When Ben Bradlee Said No to Being Interviewed: “Even Paranoids Have Enemies”

Ben Bradlee to Norman Sherman: “You should be pissed off.”

Before publication of a July 1974 Washingtonian profile of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, there had been an exchange of letters between Norman Sherman, who had wanted to report and write the profile, and Bradlee. The Washington Post editor had declined by phone to be interviewed by Sherman, whom he knew from Sherman’s work as press secretary to Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey  from 1965 to 1969. In the phone call telling Sherman he didn’t want to be interviewed, Bradlee cited earlier inside-the-Post coverage in the Washingtonian—some about his private life—that had angered him.

[Full disclosure: I knew Norman Sherman from my being a 1968 Congressional Fellow in the office of Vice President Humphrey and I traveled with him through the 1968 presidential campaign. After the election, which Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon, I became editor of the Washingtonian and wrote often about what was going on inside the Washington Post.]

Bradlee saying no caused Sherman to write this letter:

March 5, 1974

Dear Ben:

You deserve to be left to the Kitty Kelleys.

You made two points yesterday in our brief conversation that pissed me off.

1. You implied again, with a heaviness that invites, if not insists upon, an interest in your unmade beds.

2. You said “I don’t want to beat you out of any money,” as though my interest in doing an article on you was primarily for the money.

I am not interested in skewering you with your own phallus. You may be a super cocksman, a man of great sexual prowess. Who cares? However good you are you are a better editor, which of course is our interest. Jack’s interest and mine is what you did with the Newsweek bureau and the Washington Post. Neither you nor the Post, however, is so sacrosanct and pure that the Washingtonian ought to only sing your praises.

I squelched the impulse yesterday to tell you that I would give my fee, and it isn’t much, to the marriage counselor of your choice. If you think I am preying on you, I would be glad to do the article free or give the fee to some journalism scholarship fund. I don’t really see that this is relevant or important, but if you do, I’ll do what makes you happy.

You are a public person who ought to be described as fully as, say, Senator Scott of Virginia for Washingtonian readers. The cover of L’Express is fine, but the Washingtonian is really a more logical place for such a story.

I thought, as a wanderer through the Washington scene who is not a journalist, that I might do an interesting piece. If you don’t think so, fuck it, man. I’ll write it without your assistance. Dealing with me, at least, you have a chance to check the story, if not to edit my copy.

Finally, sir, I thought you might like to know that Jack Limpert sent my newest daughter a birthday present—one which he thought would please us, and one which gave me special satisfaction. It was a share of Washington Post stock, hardly the gift from a man who, as you feel, has it in for you or the Post.

Sincerely,

Norman Sherman
—–

April 1, 1974

Norman, baby:

As you recall our conversation, you should be pissed off. Agreed.

Let me just say  that I have no concern about you and your commitment to do right with a piece about me. Over the years you have struck me as a man with a meritorious mixture of smarts and humor.

But since even paranoids have enemies, you’ll forgive me if I’m not so sure about someone there at the magazine. For the record, let me point out re the latest in this month’s book: 1) Daniel learned about Quinn joining us from Quinn—the evening of the afternoon we hired her. 2) Bachrach did not threaten to quit, nor was she assured of juicy story assignments. 3) Bradlee is not finishing his book on Kennedy; he hasn’t started it. And no one of the four principals was contacted by anyone from the magazine.

It does make a fellow wonder.

So, that’s all for the birds as far as you’re concerned. If you’re still on, let’s give it a fling. I would like to check any quotes, since my language is often cruder than my love for words.

Your in truth,

Ben

Comments

  1. Barnard Collier says:

    Dear Jack,

    Good exchange. Vulgar in a nice way, wise in a sensible way, and a memento of an editor and a writer who got over the hump between flattery and truth.

    Barney

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