Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University. She is the author of “. . . and His Lovely Wife.”
Had Sally Quinn stayed true to the promise of her book's whimsical title, "Finding Magic: A Spiritual Memoir," she might have led readers on a journey of self-exploration as she shared her stories of hope and the many faces of faith in the aftermath of despair.
Quinn, who was married to former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee until his death in 2014, is a grieving widow and devoted mother to a son who has known many challenges, and her writing about these most important relationships in her life hints at the depth and breadth of her investigation of human suffering and renewal.
If only she had maintained the discipline of that higher calling.
Unfortunately, we have to gallop across a bizarre terrain to get there. Quinn’s memoir is peppered with references to youthful affairs and the past indiscretions of named colleagues and friends. Most alarming, she confesses that, like her mother, she believes in the deadly power of hexes — and suggests that she has harmed people by using them. If the hairs just stood up on the back of your neck, believe me, you aren’t alone.
Quinn was a Style writer and columnist at The Post, and a celebrated Washington hostess who, for decades, threw some of the biggest parties in town. She is also widely known as Bradlee’s third — and longtime — wife.
Her belief in magic and the occult began in early childhood in the 1940s, when she often lived with maternal relatives in Savannah and Statesboro, Ga. As she writes in the memoir, her great-aunt Ruth was a “nice Presbyterian lady” and “a devotee of Scottish mysticism,” and all of the black domestic staff members “were adherents of voodoo, which they practiced regularly.” Quinn describes spirits showing up to make breakfast before the family rose. Years later, she writes, one welcomed her to Grey Gardens, a famous mansion in the Hamptons that she and Bradlee bought in 1979.
Quinn seems to have few reservations about revealing her belief in the deadly power of hexes — her mother’s and her own.
She writes of the veterinarian who repeatedly refused to take seriously her mother’s pleas for the beloved family dog, Blitzie. After one such rejection, they returned to the car to find that the dog had died in the back seat. “I had never seen my mother so upset. I was devastated. My mother grabbed my hand pulled me back to the office and started screaming at the SOB. ‘I hope you drop dead,’ she sobbed.” Days later, Quinn claims, he did.
A few years after that, her mother lashed out at a U.S. Army major she thought had mistreated Quinn as a patient in the pediatric ward of a Tokyo hospital: “I hope you drop dead!” her mother said. Quinn claims that he, too, succumbed.
Like mother, like daughter. In some of the most troubling passages of this book, she describes casting hexes on people who later died. One was an attractive young woman who flirted with one of Quinn’s earlier boyfriends. “I won’t say exactly what I did — even now I think that would be bad luck for me — but I practiced what I learned and observed. I worked on the hex for several days until I felt that it would have some effect.”
It did, she claims. The woman committed suicide. Quinn vowed never to cast a hex on someone else — a promise she did not keep. When New York magazine wrote an unfavorable profile of her, she “decided to put a hex” on the magazine’s editor, Clay Felker. He later died of cancer. Not her fault, she told herself, “but still, my embedded religion and my Southern upbringing made me believe otherwise.”
Quinn’s last hex came after a psychic gave her a “devastatingly brutal” reading about her son. The woman dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. “I vowed once again never to put another hex on anyone,” she writes. “Believe me, I haven’t, though I have to admit to being sorely tempted on occasion.”
Halfway into the book, Quinn offers a glimpse of what this memoir could have been had she stuck to her promised topic of chronicling her lifelong search for spirituality. She describes hovering over the hospital crib of her newborn son, named Quinn, in 1982, hours before he underwent surgery to save his life.
“I was overcome with an animal, visceral, raw need, like a mother lion licking her cub. I carefully took off his blanket and his little nightgown. I leaned down and began to kiss his body. I kissed his head and his little pink ears and his eyes and his button nose and his rosebud lips.”
“I wanted to have his taste in my mouth forever if anything happened to him. The love and desperation I felt for my baby was the strongest emotion I had ever experienced. I was in agony. Later I would do the same to Ben the night before he died.”
Quinn’s public exploration of spirituality began in 2006, when she and journalist Jon Meacham founded the discussion forum “On Faith” for The Post. Privately, her journey began much earlier. She was “an angry atheist” at a young age, questioning the existence of God.
Her childhood fueled her doubts. In a moving passage, she describes discovering the scrapbooks her father brought back at the end of World War II. Hidden in his study, they were full of photos of Holocaust victims and emaciated survivors. “The God I prayed to every night on my knees had let this happen,” she recalls thinking. She quit saying her prayers and resisted going to church, and was appalled by the popular children’s hymn “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.”
“Who were they kidding? Had Jesus loved all the little Jewish children?”
There was no God, she decided. Her conclusion was reinforced by subsequent events in her young life, including by her mother’s polio and the sight of so-called Christian educators paddling her classmates.
Her father’s military career required the family to move frequently. During their two-year stay in Athens, 13-year-old Quinn “became more open to certain moments of transcendence.” Just before they left, she had a spiritual experience that allowed her to see all that would unfold in her life, to this day.
“I had the oddest sensation,” she writes. “As if I were watching flashbacks of my life, except I was seeing flash-forwards. My whole emotional future passed before me. . . . It was a true psychic experience. From then on, everything that has happened to me has been something that, no matter how joyful or painful, I have somehow anticipated. Since then, I haven’t had an emotional experience that did not seem already familiar to me.”
Quinn’s memoir is ultimately a love story full of private revelations about her relationship with the talented and irascible Bradlee. His fame as editor of The Post had skyocketed after the Watergate coverage that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Quinn, who was 20 years Bradlee’s junior, was a recent hire with no journalism experience assigned to be a reporter for the newspaper’s new Style section.
She makes no apology for setting her sights on him. She started crafting anonymous love letters to Bradlee, whom she depicts as unhappy in his second marriage but doing everything he could to stifle his growing attraction to her. On the advice of a named Post colleague, she put “country first” and didn’t try to lure the busy editor into an affair during the peak of Watergate coverage.
Soon enough, they were in love and meeting secretly. Word leaked that Bradlee was having an affair, and their professional and social circles roiled with speculation. Quinn brags that she gleefully, and disingenuously, fueled the gossip.
“Who could it be?” she writes. “Both Washington and New York were wild with curiosity. I even made a few well-placed calls myself, debating the identity of the new inamorata.” She doesn’t mention how these people later felt when they discovered that they’d been played.
Twice, Quinn says, she had to threaten Bradlee with infidelity to get what she wanted. The first time was to force him to marry her after five years of living together. “I told Ben that if he didn’t marry me, I was going to start having affairs — and I had a candidate in mind. I actually did.” This was in 1978, when she was headed for a reporting trip to Israel. “I had heard of Ezer Weizman, the handsome Israeli Air Force commander and war hero, who was the minister of defense. I knew that Barbara Walters had had a brief flirtation with him.”
Bradlee, she writes, “went crazy. . . . I don’t think I ever saw Ben that angry or upset. . . . I just went along making my plans, whistling a happy tune. . . . All I knew was that I had to stick to my guns.”
The day she was to leave, she writes, Bradlee proposed: “All right! I’ll marry you!”
Bradlee’s account, in his 1995 memoir, “A Good Life,” reveals no such manipulation. In his version, “the question of marriage did arise, carefully at first, and then insistently,” and eventually he had to make good on his flip response to a reporter that he would “marry Sally when they elected a Polish pope, which of course could never happen.” It did, on Oct. 16, 1978, with Pope John Paul II, and four days later they married.
Quinn had told Bradlee that she did not want children, but five years into their marriage, she changed her mind and became obsessed with having a baby. She stopped taking birth-control pills, and for two years “Ben decided to take care of the birth control situation himself.”
Finally, she threatened him. “I said I was going to have a baby and it was either going to be his or somebody else’s. He had a choice. I also told him that again I had a candidate in mind and I wasn’t talking about artificial insemination, either.”
Again, Bradlee relented and, in his memoir, portrayed his submission as a natural progression. Their son, “by mutual agreement of the parents,” had been an impossibility, Bradlee wrote, until “all of a sudden” it became “discussable, followed by desirable, and soon enough a reality.”
I include these descriptions from Bradlee’s memoir because he cannot respond to her version. Surely, this is equally her story to tell, but the differing accounts make one wonder if she would have cast tough-guy Bradlee as so vulnerable to her tactics were he alive for the fact checks.
Sally Quinn may be the only person who knew Bradlee well and is willing to depict him as he was, rather than just as those who so many wanted him to be. She is effusive about his attentiveness as a lover and as a husband, but she does not spare him in describing the period of time, starting in 2003, when he became increasingly distant and even hostile toward her. She insisted on marriage counseling, and he reluctantly agreed, for a while. Only later did she recognize his alarming behavior as the beginning stages of dementia.
Quinn bears witness to her husband’s slow and agonizing descent, until his death at 93. Eventually, she writes, all who were close to him, including many friends at The Post, knew of his dementia. Interestingly, Bradlee’s obituary in the newspaper made no mention of this, stating only that he died “of natural causes.”
Quinn is having none of that. She writes of his diminished abilities, including occasional psychotic breaks, with an intimacy that is bound to make some of his fans uncomfortable but reads as an affirmation for those who’ve lost loved ones to the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Only after Bradlee’s death, she writes, did she “let the pain crack me open.” That, she adds, is the way she survived. It is also how her book finally becomes a story about the incremental nudges of faith.
She is trying to make sense of her deep grief. She sleeps with her husband’s favorite T-shirt, the one he was wearing when he died. She explores various faith practices and devours the works of numerous religious writers, seeking answers she knows must, at least in part, elude all of us. She clings to signs that he is still with her.
She is open about all of this, no longer willing to hide these parts of herself.
“I don’t call anyone else crazy,” she says. “I expect the same respect for me.”
Fair enough. There’s courage in that.