Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee

Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee

by Jeff Himmelman

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400068470
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/08/2012
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 961,524
Product dimensions: 6.56(w) x 9.44(h) x 1.41(d)

About the Author

Jeff Himmelman is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, where he has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award; his writing has also appeared in New YorkGQWashingtonian, and The Washington Post. His work with a team of reporters at the Post helped the paper secure the national reporting Pulitzer Prize for its post-9/11 coverage. He is also a professional musician who writes, records, and performs under the name Down Dexter. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and three daughters.  

Read an Excerpt

i first met Ben eleven years ago, when I was working as a research assistant for Bob Woodward. One spring night Bob and his wife, Elsa, threw a book party for a friend of theirs and invited me to join them when I knocked off work.

By the time I finished up, the party was in full swing. I walked out of my third-floor office, past the framed apology from Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, that Bob keeps at the top of the circular staircase, and then down two swirling flights to the ground floor. The living room, study, and kitchen of the house were jammed with journalists of all stripes and sizes. I had grown up in Washington and should probably have known who everybody was, but I didn’t. I was twenty-five years old and green in almost every way, a kid wandering through a grown-up dinner party.

I took some wine off a tray and looked for a familiar face. After a while I spied Bob standing next to the island in the middle of the kitchen. He was talking with a group of people, one of whom, an older guy, had his hand on Bob’s shoulder. They were laughing.

When I got closer, I realized that the older guy was Ben Bradlee. I may not have known who anybody else at the party was, but I knew who he was. I’d seen All the President’s Men, and, like most people who saw that movie, I came away with the impression that Ben was the living avatar of old-school journalistic integrity and rough-hewn charm. I’d also read his memoir during a slow day or two on the third floor, lingering over the pictures, marveling as much at the stories of women throwing themselves at him in the dimly lit arcades of Paris as at his descriptions of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers.

Bob always spoke of Ben reverently, respectfully. On rare occasions, which I always enjoyed, he would pause while talking about something we were working on to say what Bradlee might have done in a similar situation. We’d usually end up laughing, because a strategically placed “fuck” was involved most of the time. I was excited to meet him.

Bob turned, saw me lurking, and when the conversational waters parted he introduced me.

“Hiya!” Ben boomed. He was wearing a blazer and a shirt with an open collar, and he had a drink in his hand. As we shook hands, my mind raced back through his memoir, through everything Bob had told me, desperate for some nugget of casual conversational gold that would show him I was worth getting to know. The right phrase would identify me as a young writer of promise, and before long I’d be cozied up to the table at one of Ben’s legendary dinner parties in Georgetown, sucking down cocktails and lapping my peers.

That particular bubble burst on contact. Before I could even get “It’s a pleasure to meet you” out of my mouth, Ben had turned back to the conversation he’d been in before I pulled up. I stuck around for a few minutes, hoping that some fortuitous short circuit might route the conversation back to me, but it didn’t. I finished my wine and went home.

It’s odd to me now, how well I remember it: my excitement, the flash of his greeting, the dreamlike feeling that a door had opened and closed before I even knew it was there. I had no idea then that I would ever come to know Ben. But, looking back on it, that first meeting—all five seconds of it—contained most of the basics. You remember him. He’s better-looking than you are. You want to please him. And if you hope to gain or keep his attention, you had better be quick on the draw. Otherwise, as he loves to say, the caravan moves on without you.

I didn’t see Ben again until 2007, when Bob found himself shorthanded for a couple of months and asked if I could help him out. One day he poked his head into my office and told me that he and Elsa had been out for dinner the night before with Ben and his wife, the journalist Sally Quinn, and the topic of Ben doing another book had come up.

“I told them they should hire you,” Bob said. “You should do it.”

Ten days later, I pulled up in front of Ben and Sally’s exquisite home on N Street, in Georgetown, for an interview. The house and grounds take up almost an entire city block. As Evelyn, the maid, led me through the foyer and into the formal dining room, I tried to take in as much as I could without ogling. The phrase “Ben and Sally” has been synonymous with high Washington society and A-list parties for more than thirty years. The house, particularly the grand ground floor with its large foyer and cavernous living room, looked like a movie set.

Ben emerged from a door off the den with the remains of that morning’s newspaper in his hand, and we all sat down at the table. Sally did most of the talking. Ben’s memoir, published in the fall of 1995, had been called A Good Life. As Sally imagined it, this book would be “Lessons from a Good Life,” filled with short and inspiring stories about Ben’s time at The Washington Post interspersed with some words of wisdom from the man himself. She had the entire book mapped out already, down to the cover art.

“Ben’s a writer, so of course he wants to write his own book,” Sally said at one point, to be sure I knew what the rules were. Ben rolled his eyes.

Two weeks later, I walked down to the Post building on 15th Street to meet with Ben at his office, on my own. On the phone, Sally had told me how thrilled Ben had been about our interview, how excited he was to get started, that he might huff and puff a little but that really he wanted everything exactly as she had described it to me. I didn’t believe her, but I wanted to, so I went.

Ben’s secretary, Carol, picked me up in the lobby and brought me up to Ben’s office on the seventh floor. He was tilted back in his chair, reading a newspaper behind a great oval desk. A set of overstuffed bookshelves lined the wall behind him. The far wall, looking out over 15th Street, was set with large windows that let in surprisingly little of the afternoon sun. Carol knocked gently on the open door, and when Ben looked up she led me in and introduced me.

To say that he had no idea who I was, or what I was doing there, isn’t quite true. Carol and Sally had prepped him, so in the most minimal sense he knew. But, basically, he had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. I could tell by how he said hello to me. I took a seat, sweat cooling palpably in my armpits. Carol left the door open and went back out front.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

I hadn’t been nervous at their house, but now that I was alone with Ben in his element my mouth had somehow become untethered from my brain. I recited the things Sally had told me to say: We can take it slow, I can do some preliminary work and see if it turns into anything, if there’s no book there then we won’t force it. I have a vague, uncomfortable memory of saying something about what an honor it would be to work with him.

When I got done, he said simply, “I’ve already written one book. I’m not in any big rush to write another one.”

I said I understood, which I did. I started to put my notebook away.

But he wasn’t quite ready to kick me out yet. He asked me about my experience with Bob, and as I rattled on about it I hit on something funny and he laughed. The smile that the laugh brought with it completely transformed his face. It was like looking at a different person. His whole face sharpened, came alive. He leaned back in his chair.

I remember his being immaculately turned out that day: black sweater, gray slacks, shoes that revealed themselves to be leather ankle-zip boots when he put his feet up on the desk, glasses just so, hair swept back in a hard part. He was the most attractive eighty-five-year-old man I’d ever seen. Bob once described Ben as “Kirk Douglas as a submarine commander,” and that’s exactly it. His voice sounds like it comes from the bottom of Boston Harbor.

After a couple of minutes of back-and-forth, Ben mentioned that he had a bunch of boxes in storage someplace but had no idea what was in them.

“Would you like to look at those?” he asked.

It was an opening, a small one. Woodward had vouched for me, and now I had passed some sort of threshold. “I would love to look at those,” I said.

“Carol knows where they are.” He waved his hand, and that was it. He went back to his newspaper, and I saw myself out.

Ten days later, Carol called to tell me to come back down to the paper. The boxes were coming, and there were a lot of them.

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Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
JRG1053 More than 1 year ago
Okay, so the faux headline isn't so clever. But Yours In Truth, is beyond clever, for my money, the best book of the year: it is GREAT history about REALPEOPLE who helped shape our lives today. EXCITING? Oh my yes, we read as heros Bernstein and Woodward (W&B)inch their way toward the oval office with meager evidence they must decipher and unravel under the unforgiving guidance of Editor Bradlee. What we all get to see is just how difficult it is to get to the root of an important news story and how perilous it is to make assumptions without cooberation of the findings. And in the end learn a great deal about the humanity of the great people such as Katherine Graham who owned and published the great Washington Post and her valiant Editor Bradlee. It is a great love story about people who love what they do and who do what they love. And if you love our system of free press and are the least curious about the people who make it work, you too will find "Yours In Truth" exciting and lively and vivid.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I want to thank those of Random House who donate books to giveaways. I am sincere in this. I love biographies of interesting and great individuals. However this was not one of them. If Ben Bradlee was such a great Journalist, why is his vocabulary so limited that he had to very frequently resort to profanity to express himself. He was such a negative reporter! He seemed to degrade everyone and everything he could. He couldn't speak civilly to many of those he responded to. True greatness gets the job done but with a little 'class'. It is people like him, just as with crooked political leaders, that has degraded our country. I doubt he really understood truth. With all its' problems, America is still the greatest country in the world. If you don't believe it, live among those poverty-ridden, suppressed people in other countries. The author jumped through years so sporadically that is also lost any interest the reader might have had. It was very unorganized documentationsI won this book and am very glad I did not purchase it.