Sally Quinn On Late Husband Ben Bradlee, ‘The Washington Post,’ JFK & Watergate [VIDEO EXCLUSIVE]
Sally Quinn, the editor and widow of the late Ben Bradlee, met her future husband at a job interview for the Washington Post. That’s just one of the remarkable stories in the new HBO documentary The Newspaperman, which covers the life and work of Bradlee.
“I had been hired to be the secretary for the editorial page editor and he said, ‘you must meet Ben Bradlee,’ and he took me in to meet Ben and I was totally dazzled,” Quinn told uInterview in an exclusive video. “I thought he was the Sun King. I couldn’t believe how attractive he was, and then I left and the next day I got fired because the editor said I was overqualified to be a secretary because I couldn’t type and I couldn’t file. A couple of year passed and I got a call from this gruff voice on the other end of the line saying would you like to come in for an interview to be a party reporter, and he said, ‘my name is Ben Bradlee, I’m the editor of the Washington Post,’ and I thought, ‘oh, as if I didn’t know.’ And so I went in and interviewed him and we got along really well. He was 20 years older than I was and he was married, but I just thought he was the most sexy, dynamic, incredible, charismatic man I ever met in my life. I was completely bowled over. And for some reason I was very cheeky and very feisty with him, so we got into this sparring relationship. At the end of the interview, he said, ‘well. I’d like to see something you’ve written,’ and I said, ‘well, I’ve never written anything.’ And he said, ‘well, nobody’s perfect. You’re hired.'”
Quinn began covering parties in DC, which essentially meant she was covering politics. Four years later, she found herself in the middle of Watergate, reporting for the Post. She and Bradlee flew down to Miami together and it was there that the pair fell in love, though neither admitted it at the time. “I actually went to one of my friends and said I’m gonna tell him, and he said you can’t do that because if he took you up on it, it would destroy Watergate – it would destroy the story, the paper, the country, you can’t, you have to put your country first. And being an Army brat, of course, it was the only thing he could say to me that would make a difference, so I didn’t say anything. And then I quit the paper to go to New York to be the first network anchorwoman in America, and told him after I quit that I was leaving because I was in love with him. And he said, ‘well, I can’t believe it, I’m in love with you too.’ And so we ended up together. And four or five months later we came out as a couple and we were together 43 years.”
As for the reaction to Quinn and Bradlee’s relationship, Quinn says it was a shock for many. “People were really stunned, but at that point, when we got together, was after I had left the paper. I came back to Washington and people didn’t quite know how to handle it, it was sort of a scandal,” she said. “But Katharine Graham, who was the publisher of the paper… I quit CBS to come back to be with Ben, and she had a big dinner party that night and she invited me and Ben to come, and the minute we walked in the door, everybody said, ‘ok, they’re accepted.'”
As for the Watergate scandal, Quinn noted the personal risk Bradlee took with breaking the story. “Ben and I got together in the middle of Watergate, and it was just becoming a major story. When we went down to the convention in Miami, Nixon was being reelected,” she said, setting the scene. “I knew that Ben was concerned about it, but he always, always trusted his reporters, and he believed in the story. And it was just a gut feeling… He thought there was a story there and he pursued it and pursued it, and if other people didn’t, then that was their bad luck… and he was right, and they won. He wasn’t reckless ever, he wasn’t out on a limb.”
Bradlee did at points fear for his own life because of Watergate. “Some of these people were crazy and you just never knew what they were gonna do. And I think Ben always thought that his house was bugged, and he was being followed, and his phones were bugged. I think they were very wary… I don’t think they thought they were in any eminent danger of getting murdered, but on the other hand, I don’t think they ever ruled it out.”
Bradlee and John F. Kennedy had been friends for a long time prior to Kennedy becoming president. “They lived next door to each other and they became best friends, and they saw each other all the time,” Quinn explained. “When [Kennedy] was elected president, as Jack said to Ben, ‘you don’t make new friends once you’re in the White House.’ They relied a lot on their old friends, and Ben and Toni, his then-wife, were there three times a week. I think with Ben and Jack Kennedy, it’s always a double-edged sword because if you do have a friend who’s a good source, then you get a lot more information than you normally would and it can be very helpful for your career.” They would use each other for information and for good press, while knowing the rules of the game and respected each other. “‘All I ask is that you wait until 10 years after I’m out of office before publish anything,’ [JFK told him], and after the assassination, Ben wrote his book Conversations with Kennedy… They were always wary of each other because both of them understood that they were walking the line, but that is not an unusual situation in Washington.”
The men even encountered a situation where Kennedy hit on Bradlee’s wife at the time. “Jack Kennedy was famous for that,” Quinn laughed. “But in those days, people didn’t write about that sort of thing. But I think Toni was more flattered than anything else, and of course she didn’t tell Ben for a long time… I don’t think Ben took it all that seriously.”
The Newspaperman is now available on HBO.
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