Ben Bradlee, 88, is a vice president at-large of The Washington Post. He became part of the Grant study as a Harvard student in the late 1930s. He served in World War II and worked at the Post and Newsweek before returning to the Post, where he was executive editor from 1968 to 1991, during which time the Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the Watergate story. He spoke with Joshua Wolf Shenk from his office in the Post building in downtown Washington.
Interview: Donald Cole
"I have always thought adaptation was a wonderful thing." A historian and prep school teacher reflects on his life and how it has been affected by his participation in the study.
What Makes Us Happy?
An inside look at an unprecedented seven-decade study of a group of Harvard men suggests that one thing, above all, truly makes a difference. By Joshua Wolf Shenk
Do you have any memories of when you were asked to be part of the Grant study?
I don’t remember much about it, but I remember feeling just interested in it. Interested in the idea that you could be considered “normal” even if you went to Harvard and that somebody was going to follow us through how we were “normal” or why we were “normal” and how we demonstrated it and how we fucked up. I just thought it was an interesting idea. There was a book written, right?
There have been a number of books. Clark Heath wrote a book. Then a man named Earnest Hooton wrote a book called Young Man, You Are Normal. This was in the ’40s. And then there was a gap. There are many journal articles and research articles and then in the early ’70s or mid ’70s, George Vaillant published Adaptation to Life, which included a profile of you with the details altered.
Yeah, I was Frederick. That was funny. That was my father’s name. I suppose that’s how they chose it.
I’m curious about what you remember from those early days in the study.
I remember wondering, and never really being told, how I was chosen. And I would still be interested in that. But I knew a handful of the other people that were in the study and remember sort of from time to time comparing notes on it.
I had no idea of Harvard’s reputation when I was at Harvard. I was one of those people who went automatically to Harvard. My father did, and I don’t remember applying to any other colleges. I had fairly good marks going in, except for physics. So I got in easily and I had the spottiest of all college careers. I mean, I was on the dean’s list the first semester, and then sort of dropped out. I didn’t go to class much. This was a war class, this was the first war class really, so we all knew we were going to war, and I remember sort of deciding that I would go through as fast as I could, and I went through in three years. Twelve of us graduated in August, we went in in September of 1939 and then we graduated in August of ’42, so it’s, you know, a month less than three years. All preppies. Which interested me, just as a sort of sociological fact. All from the eastern prep schools. As I remember.
And I graduated so sloppily. As a matter of fact, I got out and “graduated” and then they told me that I hadn’t, which I knew, I hadn’t taken one exam that was required of people who majored in English, which was the English, Shakespeare, Greek exam, there was a special exam you had to take in all three of those subjects. So, when I was on a destroyer in the second war, and my dad was anxious that I graduate really, he arranged to have the exam sent to me on my destroyer. I got it right after the Saipan campaign was over, and we were coming back, we had been hit in Saipan and we were coming back, so I took the test and I was in the Captain’s state room all by myself, and the entire ship knew I was taking a test. At one point there was a knock on the door, and some seaman came in and said, “The officer of the deck presents his compliments and the shortest verse in the Bible is ‘Jesus wept.’” And that was the message. But, I mean it was considered a great joke. So six months later or whatever it was I got word that I had passed.And then I got my degree.
My impression of the study in the early days is that it was considered something of an honor.
Yeah. Modest honor. I don’t think it was a huge honor. I felt quite proud of it, not because I worried about being normal or not, but it seemed to be that these were people on the high side of normal. Not in marks or anything, but in stature
Do you think that description, “normal,” applies to you in your life?
Well, I think that it does. I am not underestimating the fact that I have been successful in what I chose to do, but yeah, I think in terms of socially. I have been married three times, each for 15 years or more. I’ve got children and I’ve led a very interesting life, I have lived in Europe, and I have traveled a lot. I lucked out in the profession I chose. I have only worked for one daily newspaper in my life. And I lucked out working for Newsweek, which was then bought by the Washington Post. I lucked out in finding the Grahams, especially Katharine Graham, who took over after her husband killed himself. She asked me if I would leave Newsweek and come here to take it over, really. And I had 26 or 27 years as editor or managing editor of the Post. Fabulous career. Good time. Doing what I wanted to do, and being given the chance. Never had a fight with the owner.
Do you think being part of the study has affected your life? They’ve been studying your life, but do you suppose it’s also affected your life in some way?
I don’t know. I certainly think that being chosen was a boost somehow. I didn’t really lack confidence, but I lived a kind of sheltered life. Two big things in my life were I had polio as a kid and the Depression. And the Depression changed my life entirely because my family lost all their dough. And we went from living a very luxurious life with servants and that kind of stuff to zero in that department. So I think that the study probably gave me a confidence that I would not have had without it. But the great value of it to me was the self-examination and that it evolved slowly over the years. Not something that I was normally used to doing. I don’t spend a lot of time examining my life, I really don’t. I have too good a time and the newspaper business goes at such a pace that you don’t have time to worry too much about it.