Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine


Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn are Washington’s orignal power couple par excellence

Nancy Reynolds Bagley

They are known to the world on a double first name basis: Ben and Sally.

Before Bennifer, before Brangelina, 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 arrived.

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?
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 administration were.

WL: Do you think part of the reason being social is frowned upon by this administration is a fear of leaking?
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.

Nancy Reynolds Bagley

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 coveted.
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 those people.
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 women today?
That kind of entertaining, that kind of life, those people— just doesn’t exist anymore and never will again.

WL: Why?
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 their entertaining.

WL: What quality do you most like about yourself and in each other?
I don’t want to talk about myself. I like Sally’s spirit once she wakes up. This is a lively household.
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?
We’ve been together 32 years and married for 27.
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
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?
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 younger readership?
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 fewer voices?
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 percent.
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?
Every poll shows that most journalists are Democrats.

WL: But they’re not controlling it. SQ: Well, the owners of the media are mostly Republican or conservative and they control it.
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 good.
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?
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?
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 thought.
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?
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 really thinking…


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