Just finished the Himmelman bio of Ben Bradlee, which is haunting and insightful.
Outstanding preliminary impressions — what one reviewer calls his “reactive genius” is the very heart of the matter. The photographer Diane Arbus once noted that freaks, whom she photographed, like aristocrats had met their challenge in life and Bradlee’s aristocracy strikes me as the cool core everyone speaks of. No one around him has it — Himmelman is told to listen to the tape of the dinner party with JFK and picks up on Kennedy’s sticking it to Bradlee on account of the one thing Bradlee had that Kennedy did not. Bradlee’s aristocracy is of the essence — it explains his Elizabeth-and-Essex relationship with Kay, the slightly puritannical/Navy foulmouth aplomb with which he flicked away the beta wolves circling him in their knockoff Turnbull and Asser shirts (I remember once seeing Jane Amsterdam in one, which just about made me puke), Woodward’s bromance (and the rise and fall of Woodward’s career), and Downie’s non-participation (or exclusion, as the “son of an Ohio milkman”) in the Ben circle jerk.
His aristocracy also explains the extraordinary unsent memo on money and position he wrote to Sally.
The subtheme of the whole book is really good reporters eyeballing each other and Bradlee’s memo to Sally on the coarseness of her social climbing in their marriage is — contrasted with the Tolstoyan opening of the Himmelman book in which Sally calls him to the house to outline the book she wants him to write for Ben — the answer to every single question you ever had about any of that. Bradlee is somehow the helpless, sad and stoic spectator of other peoples’ machinations to rise in society — including Sally. What Himmelman did not find in the dusty boxes of Bradlee’s papers was the importunities of his furious children, who apparently telephone him for money while disrespecting everything else about him. Himmelman simply eavesdropped on Bradlee’s end of phone conversations, one of which ended with an inhuman noise made by the iron man who brought Nixon down.
That Bradlee turned to writing — his memos and letters, which Himmelman alone has mined, are Bradlee’s real contribution to the humanities — every time the shit hit the fan, lets one know that not only was he the editor for all time, a curious lizard-like creature who really did lose it after Watergate (Sally? some people think it was you who did that), truly courageous in his personal and professional transparency (Himmelman’s account of the Deep Throat throwdown with Woodward is a Eugene O’Neill play), lets one know what a writer really is. It is what, at the end, you are left alone with. That Bradlee disobeyed Sally’s ukase to write a deeply immoral, shallow hagiography and let Himmelman go for it is Bradlee’s crowning achievement, and a book for the ages.