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.
Is there any particular instance you remember where being prompted to examine your life was actually helpful?
I am just sure—in decisions like, what are you going to do when you grow up, why journalism, why go to Washington. After the war I couldn’t find a job because I had no previous employment history; I had gone from college to sea. And when this mass of people came back after the war, most of them returned to jobs that were being saved for them so if you got home early as I did, because I had been overseas the entire time, I had a lot of points, so called, which is what got you out, you couldn’t get a job because they were being held for veterans coming back. So that made me examine myself, and say, “What the hell do you want to do, and why?”
I had worked one summer on the Beverly Evening Times, my dad told me I had to get a job, so that’s what I started looking for, newspapers. My father was an investment banker, rather unsuccessful investment banker, and I had a job offer from one of his friends. It just bored my ass, the idea of it and living in Boston and I could see The Country Club life ahead of me and it just didn’t seem very interesting. I had a fabulous time in New Hampshire for two and a half years. We started a newspaper and went broke, and then I got a job at the Post. It was really so accidental, there were so many accidental things in my life. I had two letters to go when I looked for a job. One was from Christian Herter, who was my father’s best friend, and he said, “Well, I will give you a letter to the editor of the Washington Post.” It turned out that the letter was not to the editor of the Post, it was to the editor of the Editorial page, who was a Brit called Herbert Elliston. And I have never written an editorial in my life and I have no interest in writing editorials but he did send me downstairs and I got a job that same fucking day just because there was a vacancy. I haven’t examined the luck, why I was that lucky. Especially because that day I took a train, I cashed my savings and took a train to go at first to Baltimore because I had a letter to the editor of Baltimore, and it was raining so hard I didn’t get off the train and went onto Washington, got the job in Washington. From time to time I have wondered how come and all that, I don’t know what the Grant study has got to do with that. It did make me interested in how I became what I was becoming.
Were there times when the questions were annoying to you?
The Grant study questions? No. Well, I don’t remember all of the questions, but I remember thinking somewhere along the line that there were a bunch of very personal questions probably in the first one, which I remember answering. I have no idea what the questions were or what my answers were.
You were asked about your relationship with your wife, you were asked about your children…
I was, and I remain, interested in the study and in the conclusions of the study. I remember in the book about Frederick Lion, what I remember is that he was extremely lucky, Frederick Lion [Bradlee’s pseudonym], by making choices or being led to choices that I don’t think were the fruits of some great wisdom that I had, I think it was just, maybe it was just training. I don’t know what the hell it was.
The dominant motif in the chapter about Frederick Lion is this idea of sublimation. George Vaillant has this idea that we all adapt to life in various ways and that there are adaptations that are less healthy, and adaptations that are extremely healthy and he has sublimation as one of the most healthy adaptations.
What does sublimation mean even?
The channeling of energy into specific tasks and work. And I think in the case of Frederick Lion he talks about the sublimation of anger into his work, into your work. Did you know that John F. Kennedy was a member of the study?
I never met him [in college]. Then I was away during the ’50s, I was in Europe during the ’50s, so when I came back I had missed the time when Kennedy was a potential vice presidential candidate in ’56, so I came back and I met him in ’58 and then he bought a house right next door to me in Georgetown and we became really good friends. Our wives became friends. I didn’t know him at college. I mean it’s really a very unusual thing to have some friend of yours suddenly become President of the United States.
Did you ever talk about the fact that you had this thing in common, that you were both members of the Grant study?
I don’t remember doing that. I don’t remember if we ever talked about it. You know, he died so goddamned early that it’s something that we might have been chewing on now, or the last 20 years, but he had other things on his mind and I was just thrilled by the relationship. We didn’t talk about the Grant study much. We didn’t talk about Harvard a hell of a lot.
This study is the longest running and largest of its kind and it set out to understand in this very broad way what health and well-being is. I wonder if you could talk to me about what you have learned about living a healthy life.
I have been very lucky. I understand that. Things have turned out very well for me. But I have learned, certainly, that being involved and interested in your job is vital. You know, vital. I have been consumed by my job, every place I work. When I worked for Newsweek in Europe, what an unbelievable life that was. In the first place, you were alone every place you went, because Newsweek was a cheap magazine then, it wasn’t financially successful, it was dwarfed by Time Inc. Time sent four or five or six reporters and writers and garcons de bureau, I mean messengers, to assignments with their reporters. Whereas the Newsweek guy was all alone. I thrived on that because I knew that the 1,500 words I wrote every week was going to appear in the magazine pretty near as written, while with these guys each of them was filing thousands of words and some unknown person in New York was going to boil it all into one piece. When I went looking for a job, I got a job here, then I went on a vacation, and in the middle of vacation I got a job offer from Life for twice the salary. I got $80 a week from the Post and $175 a week offered by Life. Doing fuck-all, you know. I mean , the Life correspondent did nothing. He just held cameras and went around—the photo part of Life was so dominant that the writing part of Life was not much. But I remember certainly worrying about, was I doing the right thing, turning down a job that was twice the salary.
What are your days like now?
Well I have a terrific life now. I love my little new office; this is brand new, I have only been in here a couple of months. And I am tucked in among people I like, some of them are senior executives who came up the ladder with me. They are people I like a lot. Don Graham is down the hall. Someone has described me as a stop on the tour of this place and I think it is not an inaccurate description. I have enough of a past so that people like to say hello and like to meet me and show me off a little bit. And that’s fun. I don’t take it seriously, so it’s invigorating sometimes to meet the new people.
Are there painful experiences in your life that you think have contributed to you life in a positive way?
Painful. I am sure that there are. The failure of that newspaper in New Hampshire—that was a failure. But I have thought about that a lot. I was the lowest of the low employees so it was ridiculous to blame myself in any way for it, but I think I learned that you’ve got to move on. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in New Hampshire either. It could be said I suppose that I used that to understand that it was time to move on. I don’t know, what is luck and how do you make your luck? I don’t know, but there is some connection. I think that some people that describe themselves as lucky are lucky because they did things right.
Do you think that that applies to you?
Well, I think in some cases. Sometimes quite accidentally or not, I think I was aware of how important it was for me to end up in Washington. I mean Jesus—what if I had got off that train in Baltimore? And gone to work in Baltimore? That would have changed my life. And then I was so lucky I got a job on the Washington Post and the paper was so small and it was losing money. It was well-known because it had Herb Block and a great editorial page, but it wasn’t known for its news. It was losing money, the Graham family had bought it in the ‘30s, and I don’t know whether I was lucky that I took that job rather than the one at the higher salary, which was a perfectly good job, Life Magazine. Boy, that would have changed my life. New York, all that crap. I wouldn’t have liked that. I have had a very good time. I really have. I haven’t been unhappy in my life.
Oh sure, ever. But for weeks at a time, not years at a time.
What have been the most unhappy times?
The failure of marriages. I don’t see any great virtue in staying in a marriage that is not great, but the world judges it as a failure. Especially if you don’t misbehave and are breaking up the marriage. I am trying to think of what I did wrong. I don’t waste much time on that. You can’t change much of it. And I have stayed friends with both of my former wives. And my children—while I was going up the ladder I probably wasn’t as attentive to my children as I should have been or could have been. But they’re hanging around me a lot. It’s a good close-knit family.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Oh, I don’t know. Helping to make the Post a great paper. I’m sure that’s what I’ve said. Now it is common to talk about the New York Times and the Post in the same breath. That is not a bad accomplishment. Mind you, I think that the Times is a fabulous paper, but it is a different paper than the Post. And it aspires to be different.
Do you think that you’ve changed since you were a young man?
Oh yeah, I hope so.
What do you think the changes have been?
Well I have led a much more interesting life than I thought I was going to lead. I have met a lot of interesting people and really been friends with a lot of them
Does the decline of the newspaper business worry you?
Boy, but other people worry about it a lot more than I do. This paper isn’t going to decline. I mean it may change shape, it may change color, it may be printed or distributed in some different way, but there is still going to be an active newsgathering machine here. Who says that there should be 7000 active daily newspapers in the United States? Which there was at one time. There’s now 1500, so that’s enough, isn’t it? It seems to me that if you add TV and the Internet, the amount of information flowing to potential readers and viewers is ten times more than when I started.
Do you have any ambitions left?
I wanted to write a book about lying. I started the research on it, and I hired a kid to help me, and he was terrific. This was about three of four years ago, and then in the next two years there were three or four books out, only one of them was any good, and I just said, “That’s enough.” The lie is so important in society. Especially in this city. The lie or the near lie or the exaggeration.