Les Whitten RIP: A Boyish Face, a Big Smile, But at the Typewriter No Friends

Les Whitten: He loved the truth, he loved his work.

The Washington Post has posted a terrific obit, “Les Whitten, investigative reporter arrested by FBI and spied on by CIA, dies at 89.” The obit’s lede, written by Harrison Smith:

Les Whitten, an investigative reporter whose skill at cultivating government sources and securing secret documents—sometimes through threats or the use of a paid private investigator—made him a top legman of muckraker Jack Anderson and an enemy of President Richard M. Nixon, died Dec. 2 at an assisted-living community in Adelphi, Md. He was 89.

In the 1970s Les wrote some short fiction for the Washingtonian. Here’s an editor’s note I wrote in February 1976 to go with one of his stories:

Leslie H. Whitten, author of  short story on page 120, is better known as Les Whitten as in “By Jack Anderson and Les Whitten.”

Though you may know him mostly as columnist Jack Anderson’s associate, the real Les Whitten is an unusual blending of investigative reporter, translator, and fiction writer.

First the investigative reporter: Les is one of the best. As Jack Anderson was to Drew Pearson, Les is the column’s strong right arm, the man Jack can call at 11 at night with a tip knowing Les will have the finished column the next morning.

The boyish face and big smile conceal 48 years of hard living and an absolutely ruthless approach to journalism. If Les can get any story, he’ll publish it. He doesn’t have any friends when he’s behind the typewriter.

Which is why he’ll work 11 or 12 hours a day for Jack Anderson, for less money than he could make writing novels. He loves the truth, he loves his work, and he respects Jack as the toughest journalist around today.

Les, the translator, has turned more than 100 of Baudelaire’s poems from French into English. Some have been published in a book titled The Abyss. Baudelaire was a 19th century radical poet who wrote often of sexual love and evil.

Les, the fiction writer, wrote at length of the same sexual love and evil in the Progeny of the Adder, The Moon of the Wolf, and The Alchemist. Moon was made into a TV movie. The Alchemist became a paperback bestseller.

Where does he get his dark side? “From working at the Washington Post,” he jokes. “No, partly from all the Presbyterianism that was bludgeoned into me as a boy, and then I got interested in the original Dracula. One Saturday when my wife are I were fighting, I went down to the Library of Congress and began to read more about vampires. It was cheaper than my psychoanalysis and almost as good. In my books I’ve taken a lot of the ancient lore and put it in a modern setting.”

Les says the next novel, Conflict of Interest, has been exorcised of ancient devils. “But it does combine all of my experiences as an investigative reporter with all my richest sexual fantasies.”

Protecting an exclusive in the days of slow journalism: Les also talked about the challenges of writing an investigative column that would be published in most of the subscribing newspapers—almost 1,000 of them—a day or two after he wrote it. The problem was nailing an item and getting a comment but preventing the target from then taking steps to undermine the exclusive before it was published.

Les confessed that sometimes when he called the target —usually a politician—to get a reaction, he’d ask a few questions and then say sometime like, “It doesn’t look like there’s enough here for a story. We’ll probably just drop it.” Then a day or two later the bombshell would go off in front of 40 million readers.

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