Ben Bradlee’s Funeral: G-Rated Until The D–khead Jokes

Betsy Rothstein | Reporter

What’s a Ben Bradlee funeral without multiple mentions of his use of the word “d–khead?”

It would be lacking, for one thing.

For another, it would be disingenuous to lure thousands to the Washington Cathedral to bid farewell to the town’s most legendary editor who had a penchant for profanity and not get a true sense of Bradlee’s colorful character. The Washington Post‘s former, beloved executive editor died last week at the age of 93.

Wednesday morning’s service was a rich gathering of Washington journalists, insiders and socialites. There was a french horn player, singers, a choir and a family who read poetry. WaPo Publisher Jeff Bezos was there, as was VP Joe Biden, and the duo that helped put Bradlee and the the Post on the map: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both of whom eulogized him along with WaPo‘s former publisher Donald Graham, David Ignatius and Walter Pincus, newsman Tom Brokaw, as well as Bradlee’s sons, his namesake Ben Bradlee, Jr., who he had with his first wife, Jean Saltanstall, and Quinn Bradlee, the son he bore with his third wife, WaPo‘s Sally Quinn.

Other D.C. bigwigs spotted in the crowd: Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, former Washington Examiner editor Stephen SmithPolitico columnist Roger Simon and his wife, Marcia Kramer, NYT’s Peter Baker and his wife, Politico editor Susan Glasser, former PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, NBC’s Luke Russert, The New Republic‘s Leon Wieseltier, PBS’s Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, FNC and former WaPo media writer Howard KurtzWaPo‘s Gene Weingarten as well as WaPo’s “The Reliable Source” columnist Emily Heil.

The whiplash was a thing to admire. So were the old men with truly some of the most untamed eyebrows in all of Washington. Who’s here? Anyone important?

“We’re big shots Weingarten,” cracked Don Graham walking past the disheveled “humor columnist”  in the line moving into the cathedral. “You know what this means about you.”

At this point, a gentleman in line informs me he needs to use the bathroom. (Thanks for sharing?)

More poignant moments and an unpleasant blending of perfumes awaited inside.

bradlee6During the eulogies, with her fist leaning against her forehead, a slender and elegant Nancy Ross looked down and wept for the man who hired her 50 years ago.

When she first arrived to the pew, she pulled out an ancient-looking press pass (pictured here) with her photograph on it. Bradlee hired her on Dec. 1, 1965, one month after WaPo hired him. She was his first hire.

“That’s what he told me,” she said, explaining that she was a reporter for the Post‘s women’s section, which essentially meant going to parties. “It was a number of years before I got promoted to the business section.”

What does she think of today’s Washington Post? Referring to newspapers on the whole, she replied, “It’s sad what’s happening.” But she added, The Post “still holds its own.”

Asked what it was like working with Bradlee, she said, “Our paths never crossed. He was managing editor and had nothing to do with the womens’ section.”

When she attended Kay Graham’s funeral at the cathedral in 2001, she said had a good seat up front but was soon exiled to the balcony when Woodward and Berstein swept in.

Not all funeral chatter was about Bradlee.

Seated behind us were some serious WASPS. “How’s Victoria?” one gentleman asked another. A man with a non-distinctive accent replied, “She’s good. The cottage is finished. It’s really nicely done. It’s three acres.” Gent #1: “You’re in a countrified area.” Gent #2: “It’s great. It’s very beautiful. It’s relaxing.”

The men were later pulled from their seats and led to better ones toward the front.

Ross’s tears began during Bernstein’s speech, but they flowed as Woodward’s concluded.

Graham. Pincus. Bernstein. Woodward. They all largely stayed serious with both Bernstein and Woodward breaking down toward the end of their speeches.

bradlee5There were also, thankfully, moments of comic relief.

“Ben was meticulous in his outrageousness,” explained Ignatius when he spoke. He recalled a secretary who had a copy editing question for Bradlee: She asked, “Is dickhead one word or two?”

Ignatius described a typical Bradlee reaction if a reporter talked too much. “If you went on too long, Ben would roll his eyes or put his hand to his throat in a choking motion,” he said.

More seriously, he added, “Future journalists should ask themselves, ‘What would Ben do?'”

There were rave reviews for Sally Quinn and how much Bradlee loved her.

“Pre-Sally he dressed like Holden Caulfield, prep school conceit,” said Brokaw, who explained that knowing Bradlee was a “physical experience.”

Pincus agreed: “When they married, she brought a new sparkle to his life and ours.”

And he recalled Bradlee’s generosity. “He become more than just our boss,” he said, mentioning the time Bradlee offered him his house on Martha’s Vineyard.

On a funnier note, Pincus recalled going into Bradlee’s office and asking for a raise. Bradlee growled, “‘You ought to be paying me for all the fun you’re having.'” Pincus paused, “He was right.”

Bernstein spoke of calling Bradlee in the middle of the night about Watergate.

“What’s the central part of his character?” he asked. “It’s this: He was unafraid.”

bradlee1He harshly critiqued today’s journalism as “noise” and “getting eyeballs” and “manufacturing as much controversy as you can gin up.”

But back to Bradlee, he said, “He lived off the main road. …He pulled off being Bradlee because he wasn’t afraid.”

Bernstein’s voice broke as he described being seated next to Bradlee at his 93rd birthday party. “He held my hand at times,” he said.

Woodward’s speech was no less moving.

“Nearly everyone felt it was a privilege to work in his orbit,” he said. “He had the courage of an army. …As he aged, he never lost that sweetness for life.”

Woodward recalled he and Bradlee being asked to speak at the Nixon library. “Ben was astonished this was happening,” he said. He quoted Bradlee’s reaction, which was, “‘How do you like them apples?'”

He said Bradlee’s passing marked the end of the 20th century. He concluded that “the world is smaller.”

There were also jabs that pierced through some facade of perfection.

“Everyone knows someone whose reputation was underserved,” said Graham, looking around the vast cathedral at the largely silver and white-haired crowd. “He had his faults, and believe me, if my mother [the late WaPo publisher Katherine Graham] were still here she would go on about those.”

Graham went on to praise Bradlee for hiring the toughest reporters he could find, whom he said were also tough critics of Bradlee. “He was our hero–Bejamin C. Bradlee–and he will always be,” he said.

During his eulogy, Bradlee, Jr., didn’t paint an entirely positive picture of his father. He pointedly shared that he came from his father’s first marriage and was sent for visits with the children of his second wife, Antoinette Pinchot. He remarked on his father’s long periods of absence as he focused on his career instead of spending time with him.

He said he was 3-years-old when his father threw him in a swimming pool to find out, presumably, whether he’d sink or swim. “He threw me in a swimming pool thinking he’d give me a leg up,” said Bradlee, Jr. “It was an act of tough love, I think.” After the toddler thrashed around a bit, Bradlee got in and “casually scooped” him up.

Bradlee, Jr., somewhat awkwardly, moved on. “This is where I wanted to tell my favorite dickhead story, but David Ignatius stole it.”

Later in life, he said his father more than made up for his absence. Bradlee went to Afghanistan to visit him. And when his daughter, Greta Bradlee, was born, Bradlee flew to Boston to hold the baby in his arms. He said his father and his then-wife, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, were out for a stroll one day when Bradlee cracked, “You know what they’re thinking. I’m the father of that baby and a dirty old man.”

By far the hardest eulogy to witness was that of Bradlee’s son, Quinn, who choked up mid-way through.

“He reassured me until his last breath,” he said, his long dark bangs hanging in his eyes. “He has the most piercing X-ray eyes. …I used to put my head on his chest as a kid. His heart would beat so loud. I had to move my head to the right side of his chest.”

Outside the cathedral, a fierce wind and chill had picked up, perhaps best reflecting the stirred emotions of those inside.

Correction: There was some confusion regarding Bradlee’s three marriages. Ben’s third wife was Sally Quinn. She was not his second wife, nor had Sally Quinn ever been married before she met him. The above has been changed to de-mangle these references.

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