuing relationship with the firm gave off the distinct odor of profiteering from his government position. He wrote letters using official department stationery and used his office phone to call industrialists on Mulligan-related business.
Instead of keeping the information to himself, Mr. Bartlett decided to reach out to Kennedy’s brother Robert, then serving as a Democratic counsel on the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
“I talked to Bobby about doing a sort of joint investigation, which we did,” Mr. Bartlett later told an interviewer. “We finally got to a hearing, which was highly dramatic because there was a not a senator who supported what we were doing, because they were all very fond of Mr. Talbott. But Bobby kept pressing. It was only Bobby’s persistence that made a success of the hearings, which finally broke in such a way that the president had to request Mr. Talbott’s resignation.”
With the inside track on a major story, Mr. Bartlett won the Pulitzer for national reporting. It would remain the peak of a journalism career that lasted another half century, as a syndicated columnist and a newsletter writer.
Mostly Mr. Bartlett became known for his close connection to John F. Kennedy. In 1951, Mr. Bartlett and his wife had been eager to play matchmaker to the dashing Massachusetts congressman with a roving eye.
They saw a suitable mate in Bouvier, a bewitching young socialite who exuded what Mr. Bartlett called “a basic joie de vivre.” It took the Bartletts months of arranging to get the couple together for a quiet dinner at the Bartlett home in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood.
The future first lady later told Time magazine that she agreed less out of enthusiasm for Kennedy than to get Mr. Bartlett to stop nagging her. “He got to be quite a bore about it,” she quipped.
The pairing was not an instant success, but it sparked an eventual courtship that led to marriage two years later. After Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Mr. Bartlett traveled with the first couple and was present for the baptism of their infant son, John Jr. He enjoyed favored access at the White House, which he said transformed him willingly into an advocate for the president.
In “Grace & Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House,” author Sally Bedell Smith wrote that Mr. Bartlett sought to position himself as an informal counselor, sending memos (“what JFK called ‘Bartlettisms’ ”) about policy and personnel — even diet — to help the president’s persistent back problems.
“Nothing mattered to me more than to have Jack Kennedy succeed as president,” he told Bedell Smith. “I made a cold decision on that. . . . It was not possible to be a good newspaperman and be a close friend of the president. . . . I felt I would protect anything he told me. He had reason to trust me because I didn’t blow on him.”
Perhaps the most vivid example of his loyalty and impeccable insider credentials took place during his reporting of the president’s handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for the Saturday Evening Post, an article on which he teamed with journalist Stewart Alsop and that popularized the phrases “hawks and doves” and “eyeball to eyeball.”
The story caused a stir for its depiction of Adlai Stevenson II, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as an appeaser willing to deactivate the Guantanamo naval base and others in return for removal of Soviet missiles on Cuba.
Mr. Bartlett had secured Kennedy’s cooperation for the story and made a version available to Kennedy to review for accuracy. It came back with many hand edits by the president, and Alsop wanted to keep a copy for posterity. Mr. Bartlett said he “threw it in the fire at Stewart’s house to protect Kennedy.”
Charles Leffingwell Bartlett was born in Chicago on Aug. 14, 1921. He graduated in 1939 from the private St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., and from Yale University in 1943. He did intelligence work for the Navy in the Pacific during World War II.
He had worked at the Yale student paper and, deciding on journalism as his future, he joined the Chattanooga Times because it was owned by members of the Sulzberger publishing dynasty who socialized with his parents.
Around the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Mr. Bartlett left the Times and spent years as a syndicated columnist for the Chicago-based Field Newspaper Syndicate. Later in life, he wrote a newsletter of national and international news. With former Newsweek journalist Edward Weintal, he co-wrote “Facing the Brink: An Intimate Study of Crisis Diplomacy” (1967).
He was a past president of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, an organization that promotes community public service. He was a founding member and past president of the now-shuttered Federal City Club, which formed in 1964 as a riposte to the no-blacks policy of Washington’s Metropolitan Club.
Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Martha Buck Bartlett of Washington; three children, Peter Bartlett of Los Angeles, Robert Bartlett of The Woodlands, Tex., and film producer Helen Bartlett of Venice, Calif.; and six grandchildren. A son, Michael Bartlett, died in 2008.
Over the decades, Mr. Bartlett rarely declined an interview request from anyone seeking insights into Kennedy as a public figure or a private man. He saw those sides close up, although he liked to note that his friend’s enduring mystique owed in part to his ability to compartmentalize so that everyone only saw fragments of the whole.
He was, Mr. Bartlett concluded, a man who pulled you in for a walk, for a laugh, for a dinner — and then kept you at a distance.
“No one ever knew John Kennedy,” he told author Richard Reeves, “not all of him.”
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