The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment

The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment

by Geoffrey Kabaservice

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466880054
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 592
File size: 850 KB

About the Author

Geoffrey Kabaservice received a B.A. from Yale, a master's in philosophy from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. from Yale, where he lectured in the history department. He is currently a manager with the Advisory Board Company and lives in Washington, D.C.

Geoffrey Kabaservice received a B.A. from Yale, a master’s in philosophy from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. from Yale, where he lectured in the history department. He is the author of The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment. He is currently a manager with the Advisory Board Company and lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

The Guardians

Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment

By Geoffrey Kabaservice

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Kabaservice
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8005-4



Kingman Brewster spent the last days of the summer of 1937 sailing off Martha's Vineyard. At age eighteen, he had established himself as one of the country's top young sailors. Straight-backed and intent, he was the image of assurance and command at the tiller. As a racer, he won through competence, aggression, and élan. He was nervy, relied on a gambler's instinct, and was especially good at match racing, which called for a chess-like ability to anticipate a competitor's moves. In August he had, for the second time, been crowned the best young small-boat racer in North America by winning the Prince of Wales Cup in Nova Scotia. Brewster was not a particularly methodical or shipshape sailor, and he didn't spend much time grooming his boat or poring over navigational charts to see where rocks and shoals might lurk. But he was lucky, and he knew it. He counted on his luck.

Even as a teenager, Brewster had the hallmarks of one whom the gods had ordained to be a leader. The very name Kingman suggested he had been born to rule, although it was, in fact, the patronymic of a distant branch of his family. Tall and tanned from sailing, with wavy brown hair swept over a high forehead, he had a noticeably large, well-formed head. When serious, Brewster could look as imposing as a marble bust of one of his Puritan forebears. His more usual expression, though, was a wry grin, one side of his mouth turning up while the other turned down, laugh lines crinkling at the edges of his dark eyes. His was the face of authority: patrician, somehow aristocratic, yet at the same time relaxed, amused, and approachable.

Brewster spoke in a rolling and sonorous baritone, with a Connecticut Valley accent that sounded vaguely British. No one who talked to him could miss the marks of his privileged background and upbringing, but he wore them lightly. More striking were his intelligence and curiosity, his idealism, and his deep connection to the New England places and traditions in which he was born and raised. Sailing around Martha's Vineyard through sunlight and fog, around the dunes of Lambert's Cove and the cliffs of Gay Head, past the whaling captains' mansions in Edgartown, Brewster felt rooted in America in a way that he found hard to convey. Martha's Vineyard, he wrote as a youth, "is much more than a place to me. ... I know it had an influence in my make-up, in an almost spiritual way. Perhaps my deepest attachment is to that island. It stands for the essential harmony and eternity of the world to me."

Brewster's ancestors had been sailing the waters of the Vineyard and Cape Cod since the Pilgrims made harbor at Provincetown and Plymouth in 1620. Kingman Brewster was an eleventh-generation lineal male descendant of Elder William Brewster, the spiritual head of the Mayflower and chief religious prefect of the Plymouth Colony. If he had wanted, Brewster could have traced his roots back to a signer of the Magna Carta and an assortment of European royalty. But he was skeptical of all forms of inherited success, and he regarded his family heritage with mild self-deprecation. When one of his distant cousins sent him an encomium to the Elder Brewster, he replied that he was "grateful that you and I had the wisdom to select such a magnificent ancestor."

Nonetheless, Kingman took pride in the Pilgrims' legacy of independence and freedom under law, and was conscious of the blood ties that linked him to a range of prominent men including the poet Archibald MacLeish, diplomat George Kennan, and the Rockefellers. He wore a signet ring on his right hand bearing the Brewster family crest and motto, "Vérité soyez ma garde," Norman French for "Truth be my shield." He was well aware that others were also conscious of this background, and that it could do certain things for him. A friend observed that "for all of Kingman's diffidence, for all the uncertainty he sometimes felt ... there was behind it all the assurance that came from being a direct descendant of Elder Brewster. And it gave him an inner serenity even when he was feeling taxed ... on which in the end he could fall back, because he was a Brewster."

Elisha Brewster, Kingman's great-great-grandfather, was an officer in the light dragoons in the Revolutionary War. The Brewsters belonged to the rural gentry; Elisha was one of the officers who crushed the populist rising of farmers in western Massachusetts known as Shays's Rebellion. Five successive generations of Brewsters were gentleman farmers and Republicans who served in the state legislature. Brewster's grandfather Charles Kingman Brewster was a merchant and farmer who at various times had been a selectman, town clerk and treasurer, postman, county commissioner, and member of the State House of Representatives from the Second Berkshire District. When he died, in the summer of 1908, his obituary noted his "pleasing personality, his integrity, his loyalty to his friends and his faithful public service."

Brewster's father, Kingman Brewster Sr., was born in Worthington, Massachusetts, in 1882, the youngest of five surviving children. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1906. While there, he came under the spell of professor Charles Edward Garman, whose belief that the privileged had responsibility for the moral and physical welfare of the poor influenced Brewster to spend a year and a half, after graduation, in New York City, doing social work with the intercollegiate Young Men's Christian Association. (Kingman Jr. recalled that his less-than-liberal father abandoned social work for Harvard Law School after his hat was stolen at the New York YMCA.) He received his LL.B. degree from Harvard in 1911, and moved to Oregon to begin law practice.

While public attention focused on Kingman Brewster Jr.'s paternal ancestry, his upbringing was far more influenced by his maternal family. The Besses, of French Huguenot descent, had become a prominent family in Springfield, Massachusetts, since their move there in 1888. Brewster's mother, born in 1885, was one of the six children of Lyman Waterman Besse and Eleanor Pass. Her father, though not born rich, became wealthy by starting one of the country's first clothing store chains, the Besse System, which would boast of shops in twenty-seven cities, from Maine to Missouri.

Florence Besse grew up in the family's Victorian mansion at 29 Ingersoll Grove, a massive home with baronial fireplaces and elegant stained-glass windows, an entire floor for servants, a porte cochere, and one of New England's largest carriage houses at the edge of a ravine in back. The Besse children had a formal upbringing common to the provincial nouveau riche in the Gilded Age. Lyman and his wife dressed for dinner every night and ate separately from their children. The family summered on Martha's Vineyard in the town of Cottage City, which later became Oak Bluffs. Their home, which still survives, is a substantial gingerbread-Gothic house overlooking what remains unspoiled land to the beach and Nantucket Sound beyond. The family sailed along the south shores of Cape Cod in their large yacht Uneeda, for which Lyman employed a professional captain and crew.

Florence, a brilliant, dark-haired beauty, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley in 1907, an English major and president of the student government. She soon enrolled as one of the first students at the Simmons School of Social Work, graduating in 1909. Through mutual friends connected with Harvard Law School, Florence met Kingman Brewster in 1911 on one of his trips back east from Oregon. In December they became engaged, and they were married in Springfield in November 1912. The couple moved to Portland but returned to Springfield the next year. Mary, their first child, was born in September 1914. Another daughter, Ann, arrived in 1916 but died in 1918 of pneumonia. Her death was never spoken of in the family.

Kingman Jr. was born in Longmeadow, a suburb of Springfield, in June 1919. His sister recalled that he had a buoyant sense of humor even as a little boy, and it was hard to discipline him when he got into trouble because he would always think of something that made everyone laugh. He was also a good mimic from an early age, and imitating people and accents gave him a great deal of pleasure.

Kingman Jr. grew up in close contact with the Besse clan, whose members crowded the house at Ingersoll Grove at holidays and for Sunday lunches. A photo from the time shows sixteen children at such a gathering. The youngsters were allowed to sit with the adults at the table, legs dangling from their chairs, as long as they did not fidget or interrupt the grownups' discussion. There were annual touch football games in the side yard, baseball games in the backyard, and hide-and-seek in the house and carriage house. Lyman Besse had once taken great pride in his matched pairs of horses, but by the 1920s, the horses had long since been replaced by Packards and Cadillacs.

In Brewster's early years, his father moved restlessly. In 1921, he relocated the family to Washington, D.C., where he worked for several government agencies. The family briefly returned to Springfield in 1923, then went back to Washington, where Kingman Sr. went into practice and sped through a variety of law partners. Not long thereafter, the Brewsters separated and began proceedings for divorce.

The split was painful and drawn out but not acrimonious. In many ways husband and wife were an unlikely match from the start. Kingman wrote that his father "was an archconservative lawyer-lobbyist in Washington, wheeling and dealing with equally conservative wheelers and dealers. He was brilliant, charming, and fiercely, bitterly impatient with the New Deal and the brain trusters (most of whom had done better than he at Harvard Law School)." His mother, on the other hand, was "a marvellously speculative and philosophical type," a "free-thinking spirit ... given to far-out enthusiasms and delighting in sprightly argument with her more intellectually conventional friends."

Kingman was raised by his mother, who was a formidable influence but never overbearing. One of Brewster's friends characterized her as "one of those people whose presence you always felt when she was in the room." Another remembered that "she knew poetry, she knew music, she knew art, she knew architecture, and believe me, she knew Kingman."

After the separation, mother and children returned to Springfield. Three years later, after Florence's mother died, she moved into 29 Ingersoll Grove to take care of her father. Florence Brewster stayed active and independent. In the mid-1920s she was president of the Springfield Women's Club, a group that attempted to interest women in current events and ideas. From an early age, her children took part in what Brewster remembered as "an atmosphere of uninhibited but rational discourse." Freud and Marx were debated in lively exchanges, and some of Florence's friends protested the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. While Florence had not been a suffragist like many of her friends, she opposed restrictions on women's freedom and intellectual development. But her rebellions were mild: she dared to drive an automobile. Still, she was a divorcée when such status was scandalous. Her family remained loyal, though, and she had the support of close women friends.

Kingman Brewster occasionally called himself "a loyal son of Springfield," although he lived there only until he was eleven. Still, it was here that he acquired his accent, here that he first attended school (at the Longmeadow School for Boys, where he was usually driven by his grandfather's chauffeurs), and here that he first enjoyed popularity among his peers. Both the Brewster and Besse families were nominally Congregationalist, and Kingman occasionally attended the Congregational church on Mount Vernon Street, but neither he nor his sister was baptized. Florence positively forbade her children to go to Sunday school, her daughter recalled: "Mother thought that having to color those dreadful pictures of Christ performing one miracle after another was poor religion and worse art." Florence herself wrote: "I find I do not believe in the personal or father image of God nor in the exclusive divinity of Jesus. I do not believe in the Virgin birth and I regret its implication that there is a lesser holiness in the universal process of propagation."

The children's English governess, Mrs. Goodall, subscribed to the Victorian notion that boys had to be hardened physically. Every day, summer or winter, she put Kingman in a bath of cold water straight from the tap. Whether through birth or this regimen, he grew up to have an enormously strong constitution and was rarely ill.

In the summer of 1927, when Kingman was eight, the children and their mother went to Europe, traveling through Britain, France, and Switzerland. Brewster later recalled that "I had been exposed to stories about William Wallace and was full of Scottish romanticism, so I ... was greatly impressed by Stirling Castle — exactly what a boy's castle should be. [But] what I remember most vividly about that visit was the trip to Paris. I've always been bug-eyed about aviation. ... We flew on Imperial Airways in a big trimotor biplane, and that seemed to me the most dramatic thing that life could afford." In the same year, 1927, Charles Lindbergh soloed across the Atlantic, and he became Brewster's early hero.

Although he grew up in a female-headed household, Brewster was "never very far removed from the shelter of my wealthy 'substantial' conservative grandfather," he remembered. "Unconsciously I probably absorbed some of the strict conservative proper environment." Lyman Besse was remote in a Victorian way, and the relationship, while proximate, was never close. Kingman Sr. would appear about once a year bearing gifts, but Kingman was without a real father figure until his uncle Arthur Besse stepped into the role.

That connection evolved in Martha's Vineyard, where the extended family rented houses in and around Vineyard Haven and visited grandfather Besse at Oak Bluffs. All the children swam, roamed along the beach, played tennis, and rode horseback. When Kingman expressed a particular interest in sailing, Arthur Besse and Florence rented the Whitney House, a large, red-roofed, Spanish-style structure overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor, and bought eighteen-foot Cape Cod knockabouts for Kingman and the three Besse boys. Since they were too small to handle the boats by themselves, a Harvard student was hired to help teach them to sail.

The boys would sail practically from dawn to dusk; even their lunchtime conversation concerned winds, tides, and sail ratios. Brewster's cousin Richard Besse recalled that "Kingman was very much the ringleader of our early days at the Whitney House. On rainy days he taught us all the songs from H.M.S. Pinafore and a number of other nautical Gilbert and Sullivan songs — he had an incredible repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan songs. He sang with great gusto and flavor." Brewster was "full of energy, bright, creative, always thinking of things to do, always making things happen." He devised games using the intercom system of the Whitney House, and another summer he got the group into designing and building balsa models of flying gliders. His constant companion at the Whitney House was a large, powerful German shepherd named Fritz. Richard Besse felt that Fritz's relationship to Brewster was an early indication of the visceral loyalty that Brewster would later inspire: "That was a one-man dog. His whole life was for King."

Brewster's uncle Arthur Besse, a liberal Republican who had attended Lawrenceville and Harvard College, was a partner in a New York brokerage firm until 1933, when the firm collapsed in the depression. From then until his death, he was president of the National Association of Wool Manufacturers. One of his sons described him as "a man of tremendous warmth and honesty, a generous and wonderfully moral person." When his brokerage firm dissolved, he cut deeply into his own capital by personally paying off as many of his clients as he could. He was by all accounts a very good surrogate father to Kingman.

Lyman Besse died in 1930, leaving a fortune that in early-twenty-first century terms would be worth more than forty million dollars — enough to provide his children and grandchildren with an extremely comfortable lifestyle in the midst of the depression. Florence relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, buying a house in the blue-blooded Brattle Street neighborhood. Kingman was eleven years old at the time, and for the next thirty years, Cambridge would be his home territory. The primary reason for the family's move was Florence's engagement to Edward Ballantine, a childhood friend and a music professor at Harvard. They "reached an understanding," in the parlance of the time, in 1930, and lived around the corner from each other in Cambridge until they were married in 1932.


Excerpted from The Guardians by Geoffrey Kabaservice. Copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Kabaservice. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Origins,
2. Bright College Years,
3. The Leaders of the GI Generation in War and Peace,
4. New Frontiers,
5. Modernizers on the Move,
6. Approaching Thunder,
7. The Guardians of Equal Opportunity,
8. A New Society Emerges,
9. Heavy Turbulence,
10. Into the Storm,
11. New Beginnings and Endings,
About the Author,

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