BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bob Merry, what is your favorite Joe Alsop story?
ROBERT MERRY, AUTHOR, "TAKING ON THE WORLD": Oh, there can be no favorite Joe Alsop story. There are so many Joe Alsop stories. But I find that some of the funnier ones are the Alsop stories that are kind of small, about small little episodes because they tell so much about Joe. Joe Alsop, the columnist, Georgetown Post, would frequently bring guests, sources into his house for afternoon drinks. And one day he had a scientist -- a military scientist whom he had never met before and he brought in a few other younger reporters, which he always liked to do because they knew what questions to ask and he didn't always in his later years. And he said, “Now, Dr. Rubell, can you tell me ...” and Dr. Rubell, after he was finished, said, “Well, yes, of course, Mr. Alsop, but I'm not a doctor. I don't hold a Ph.D. and, by the way, it's pronounced Rubel.” And Joe says, “Ah, yes. Of course. Now, Dr. Rubell, can you tell me ...”
It was sort of the little touch of the put-down and people couldn't quite figure out why Joe did that, but it was the sort of thing that he constantly did.
LAMB: Who was Stewart Alsop?
MERRY: Stewart Alsop was Joe's brother, four years his junior. I believe that in the later years of their lives, Stewart Alsop emerges as the greater journalist. But for most of their lives, Stewart lived in the shadow of Joe. They wrote a column together, and Joe brought his brother, Stewart, into the column writing business and insisted that he be the senior columnist while Stewart was the junior columnist. And Stewart ultimately chaffed under that. It really was etched into their relationship in a 55/45 split of the proceeds of their column writing and magazine writing together. So he split with Joe in 1958 after 10 years -- after 12 years and became a magazine writer of some note for the next decade.
LAMB: Here's a picture of Joe Alsop when he was thinner. I think it was about 1948. And below that is a picture of his brother, Stewart, along with Randolph Churchill. Why was Randolph Churchill ...
MERRY: Well, the Alsops were Anglophiles. In fact, their whole class of people, the old Anglo-Saxon in lead of America. And they were charter members of that class of Americans, were Anglophiles. It was drummed into their heads at prep school, at Groton and further at Harvard and Yale and Princeton -- they went to Princeton and Yale. And it went so far as when Stewart, after Pearl Harbor, couldn't get a combat job in US forces because of high blood pressure.
He joined the British army and became a platoon leader, a lieutenant, in the British Rifle Corps and fought in the Italian campaign, went to North Africa and later became a ... He parachuted behind the lines in France right after D-Day to help the French resistance, help the Allies move forward in the continent. And Stewart befriended Randolph Churchill and Joe did, too. And in fact, Stewart wrote a marvelous little essay about a lunch he had in Chartwell in which Churchill was having lunch and Randolph invited Stewart. He thought it would maybe be 12 or 15 people and it turned out to be just Winston Churchill and Randolph Churchill and Stewart. And Sir Winston didn't seem too amused to have this interloper at his table. He just sort of harumped through the first course, maybe a little bit more than hrumping through the second course. But after a little bit of a nice claret, he began to open up and then he began to speak expansively and it's a marvelous little tale about a little lunch with the Churchills. But it was typical of the Alsops. They always managed to get in the company of the high and the mighty throughout the world.
LAMB: Randolph Churchill married Pam ...
MERRY: Pam Harriman. Now the later Pam Harriman.
LAMB: Our ambassador to France?
LAMB: Married to Averall Harriman. One of the things you keep saying -- all the circles in this, all the connections. You have a picture here from 1937 of a heavy Joe Alsop. What happened to all the weight?
MERRY: Joe weighed probably at that point over 250 pounds and he was 5'9" and he was working at that time -- that was about 1937 probably -- he was working as a young columnist and magazine writer for the Saturday Evening Post -- working just endless hours, socializing endlessly, drinking quite a little bit socially. He always was a rather heavy drinker, not to excess particularly until perhaps his later life, but always a heavy social drinker. And he began having rather serious heart trouble. The doctor said that if he didn't a lose significant amount of that weight he wasn't sure that he'd last the year.
His mother, by the way, was the first cousin of Eleanor Roosevelt and the niece of Teddy Roosevelt. She went into a panic at that and she paid for Joe to go to Johns Hopkins University Hospital for a brand-new program of nutritional and dietary regimen. And in I think it was two to three months he lost 50 pounds. He never gained it back, but he always had a difficult time with his weight and he always would go to health spas at least once or twice a year. And Kay Graham told me another amusing story. That he had two separate wardrobes, two closets with two separate wardrobes. One for when he was gaining weight and he didn't want to have to go out and buy a bunch of new clothes and -- and one for when he would return from his refreshing trips to the health spas after having lost eight -- eight, 10 pounds.
LAMB: When did you first think this was a book?
MERRY: Let's see ... about six years ago, I was doing a little research project for a book on Senate leaders and I did Robert Taft. And in the context of that study, a chapter on Robert Taft, I stumbled across the Alsop papers at the Library of Congress. Now I known about the Alsops. Stewart, when he was writing a very, very wonderful column in Newsweek magazine in the late '60s, early '70s, was just about my journalistic hero when I was in college and in the Army. And so I knew a lot about the Alsops. I had written about them and I had reviewed their books over the years. But, of course, Stewart had died in '74, Joe retired in '75 and so they were really not very current for a long time. Once I discovered the Alsop papers, which is just a treasure trove of historical gems, it occurred to me that what we have here is a real window on the history of America from about 1935 to 1975, and that's what it turned out to be.
LAMB: How did you go about doing the book? From what period of their lives to what period does this book cover?
MERRY: This book covers from 1910, essentially -- actually, I have to go back. The book really begins in 1660. There's a chapter on the genealogy of the Alsops and there's a reason for that. The reason is that the book is really a story about the Alsops. It's a story about journalism, it's a story about Washington politics, it's a story about America and the postwar world. But more than anything else, aside from the brothers, it's a story about the old elite of America, which I call the old elite, the Anglo-Saxon establishment and its decline. And in order to understand that establishment, it was necessary to go back and explain briefly the genealogy of these two men.
LAMB: This is Joe Alsop on the right?
MERRY: That is him on the right and his sister on the left with their grandmother, Corinne Robinson -- Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, who is the sister of Teddy Roosevelt.
LAMB: Sorry to interrupt. Go ahead.
MERRY: That's OK. And the Alsop family came over to America in the 1660s and within two generations had become extremely prosperous in the shipping trade. In fact, Joseph Wright Alsop II and -- the Joe that I'm writing about was Joseph Wright Alsop V, so you go back three generations -- was probably the richest man in America in his lifetime. So typical in America, there's upward mobility and there's downward mobility and the family fortunes had declined significantly. By the time their father graduated from Yale, he pretty much had to start over and he built a nice living for himself as a farmer and insurance executive in Avon, Connecticut.
LAMB: Joe Alsop and Stewart Alsop were born where?
MERRY: They were born in Avon, Connecticut, in the family farmhouse not too far from Hartford. It became a suburb of Hartford years later. And as I was saying, Joe was born in 1910 and Stewart was born in 1914. So the guts of the story really begins at their life. It explains what life is like in a small Yankee town in the Northeast around the turn of the century.
LAMB: What role did Groton play in their lives and what is it?
MERRY: Groton played a huge role in their lives. Groton is -- I call it the academic foundry where the nation's elite sent its sons to be forged into models of upper crust gentility. And Groton was founded by Endicott Peabody who had gone to school in England at Cheltenham in England. And he, like all these people, were total Anglophiles and he modeled his school on the English boarding school model. The English public schools they call them. And the interesting thing about Groton is that Joe and Stewart both hated the place.
LAMB: There's a picture of Stewart at Groton?
MERRY: Just about the time he went to Groton. And yet they never questioned its significance in the molding and shaping them as they grew into manhood. And that was typical of that time. Years later, in the next generation, Stewart's children hated Groton and Stewart's reaction initially was, “Well, you're supposed to hate prep school. You're supposed to hate boarding school.” But the children disliked it so much and wouldn't accept it, unlike the older generation, that they pulled one of their sons out of Groton and let him move on to another school.
LAMB: Where did the brothers go from Groton?
MERRY: Joe went to Harvard where he -- I like to tell the Harvard story because Joe hated Groton for a number of reasons. The things that Groton prized, Joe didn't have. Groton prized athletic ability, Joe had none; Groton prized kind of a rote unimaginative intelligence, Joe was a man of highly imaginative intelligence and artistic temperament; and Joe was also a fat young man which wasn't very highly prized at Groton. So he was a very unhappy person at Groton and didn't have many friends for a good part of that time. He even wrote years later that it was the only time in his life where he ever significantly considered taking his own life. I don't know how seriously he really considered that, but it was significant, I think, that he wrote it years later.
He went on to Harvard, where he discovered that people didn't care that much about whether you were an athlete or not and his intellectual bent and his ability to be amusing caught on with his peers, and so he created himself. He really pretty much sort of redefined himself -- created himself into a kind of a Dr. Johnson character. And it seemed to work. People were very highly amused. And the more they were amused, the more he played it up; and the more he played it up, the more he was amusing. By the time he got through his first year at Harvard, he had really transformed himself into a flamboyant man with elaborate mannerisms and sort of an ersatz British accent with the long vowels and clipped consonants. And that was sort of the role that he played for himself throughout the rest of his life.
LAMB: As you know, we had a couple of sittings with him on tape, and we're going to use a little bit of it in this interview. They were done in 1984. When did he die?
MERRY: Joe died in 1989.
LAMB: At what age?
MERRY: Well, he was born in 1910, so he was about 79.
LAMB: And in the interview that we did with him, we ask him about his experience at Harvard. Here's a minute of it.
LAMB: Let's take a look at what he looked like in '84.
[Excerpt from 1984 interview:]
JOSEPH ALSOP: I was a rather friendless boy when I was little, and I made friends when I was 13, 14. I learned that it was a bore not to have friends. And they were going to Harvard, so I went to Harvard, that's all. And it certainly wasn't an ideal educational experience if you mean that. I read enormously. I enjoyed myself enormously. I drank enormously. In fact, I became a newspaperman because my family were afraid if I stayed at Harvard Law School, which had been my intention, I'd turn into a drunk like all my mother's uncles. Probably would have, too.
[End of excerpt]
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
MERRY: Never laid eyes on the man. Never did meet him.
LAMB: Did he sound there like -- I mean, you write a lot about the affectation of the English accent. Does he sound like he did all his life, do you think?
MERRY: I think it had receded, actually, a little bit in his later years, but that was pretty close to what he seemed like most of his life.
LAMB: When was he the most important to this country, when he was writing, that people were really paying attention to him?
MERRY: Well, I'd answer that in two ways. He was most influential, by far, in the early '60s and during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He had reached his pinnacle. He was very close to the Kennedys, both Jack and Jackie Kennedy. In fact, his friendship with Jackie Kennedy was really a loving friendship. They had a lot of affection for each other. And he was very close to Lyndon Johnson. I tell a funny story about Lyndon Johnson. When Joe was a rising young columnist in Washington and Lyndon Johnson was a rising young congressman, because of his connection with Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson would get invited down to the White House for strategy sessions, and he would slip a lot of good information to Joe as a good source.
Well, after doing that for a while, you know Johnson, he felt like he should get a quid pro quo and so he sort of unabashedly asked Joe to write a column about what a great congressman he was. Well, Joe didn't think that would be quite appropriate to sort of use his national column to promote Johnson, but he didn't want to make him angry, so he went to a syndicate and asked that, “Do you think it would be all right if I wrote a column about Lyndon Johnson just for the Texas newspapers?” And he did that, and it was sent down to the Texas newspapers, and Johnson was mollified and felt that he had done a good turn. So they had gone back, by the time Johnson became president, a long, long ways. And they spoke a lot. Joe and his wife, Susan Mary, were invited to the White House through those years for very intimate dinners, both under the Kennedys and under the Johnsons. And he had immense access -- tremendous access throughout the government in those years. So I would say that that was his point of greatest influence. But ...
LAMB: Got a picture here of the Stewart Alsop family. He was four years younger.
LAMB: And you say wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek.
MERRY: Later Newsweek. He wrote for the Saturday Evening Post from the time of the immediate post-war period, even while he did a column with his brother Joe from '46 to '58. And then from '58 to '68, he wrote exclusively for the Saturday Evening Post.
LAMB: His wife is in this picture, Tish.
MERRY: That's Tish -- Patricia.
LAMB: Where did he meet her?
MERRY: He met her when he was this young lieutenant in the British army in London. She was very young, 12 years his junior, and she was working for British intelligence, although he didn't know that at the time. She was undercover or she had a cover.
LAMB: Eighteen or 19 years old.
MERRY: She was 18 when they were married. He was 30.
LAMB: What year did they marry?
MERRY: I believe it was 1944. I'm pretty sure it was '44.
LAMB: You describe the difficulty she had coming back to this country and getting into the family.
MERRY: Well, it was tough. The family was extremely well connected and very important and hobnobbed with famous people. And she was this very, very young woman who didn't have much in the way of those kinds of experiences, and she was expected to sort of move right in.
In fact, Joe's first dinner party after he moved back into his house in Georgetown, there was the French ambassador, there was a Supreme Court justice, there were a couple of senators. And Joe asked Tish to act as hostess, so she said she would, although, no doubt, she was very nervous about it. And at one point in the dinner, she thought that the dinner was over, and so she rose to do as she had been instructed, to lead the women to their separate conversation, which was conventional in those days. And Joe kind of shrieked at her, “Darling, we haven't had dessert yet.” And so she had to kind of slink back to the table. So it was not easy coming into the Alsop family in those days, especially if you're somebody like Tish Alsop.
LAMB: You know, another thing that you write a lot about is the Sunday night parties. And we've done so many books here where those Sunday night parties are talked about. When did they happen? Who hosted them? Who went to them?
MERRY: The Sunday night parties, I think, have taken on almost a legendary tone. And they didn't last as long as a lot of people think. It was an immediate post-war period and it was not started by the Alsops, although they became a very significant part of them early on. I think the people who started it were Frank Wisner, who was a CIA operative, and his wife Polly, who was quite wealthy. They both were. And some other couples got together -- I think it might have been Tracey Barnes, also of the CIA. And they soon invited the Alsops.
And the way it worked was -- these were all young people, relatively. And they liked to entertain, but they had young children. And so on Sunday evening, one of them would act as the host and hostess. One of the homes would be the locus of this evening, and it would be kind of a potluck. Different people would bring different parts of the meal, there would be plenty of alcohol, and everyone who was part of the group would be allowed to invite a source, or somebody that they dealt with in the government. So they became quite raucous. In fact, Joe sort of rechristened them the “Sunday Night Drunk.” But the Sunday night supper was quite an institution. Now it lasted, I would say, from about 1947 until the early '50s, and then they sort of petered out.
LAMB: Is there anyone in this business -- I mean, where do you work now?
MERRY: I'm executive editor of Congressional Quarterly.
LAMB: So it's the print business and is there anybody in this business today like the Alsops?
MERRY: No, I don't believe there is. First, you have to remember that in those days, print was king. I mean, really it was the monarch of journalism. And if you were -- if you were a columnist, then you were at the pinnacle of the monarchy, essentially. Today journalism is all fragmented. There's all kinds of broadcast outlets. There's various kinds of print media outlets. There's now new media and online distribution. And nobody can command that kind of -- that amount of a corner of the whole journalistic facade that somebody could in the Alsops' days. So that's number one. Number two, they were part and parcel, as I repeat, of the connected families of America, so that they had an entree that was natural and automatic that doesn't exist today. You would have to be a real grasper and somebody who was really a real climber today to have the kind of access that to the Alsops was just a natural, normal part of everyday life.
LAMB: You have a chapter of both Stewart's relationship, Stewart Alsop -- here is a picture of -- with the Kennedys. And below you see a picture of Joe Alsop with Jack Kennedy. You have a chapter on each and their relationship to the Kennedy family. What was the difference?
MERRY: First, I'd note that the lower picture there of Joe and John Kennedy, that was snapped by a flash camera by Jackie after the two couples -- just the four of them had dinner at the White House one night. Stewart considered himself not a close friend of Kennedy, but a quote, "friendly acquaintance" -- and Stewart observed what we might call journalistic niceties more acidulously than Joe did. Stewart didn't believe in getting too close to sources. And he played tennis with them and he would have dinner with them, but he didn't allow himself to become close friends with them. And Stewart angered the Kennedys on a number of occasions and actually had his access cut off. Joe, on the other hand, was very close and really fostered an ongoing friendship with both Jack and Jackie Kennedy.
LAMB: You have a picture here of Stewart Alsop and Robert McNamara. And I know that in Joe Alsop's own book, he tells the story of his initial contact with Robert McNamara where there was somebody in the room when he wanted to interview him, and he said, “Either he goes or I go,” and Mr. McNamara says, “He stays. He's a government official.” And Joe Alsop left. What was the relationship between Joe Alsop and Stewart Alsop and the Pentagon?
MERRY: Stewart was closer to McNamara than Joe was. Stewart met McNamara shortly after the Kennedys took over at the plantation farm -- weekend retreat farm of Paul Nitze, the noted American diplomat and -- and gov -- government official, and liked him immediately. And he became a pretty good source of Stewart's. But Stewart also was a critic of the US military under the McNamara years. And Joe was utterly uncritical about the military. Whatever the military did, Joe thought it was just about right because it was the American military and, therefore, it couldn't possibly be going wrong. Stewart practically predicted Vietnam, largely because he felt that the military, especially the Army, had become sort of top heavy and bureaucratic and incapa -- lacking the kind of imagination it would take to really prosecute a war such as the Vietnam War.
LAMB: In the interview that we did back in 1984, Joe Alsop told a story about when Mr. McNamara and Mr. Alsop got back together, as it was -- I guess. Maybe it's in this clip. I don't know. Let's run it and we'll get your reactions to it here.
MERRY: Sure. (Excerpt from BOOKNOTES, 1984) Mr. ALSOP: ...in the first breakfast.
LAMB: What? In your home? Mr. ALSOP: Yes, I had a sort of garden room looking out on the garden with a lot of birds in it. And at that time, I was experimenting with a toucan. Well, a toucan is a very beautiful bird, but it's conversation is both loud and uninteresting, and it -- it's what they call a soft feeder. In other words, it eats fruit. And the particular toucan I had may have been overfed, I don't know, also had the habit of eating fruit and spitting it out, causing a fearful mess and friction on the kind of people having to clean up the mess. And the first time Bob McNamara and I were having breakfast, that toucan spat three-quarters of a banana onto Bob McNamara's head where the hair was already getting a little bit thin. So he had to -- head washed before the conversation could go on. He was very good about it. (End of excerpt)
LAMB: Had you seen that before?
MERRY: I -- I saw that some time ago. I had forgotten about it, but that's a funny story.
LAMB: What -- you know, what other people did he have a relationship with that ever turned sour as he was covering them? Because you -- you have a lot of letters in here that he sent back and forth of apology when he wrote too hard and things like that.
MERRY: He was always in controversy with people. And I think probably the biggest example of that was Lyndon Johnson. I mentioned that he was close to Lyndon Johnson and was invited over for intimate little dinners of maybe six or eight people quite frequently in the early years of the Johnson administration. But in -- in 1964, there was one thing that Lyndon Johnson did not want to do, and that was to get embroiled in Vietnam before the election. And Joe felt that things were going -- were going south, were going sour in Vietnam in a very big way. And he began writing a series of columns almost endlessly, Johnny One Note, on the fearful challenge and the lack of resolve that the president seemed to be showing in the face of this fearsome challenge. And Johnson was getting increasingly angry. And ultimately, Johnson just cut him off. There's a funny story that Jack Valenti, who worked for Lyndon Johnson, told me. It was during this period, some AP wire photos came over the president's desk, and -- and there was a helicopter, and out of the helicopter was coming a bunch of newsmen, and one of them was Joe Alsop. And Johnson just flew into a rage; he says, `What's that SOB Alsop, doing on one of my helicopters?' And -- and, of course, it was a routine thing. All the newsmen used US forces helicopters in Vietnam, but Johnson said, `You call McNamara and find out how that happened.' He was just almost beside himself with anger. And it was years before Joe and Lyndon were able to sort of rekindle their friendship as a result of that rupture.
LAMB: Where did you find the Alsop files?
MERRY: Well, they're scattered a little bit, but most of Jo -- almost all of Joe's papers are found at the Library of Congress. He went through them quite meticulously and they're very well organized and they -- they begin in -- really in their mid-30s and go all the way to the end, 75. Stewart's papers for the 12 years in which the two brothers wrote the column together, are also at the Library of Congress, but from 1958 onward, those were a separate batch of papers, kept separately, obviously, and he gave those papers to the Mougar Library at Boston University. So I had to go up to Boston, spend quite a bit of time, and get myself a young researcher from the Harvard School to -- from the JFK School to go through those papers with me.
LAMB: Did you take a leave of absence?
MERRY: I can't say that I did, really. I did take, at one point towards the end of 1992, because of the presidential campaign, I -- I really found it harder and harder to maintain my -- my pace. And so at the end of that year, when things slowed down, I took essentially about two months off to sort of get back on course, which I managed to do.
LAMB: You have a dedication here in this book to your mother.
MERRY: My mother.
LAMB: And you also tell us that both your mother and father spent a lot of time on this book.
MERRY: Well, my mother came back here to go through the Library of Congress papers for me. I didn't have enough time to devote to the papers themselves as I had wanted to go through and look for what I wanted. And she was very interested in the project, and so I said, `Well, would you like to come back?' Of course...
LAMB: Where was she?
MERRY: She was in Gig Harbor, Washington, where I grew up. And, `Would you like to come back and go through' -- she had just retired from her job as a hospital executive -- `and go through the papers?' And -- and she wasn't sure that she could make any kind of a contribution. I said, `Well, come back and try it and see what happens.' So she did. And she had a great time. She just loved it.
LAMB: And she died in the middle of all this.
MERRY: She had cancer and she did, yeah. She...
LAMB: What year?
LAMB: What about your dad?
MERRY: My dad was a retired newspaper executive. He was an editor of the Tacoma News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, newspaper with about 150,000 circulation. And also has a master's degree in English literature from Cornell. So he was pretty accomplished as an editor, and he went through the manuscript, painstakingly numerous, numerous times for each chapter. And every time, he found something new that he thought could be improved, and it was -- it was the kind of assistance and help that you couldn't find from anybody other than somebody that was -- that had a loving relationship with you.
LAMB: How many people did you interview?
MERRY: I don't remember exactly, but I think it's about 100.
LAMB: Who did you spend the most time with?
MERRY: I spent a -- by far the most time with Tish Alsop, Stewart's widow. I spent quite a bit of time, numerous interviews with Susan Mary Alsop, who was Joe's wife for 13 years.
LAMB: Where is this picture from?
MERRY: That picture, as I recall, was taken at the wedding of one of Susan Mary's children. And that would have been probably in the l -- probably early '70s or around the turn of the decade.
LAMB: The -- the Joseph Alsop personal story has been alluded to in a number of places, but you seem to go into much more detail. How hard was that to tell?
MERRY: Well, I tried to handle it quite sensitively. Joe was homosexual. He lived in the closet of a -- of a -- of a secret life through most of his life. And he had a couple of episodes that were somewhat threatening, really, as a result of that. One famous episode now occurred in Moscow, where he had a homosexual encounter with a young man, and it was all captured by KGB -- actually, NKVB, the predecessor of the KGB, photographers. His room was rigged, and they attempted to turn him into an agent of influence. Basically, `We're going to blackmail you unless you give us a lot of information about what's going on in Washington.' Joe was pretty foolish to get himself into that kind of a situation in Moscow, but he handled it from that moment quite -- quite well. He was totally arrogant, as was his want -- he was an arrogant man -- to these operatives of the Soviet intelligence. And he went immediately to the US Embassy, where the ambassador was his very good friend, Chip Bowling. Of course, the man was very well connected, as you've noted. And Chip and his friend, Frank Wisner of the CIA and others sort of rallied around and got him out of the country. And basically he managed to escape that episode. And there's no evidence that he ever succumbed to the pressures that were put upon him. And there were some subsequent pressures, apparently, when some of those photos were mailed to various people in Washington years later at a point when he was writing some particularly vociferous columns against the Soviet Union.
LAMB: When did the fact that Joe Alsop was homosexual become public first?
MERRY: I believe it first became public in a story by Jack Nelson of the LA Times, bouncing off of a previous book written by Ed Yoder, which is a kind of somewhat narrowly framed book of a particular part of the Alsop brothers' lives. And he goes into that somewhat, and Jack Nelson wrote about it before his book came out.
LAMB: You talk about an instance where his friend, Berlin ...
MERRY: Isaiah Berlin.
LAMB: Who was he?
MERRY: Sir Isaiah Berlin is sort of the quintessential Oxford don of the 20th century. He's one of the prodigious intellectuals of England and a very, very close friend of Joe Alsop's, probably his closest friend.
LAMB: But when Joe Alsop told him he was a homosexual, what was Mr. Berlin's reaction?
MERRY: Well, it was late at night, and they they didn't get to see each other all that often, maybe a few times a year, because they lived on either side of the Atlantic. And when they did, they frequently would spend a long late evening hours, almost into the wee morning hours, drinking and talking and gossiping and arguing over intellectual subjects. And one night in one of those sessions, Joe wanted to tell Sir Isaiah something, and it's clear that he had a hard time getting this out. He said, “I have something I want to tell you.” And Isaiah was quite -- he was brought up a bit. And he said, “Well, of course, Joe, what is it?” He said, “I am a homosexual.” Well, Sir Isaiah wanted to handle it as sensitively as he possiblycould, and he simply said, “Oh, Joe, everybody knows that. Nobody cares.”
And Joe was clearly taken aback by his offhand response. It's not clear whether it was because Sir Isaiah was saying that his deep, dark secret was not a secret at all or whether he it was because he was suggesting that it wasn't of the magnitude that it seemed to be to Joe. And Isaiah said later that it was -- I think he used the word insensitive or cruel even, but it was not intended to be cruel. It was just a very difficult, delicate subject, and it was very hard to talk about.
LAMB: Did Susan Mary Alsop -- and her name was Patten?
MERRY: She was initially Susan Mary Jay She was of the longtime American Jay family, another part of the Anglo-Saxon -- what Joe called the WASP ascendency. She was directly descended from John Jay of the famous Revolutionary War era diplomat. And then she married Bill Patten, who was one of Joe Alsop's closest friends, a Harvard classmate and a former roommate in New York after Harvard. And then when he died, he was infirmed. He had emphysema, and he died in 1960. And Joe proposed to her relatively shortly thereafter, and they were married probably about a year after.
LAMB: Did she know that he was a homosexual?
MERRY: Susan Mary told me that she did not know he was a homosexual throughout their longtime friendship, very close friendship. When he wrote to her to propose to her, he revealed to her that he was, in fact, homosexual, and he did indicate to her that what he was proposing was a platonic marriage. But he indicated that he didn't see any reason why it couldn't be a very happy and loving relationship. She initially, delicately and sensitively, declined the proposal, but some months later he was in Paris, and she was living in Paris at the time. She and her husband had lived there for 15 years after the war. And she decided that she would marry Joe, and they were married in very early weeks of 1961. I believe it was in February.
LAMB: You also tell a story about pictures and Charlie Bartlett. Who was Charlie Bartlett? Is he still alive? And what was the picture story? And how did you find that, by the way?
MERRY: It wasn't easy. I stumbled across it, actually. Charlie Bartlett was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and a very close friend of John Kennedy. And he is the man who introduced Jack and Jackie Kennedy and was in the Kennedy wedding. And he was practicing his columnist trade in around -- I want to say 1970 -- 1970 I would say, maybe '72. And he received a packet in the mail which he opened up, and it was some photographs of Joe in the middle of a homosexual encounter with another man. He was shocked to be receiving such a thing. It wasn't any of his business. He didn't really have any desire to be in the middle of any such thing, and he didn't have any idea where it had come from. But he suspected that there was some kind of international shenanigan being played, and so he contacted some friends of his at the CIA.
They said, “We'll get back to you.” And they called and said, “Send the photos over to Joe.” Well, it was important that he send the photos over to Joe, because Joe had heard in the meantime, and he had received word of this from the CIA people, that another person who was not a friend at all, Art Buchwald, who was a humor columnist -- still is, in Washington and had written kind of a nasty play about Joe and never liked him -- also received such photographs. So it was important for Joe to know who had received them and to get them back.
Well, Charlie delayed sending them, just because he was uncomfortable. And he went off on a foreign trip, and he was gone for quite some time. When he got back, he gets a call from the CIA intermediary and said, “Charlie, I thought you were going to send those photos over to Joe.” And he said, “Well, I am. I am.” And so he did. And he wrote a little note saying something like, “Dear Joe, these came to me in the mail unsolicited. I want you to know that your friends are behind you all the way,” or some such sensitive thing like that. But he didn't sign it, because he continued to be sort of uncomfortable interjecting himself into a situation like that.
And Joe, of course, had to know whether these were the photos from Charlie or whether they were some other photos from someone else. So he had to call Charlie. “Charlie,” he says, “are you the one that sent these photos over here?” “Yes, I did, Joe. Yes, I did.” “Why didn't you sign it?” And he said, “Well, I just didn't want to embarrass you, Joe.” And so he said, “Well, thank you.” But Charlie Bartlett says that he had never been a close friend of Joe Alsop's but they had a friendly relationship -- friendly association over the years. And it was never quite the same after that.
LAMB: Is Charlie Bartlett still alive?
MERRY: Oh, yes.
LAMB: How did you find this story?
MERRY: I had heard about the story from a source who knew the Alsops who spoke anonymously and who was a former CIA official. And then I went to interview Charlie Bartlett primarily about a famous article that he had written with Stewart Alsop years earlier during the Kennedy years on the Cuban Missile Crisis. And in the course of that interview, I began to detect that Charlie was hinting at something, and the previous episode sort of came back to me. And so Charlie revealed the details.
LAMB: Ed Yoder's book came out what year?
MERRY: I believe it came out last year.
LAMB: So this is all new -- this on-the-record information.
MERRY: This is very, very new, yes.
LAMB: Here's a clip from the 1984 interview about Stewart Alsop that I want to ask you about.
[Excerpt from 1984 interview]
LAMB: Your brother, Stewart, was he older or younger?
ALSOP: Younger. I'm the oldest.
LAMB: And he died a long time ago.
ALSOP: And that's why I retired.
LAMB: What year did he die?
ALSOP: About 10 years ago.
ALSOP: Yeah, you know, we had a wonderful time when we were partners, and then we were -- he was my best friend in Washington, and I saw him all the time. And I just didn't have the stomach to go on with the column when Stu died.
[End of excerpt]
LAMB: You write a lot about the death and I remember living three years, through all the columns.
MERRY: He wrote about it. He struggled with leukemia for three years. Finally, he succumbed in 1974. We should talk about Stewart a little bit, because Joe was an imperious person. He was arrogant and he was a know-it-all. And towards the end of his life, his abilities as a journalist were diminishing as a result of his lack of curiosity. He simply thought that he knew everything, whereas Stewart, who was younger and, as I say, had lived in Joe's shadow for a fair amount of his career, never lost his curiosity and his ability to step back and analyze dispassionately what was going on in the corridors of power within Washington and throughout the world. And the result, in my view, is that Stewart, especially when he got that column in Newsweek in 1968, really emerged as the greater journalist. The greatest challenge and test of their careers was Vietnam. And I believe that Joe failed the test, and Stewart passed the test with flying colors. This is not a question of whether they believed in the war or supported the war. Both of them did. But Stewart understood what was going on in Vietnam in a way that Joe did not. And so in my view, Stewart really emerges as a journalist of real immense proportion in American post-war journalistic history.
LAMB: Why did Stewart Alsop decide to share his leukemia step by step, all the platelets and the transfusions and everything?
MERRY: The Alsops always enjoyed writing about themselves, and there was always a market, because they were a fascinating family with a rich tale. But he was uncomfortable, initially, when he first discovered he had leukemia, went to the hospital and wasn't clear what the treatment was going to be. And he came out -- he was gone for a long time. And the question was: Was he going to reveal this to his readers and explain why he'd been gone, why the column hadn't appeared for several weeks? He went to the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, his good friend Mel Elfin, and showed him a column he'd written and said, “Do you think that I should -- we should publish this?” And Mel said, “But of course. Why wouldn't we?” And Stewart said, “Well, I'm not so sure I'm comfortable.”
And they did, and it got such an incredible response that as this battle ensued, Stewart decided that perhaps his readers were sort of interested. And, sure enough, he did write about it intermittently. And then he wrote what I consider to be a courageous little book about his life. He called it a sort of memoir; it's very chatty, anecdotal, a lot of funny stories about him and his family. But he also tells about his battle with cancer. He was writing about his own death with the same dispassionate, analytical rigor that he brought to writing about what was happening to Nixon in Watergate. And it was quite a remarkable book.
LAMB: What was the brothers' relationship during the cancer?
MERRY: Very, very close. Joe would go there all the time. He would take him soup and martinis. They loved martinis, especially Stewart. And the friendship of the brothers was probably never more tender than it was during those years. They had a stormy relationship, but the love between them was really quite something to behold. But, you know, Joe was a very difficult guy to get along with. And especially when they were writing the column together, there were a lot of frictions within the family. And they argued endlessly on political matters. It was just part of their lives. They loved it. They loved to go at each other, as their father had done with them earlier, and it was just part of life. But that was different from the frictions that ensued towards the end of their column-writing period.
LAMB: I don't know whether you can reconstruct this or not -- I found it in two different parts of your book. This business of being elite, going to Harvard and Yale, Groton, being a part of the Anglo-Saxon family. And you show a time when Joe Alsop arrived at the Kennedy house in Georgetown and he found it a mess -- an old hamburger on the, I don't know, on the table there, half-eaten or something like that. What I'm trying to do is contrast this with the -- they just seem to have a very difficult time going to Waco, Texas, and to being in some of the basement restaurants of motels there and dealing with the food and -- when there was a wedding. Can you put all that together and ...
MERRY: Well, there was a little bit of a culture clash, and I think that the significance of that wedding and Joe's letters to his stepson, Billy Patten, are where I get this material, because he went on at some length about the observations that they had at this wedding.
LAMB: Let me put it together, though, just one more time. Mary Jo...
MERRY: Susan Mary.
LAMB: Susan Mary, I'm sorry, Patten's son -- Mary's the woman that he met on an airplane?
MERRY: That actually would be Stewart's son, Joe -- his oldest son Joe married a woman that he had met on an airplane.
LAMB: OK. Gotcha. That's right.
MERRY: He was living in Boston, and I think he had gone to MIT and was in the computer business even very early in Boston, and she was working in Boston. She had left from college at a Texas university -- I can't remember which one -- had taken a job in Boston, largely to see the world. And they had met and fallen in love. And she was somebody that Joe just highly prized. He thought she was just a wonderful catch. But she came from the big, broad American middle class. And it's interesting that no one of the Alsops throughout all the generations since they first made their money in the shipping trade, shipping ice down to the Bahamas and rum back in around the mid-18th century -- no one had ever married below their station. It wasn't done in those days. But, of course, the world was changing dramatically.
The meritocracy, television, airplanes, the coming out parties that were designed basically to make sure that people of like stations married and met and married people of like station. All those things were in very serious erosion. And so the wedding took place in Waco, and it was a very nice wedding. Candy was her name. Candy Adelot, and her family had not met the Alsops, and they had not met them. And so there was a little bit of a culture clash. And Joe wrote about this culture clash. He was somewhat amused. He felt that they probably thought that he was somewhat amusing, also. “We're strange,” he said. “We certainly probably appear weird to them.” But some of the settings and some of the foods and everything were just not what they were used to. And he couldn't help but remarking upon that.
LAMB: And he couldn't eat? They only ate salad, I think.
MERRY: That would have been sort of typical of Joe, yeah. He once said to a friend of mine, Frank Makowitz, on a campaign trail, when Frank -- he kind of got in late one night to a hotel and they kept the kitchen open -- said, “Joe, you can have anything you want.” And he had ordered like an apple and a salad. And he said, “Dear boy, I never eat hot foods in the provinces.”
LAMB: But yet he had been in Korea and had been in World War II.
MERRY: He had been quite an adventurer, as a matter of fact. And he marched at the company level in Korea, and he was 40. He was not young and saw a lot of -- saw a lot of adversity and didn't mind it at all.
LAMB: Go back to when they were writing. What would be both Stewart and Joe Alsop's peak years and how many people in this country that year could read them?
MERRY: Well, let's take the time when they were writing the column together. They had 200 newspapers with a combined circulation of about 20 million. At the same time, they were writing in the Saturday Evening Post, which had a circulation at its peak during that period. It fluctuated somewhat, but had its peak of 6 million -- I'm sorry, 200 newspapers with 25 million circulation combined.
LAMB: What years?
MERRY: Mid-'50s to 1960. But the column broke up in 1958. And the Saturday Evening Post -- they were writing regularly for the Post, and that had a circulation of 6 million with 20 million readers. So they had a huge circulation for those days. That was before television had gained the kind of stature and status that it has now and reach.
LAMB: In Joe Alsop's own book, written with Adam Platt -- which came out what year?
MERRY: Oh, I would say --can I remember this?
LAMB: He died in '89, and it was after that?
MERRY: I believe it was '91.
LAMB: Was this in the middle of your research, by the way?
MERRY: Yeah, it was. I had the manuscript, and I was working from the manuscript, then the book came out and made things a little easier.
LAMB: He said he never had a television.
MERRY: He told you that in that interview.
LAMB: And he said it in his book.
MERRY: And you asked him -- you said, “So there's not a television in this house?” And he said, “Not one that I own.” And I don't know what kind of a -- I don't know what he was trying to say. I imagine that his hired help had television in their rooms. And Katharine Graham of The Washington Post -- the owner of The Washington Post, told me that he always seemed to manage to get a television for, you know, big political nights, like primary nights or the Iowa caucuses or something. So I don't know where he managed to glom on to television sets. But he didn't like television; he didn't watch television. He read endlessly.
LAMB: We've got some video from that series of interviews we did, but you write in your book about the end where he had to sell the Dunbarton home and where this video is coming from, and it will show outside in Georgetown, is the home that he actually rented.
LAMB: In the end, did he have any money left? And we're going to see some of the insides here in just a moment. That's one of the streets, I think it was N Street where he lived. There's some photos of the Kennedy brothers on his wall that had signatures on them. At the end, did he have any money?
MERRY: I don't know what his estate was at the end. I do know that some of his family members felt that he ate into the capital, as opposed to just the income from the capital, maybe more than he ought to have. But I don't really know. I didn't get into what the estate was worth.
LAMB: What was his life like at the end?
MERRY: Oh, I think he did quite well. I think that he had amassed a tremendous amount of artifacts and artistic objects over the years, including during his years -- during the war in China. And they were worth a fair amount. And so was his house.
LAMB: You say he got cranky in the end. He knew he was cranky.
MERRY: Oh, yes, he did. He did. In fact, even before he retired, he knew that he had gotten cranky. There was a kind of a touching letter he wrote to Scotty Reston, who was one of the giants of post-war American journalism, along with the Alsop brothers and Walter Lippmann probably. And he sort of lamented that their controversies had seemed to interfere with their friendship. And he said, “As soon as I retire, I'm never again going to discuss politics.” Of course, he did. I think that lasted about a week and a half. But the world was changing on him, and he didn't like a lot of the changes that he saw.
LAMB: Do any journalists today have the kind of influence that he had?
LAMB: Or Stewart?
LAMB: Do you think they should?
MERRY: Oh, the world's changed, you know? Everything that happens in history happens for good and ill. And I don't really have an opinion on that, but the ability to have that kind of influence came from your ability to havea significant position within an entity which was print journalism, which was, at that time, the foremost way in which most people received their news.
LAMB: Does ...
MERRY: That doesn't exist anymore.
LAMB: Does Bill Clinton have a relationship with any news person like Joe Alsop or Stewart did with the presidents Lyndon Johnson or Jack Kennedy?
MERRY: I don't know that he does. I don't believe that he does.
LAMB: What did you think when you found all the letters Joe Alsop would write to President Kennedy, saying, “You're just the greatest thing that ever happened,” or to Lyndon Johnson, “You're on the right track. Keep it up.” Does any of that kind of thing go on today?
MERRY: Well, I don't think it does. I mean, it shouldn't go on, and I think that most people, most journalists, certainly, and I think probably most other people who read this book will say there are a lot of transgressions here. I mean, this guy is purporting to be a detached, analytical newsman, and he's really snuggling up to a lot of his sources. But he was a columnist, of course. He wasn't an objective -- a reporter who's simply giving facts. He was a columnist, so that would be part of his defense, no doubt. But from almost the very beginning, Joe got very close to his sources. And probably most people would say too close.
LAMB: How did this book turn out for you in the end?
MERRY: How did it turn out?
LAMB: Is it the way you wanted it? Are you...
MERRY: Oh, I think so. When you work as long and hard on a project such as this of this magnitude, you almost have to say that it came out the way that you wanted, or you might go crazy.
LAMB: Bob Merry is the author, "Taking on the World," the Alsop brothers, published by Viking. Thank you very much for joining us tonight.
MERRY: Pleasure. Thank you.
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