The Unique Qualities of Joe Alsop

Dominique Nabokov
Joseph Alsop and Alexandra Schlesinger, New York City, early 1980s

On Tuesday, September 19, 1989, two long-standing friends of the columnist and commentator Joseph Alsop, Washington Post journalist Robert Kaiser1 and British historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, were in the congregation at Alsop’s memorial service at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C. Kaiser’s father was an old friend of Berlin’s, and Kaiser had known Berlin for many years.

On October 6, Kaiser wrote Berlin a letter that he described as “the product of ruminations about Joe Alsop, ruminations that leave me baffled.” He told Berlin that he had known Alsop best in 1969–1970, when they were both reporting the Vietnam War, about which Alsop thought he “knew all the answers.” “One of my most vivid memories is of him getting drunk twice a day. Too much before and at lunch, then a nap, then too much before, at and after dinner. At those meals—as at so many in his own houses in Washington—he was often a cruel bully, attacking all who disagreed with him, particularly reporters who wrote stories he didn’t like.”

Kaiser had good things to say, too, telling an anecdote about Alsop beguiling children in a small Vietnamese town—“Joe at his best.” But he found himself unable to place Alsop in his “mental closet.” “Certainly he was almost unique here as a genuine intellectual who knew his own mind, and also just knew a lot. He also played a very important role in the (now ended) era of punditry, but I fear the high point of his career was in intimidating JFK to make a commitment in Vietnam, a tragic error.” Moreover, Alsop “was a tormented soul, confused about his own sexuality, addicted to booze and tobacco, often just sad.” Kaiser asked Berlin: “What does all this add up to? How did you understand the man?” Following is Berlin’s reply, drawn from the fourth and final volume of his correspondence, Affirming: Letters 1975–1997, edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, to be published in the US later this year.

—Henry Hardy

17 October 1989
Headington House

Dear Bob,

…All that you say about Joe Alsop rings entirely true. It is related to the substance of that play written about him by Art Buchwald,2 which was put on in Washington and which it was thought improper of his friends to see. However, like most of his other friends we went to it and rather enjoyed it; but it was a caricature (a visit to Vietnam by a paranoiac war correspondent throwing his weight around).

I have known Joe Alsop since 1940 and we were warm friends. Let me tell you what I think, as briefly as I can and as my secretary, who is typing this letter, will tolerate. When I first met him in 1940 and got to know…

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Letter © the Trustees of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, 2015.