They are known to the
world on a double first
name basis: Ben and
they took one look at
each other and it was
Kismet. He was barrel-chested and gravelyvoiced,
always dashing in English shirts and
a loosened tie. She was blonde and witty, a
military brat in oversized sunglasses and mini
skirts. Her admirers were legion: Warren
Beatty, Warren Hoge. His female admirers
included Jackie Kennedy and Lauren Bacall,
who calls him “Benji.”
And so, Ben landed Sally, soon followed
by his divorce from then-wife Toni.
Although perhaps apocryphal, the story
goes like this: she was looking for a job and
walked into the Washington Post one day to
apply for a party reporter position. He was
smitten. She told him one salient detail; she
had never written a story before.
“Nobody’s perfect,” he barked.
Sally went on to fame as a seriously edgy
Style writer who was nicknamed “Salty”
Quinn. No one was more deft in getting
well-known subjects to reveal their foibles.
Who was it? Henry Kissinger, who said
that being interviewed by gossip columnist
Maxine Cheshire made you want to kill her.
Being interviewed by Sally Quinn made you
want to kill yourself.
Jason Robards played Ben in “All The
President’s Men”. Stockard Channing
played her in “Heartburn.” Yes, they were
best friends with Carl Bernstein and Nora
Ephron and it was in Sally and Ben’s kitchen
that Nora either dumped a bottle of wine
over her philandering husband’s head, or a
fruit pie. Details, details.
That was the ‘70s. If you were invited to
Ben and Sally’s you were annointed. They
never entertained all that much but when
they did, it was perfect. Their New Year’s
Eve parties were legendary for the eclectic
mix of media, celebrity and political types.
During the 80’s, they proved the adage that
living well is the best revenge, buying a
home in St. Mary’s County and continuing
their various writing projects while raising
son Quinn and quietly doing work for The
Lab School and Children’s Hospital.
Somehow the spotlight was never very
far from Ben and Sally, although they never
courted it. Perhaps by this very casual
approach to life and living, and the loyalty
of friends and family, they have remained
on most everyone’s A list. They are fun to
be around. They know where the bodies are
buried. They have staying power, and wicked
senses of humor.
And if you ever find yourself seated next
to one of them at dinner, you know you’ve
Editor-in-Chief, Nancy Bagley, chatted
with this month’s WL Power Couple in the
couple’s Georgetown home.
Washington Life: Is there anything left that no one
has asked you about Deep Throat and Watergate?
Ben Bradlee: No, No (laughs), I mean I’ve
been asked so many questions over so many
years and the only one that ever gets a reaction
is, “Did you tell Sally?” and when I say
“no” I don’t think they believe me.
Sally Quinn: And they really don’t believe
that I never asked. They’d say surely Sally
“wink, wink” could get it out of him… Ididn’t want Ben to tell me because I didn’t
want him to break his word to Bob [Woodward.]
It was Bob’s secret to tell. Also, I knew
I would be the culprit if it ever leaked. All
fingers would be pointing at me.
WL: How has the social scene over the years
changed since the Kennedy era?
BB: In the Kennedy years, The White House
was really the center of a social scene, but
not the only social scene. For all that I
know, there may be a social scene around
the Bushes, its just not one I know anything
about. They don’t’ seem to get out much.
SQ: I first came on the scene during the
Johnson years and that crowd was out all the
time enjoying themselves. Nixon wasn’t particularly
social but a lot of the people in his
WL: Do you think part of the reason being social
is frowned upon by this administration is a fear
SQ: It’s always in the second administration
when things start to go sour. They circle the
wagons. The first term of the Clinton administration
was very jolly. Everybody was running
around meeting people and of course,
in the second term, everyone went down the
black hole, which also happened at the end
of the Reagan administration. But [the Bush
crowd] never went out to begin with. Even
Colin Powell who was everywhere before he
became secretary of state, just stopped going
out. I think part of it was he didn’t want to be
viewed suspiciously by the other people in the
White House who rarely go anywhere. There
has been no involvement, no communication,
and no interest in the people who live here.
BB: There’s always plenty of leaking going
on. I think [Karl] Rove and [Scooter] Libby’s
troubles show that, but the journalist crowd
has had trouble with the Bush administration
and getting people to talk to them. I don’t
feel terribly robbed but maybe that’s me.
Katharine Graham gave the Bushes a great,
fun dinner when he was president-elect.
SQ: I find it astonishing that that was the
last time I ever saw the president and that
was five years ago. I’m not complaining. I’m
speaking as an observer. I don’t know anyone
who ever sees them and I could never
say that about another president.
BB: But, that may just mean that our circle of
friends is different.
SQ: But we have a fairly large circle of friends
and even people that aren’t our close friends,
people we sit next to at a dinner [don’t see them]. Most of the people who live in Washington
come from other places and you can
learn something from them. But when you’re
in a bubble you can’t possibly know what’s
going on. When I talk about the social scene
I’m not talking about yakking it up at parties.
It always helps if you have some social
capital… with more people on your side less
willing to take you down. I understand that
the president needs eight or nine hours of sleep,
I do, too. I want him to be well-rested but that
doesn’t mean that he can’t stop by a reception and
then go home. They say it is unseemly to be partying
when we’re at war and I’m not saying the
president should be out partying, but it is important
for him to get other perspectives and for people
to get to know his.
WL: You have houses in D.C., East Hampton and the
Eastern shore. An invitation to one of your homes is
BB: Let’s be sure you understand. Sally, how many
big parties do we give in a year?
SQ: We don’t entertain that much.
BB: We have houses but we don’t entertain at
all in the country! We have two parties in East
Hampton, a cook out/clambake on the beach and
the other is my birthday… that’s all.
SQ: We had one big party in the spring for Kofi
Annan who is a really old friend of mine from
college. We had a seated dinner party for 40 people
when David Ignatius came back from Paris.
WL: What makes a seated dinner successful?
SQ: Actually, I always put him next to cute
women. That makes for a good party.
BB: Cute women make for a good party, that’s
for damn sure.
SQ: Often what we do is open our house for
various charity events. I don’t seat according to
protocol. I don’t invite people because of who
they are in the administration or their positions of
power. The few who do come, are there because
I like them.
BB: Like whom? I mean, we don’t know any of
SQ: Like [Donald] Rumsfeld.
BB: Oh Rummy. He’s a really old, old, friend of
mine [for] 30-35 years.
WL: You have been to many fabulous parties over the
years given by great hostesses such as Pamela Harriman,
Kay Graham, Susan Mary Alsop, and Evangeline
Bruce, to name a few. Sally, you are on the record
as saying that society is dead in Washington today. Do
you think that there’s anyone who can compare to these
SQ: That kind of entertaining, that kind of life,
those people— just doesn’t exist anymore and
never will again.
BB: Lots of money, millions of bucks!
SQ: They had money, knew how to entertain
[and] were brought up to be hostesses. They were
raised by nannies and their children were raised
by nannies. It was an era when family was not all
that important. When Evangeline went to Europe
with David Bruce, she left her children with a
German nanny on 9th street because she felt that
having the children there would get in the way of
WL: What quality do you most like about yourself and
in each other?
BB: I don’t want to talk about myself. I like
Sally’s spirit once she wakes up. This is a lively
SQ: I like Ben’s energy. And, as much as it annoys
me, I like his sense of invincibility.
WL: You’ve been married 27 years. What’s the secret to
a successful marriage?
SQ: We’ve been together 32 years and married
BB: You finally got the knack of it for me.
SQ: We have so much in common— we have our
work, are friends, our son, Quinn, and we have a good time together.
WL: What are some of the things you like doing together?
SQ: We like hanging out with our friends and
we plan things that are interesting to do. We love
meeting new and interesting people
BB: Especially that. Meeting new people is really
fun. But, if you’ve been married more than once,
people sometimes try to get you to say that previous
marriages were all disasters and a mistake. And
that isn’t true either.
WL: With the decline in newspaper readership how do
you think the Washington Post will fare?
BB: It worries the hell out of me. I was at the Post at
the perfect time; the circulation was going way up.
WL: What can newspapers today do to capture a
BB: We’ll have to work on that. It’s going to
change because it is silly for them to try to stop
the Internet, so they’ll accommodate it.
WL: Do you think there’s any danger in the corporatization
of media and having fewer owners and therefore
BB: That’s way down on my list of worries. So
long as the quality of journalism improves. Think
how many more sources of news there are now.
WL: But the same corporations own so many. Hasn’t
journalism, especially broadcast journalism, become more of
a “he said, she said” versus real investigative reporting?
BB: “Investigative reporting” bothers me as a phrase,
because it presumes that a reporter goes to work,
turns on a little switch and says, “Now I’m going
to be an investigative reporter instead of a regular
reporter.” What kind of reporting is investigative?
Any kind of reporter is investigative as soon
as [he/she] asks the third question. The criticism I
hear of newspapers is that they’re doing too much
of this. The television news audience has decreased
faster than the newspaper reading audience by far.
The nightly news audience has declined 30 to 40
SQ: They’re getting it off the Internet… We’re like
fossils to our kids, [as] we sit with a drink and
watch the evening news.
WL: Do you think the political left controls the media?
SQ: Every poll shows that most journalists are
WL: But they’re not controlling it.
SQ: Well, the owners of the media are mostly
Republican or conservative and they control it.
BB: Out of 1,500 newspapers, the daily newspapers,
the vast majority would be Republican: 75
percent I would think. And reporters, I don’t know.
I’m very apolitical, I don’t give a goddamn who’s
president now, I just want him to be elected.
SQ: That’s not true. You want somebody who’s
BB: Well, good for my country.
WL: Our democracy is built on checks and balances
and the media is obviously an important part of that.
Do you think it is dangerous that the White House
press corps does not have much access, and that the
White House—any White House, not just this one— does not give regular press conferences?
BB: Look, that’s been an argument and that’ll
be the argument till the world ends. [But] good
reporters get access.
SQ: I think yes.
BB: They’re spoon-fed the information differently.
People who are good at press conferences give
them. People who aren’t good at it don’t. That
seems so frighteningly logical to me. What I’m
really interested in [is] why people read newspapers?
I think one of the reasons is that they get to
watch a story develop, things aren’t immediately
clear. Watching the story unfold is what keeps
newspapers and reporters going.
WL: Do you think journalists have become too cozy
with their sources or the people they are reporting on?
BB: Under Franklin Roosevelt, there were twelve
men and May Craig, that lovely lady from Maine
with the stovepipe hat. Today, they wish they were
cozy. Everybody tries to distinguish themselves
and their access from other people’s access.
SQ: Getting too close to a source is always a major
problem with any reporter. That is why I don’t like
beat reporting, I’ve never been a beat reporter even
when I covered parties because when you’re covering
a beat, you get to know people really well, and
then its hard to write something negative about
them and go back the next day. I couldn’t pull
myself away when I became friendly with them.
Ultimately it’s up to the editor [to decide] if the
reporter is getting too close.
BB: I think historically, like during the Eisenhower
and Truman days, there were only two or three
reporters covering the president and most of them
kept it pretty tight. I think it’s much better now.
SQ: I agree with that. I don’t think reporters are
nearly as cozy with sources as they used to be.
Reporters used to be called in to give advice to
the President and to the people on Capitol Hill. A
lot of them succumbed. It made them feel important
that the President wanted to know what they
BB: Kennedy had two reporter friends who were
really, really his friends, I was one and the other
was Hugh Sidey of Time Life.
SQ: Another was Charlie Bartlett.
BB: But he wrote for the Chattanooga Times and
nobody read that.
WL: Any Projects that you’re both looking at?
BB: I may be approaching the end of my project
career. Jim Lehrer and I have done six hours
of one-on-one interviews that he’s going to make
into a one hour special. I’ve written about Kennedy
and I’m not going to revise my opinion
because I haven’t changed it. I’m very interested
in lying. I’ve become hooked on lying. Sally and I
talk about it a lot. I taught about it at Harvard and
Georgetown. I got people interested in questioning
whether anybody is telling the truth at any given
time. If I write another book, it’ll be on lying but I
don’t feel under tremendous pressure at 84.
SQ: I’m hooked on Homeland Security and
emergency preparedness, particularly in light of
what we’ve seen with Katrina. We know that
we’re not prepared now, but we’re less prepared
than we were four years ago. So, that’s what I’m
focusing on at the Post right now. I’m starting a
book on religion in Washington.
BB: What is the influence of religion?
SQ: The influence of religion on the people in
power in Washington.
WL: If you could each interview anyone living or dead
who would it be?
BB: God I can’t think… that’s the ol’ problem—
to interview them if they’re in the mood. Any
world leader, if they’d talk.
SQ: Some of them aren’t that interesting but if
Hillary would tell the truth about what she was