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 him in 1941, he was a stout New Dealer, devoted to FDR, a friend of Felix Frankfurter, Philip Graham (a left New Dealer at that time) and his wife Kay, an admirer of Ben Cohen,3 a passionate interventionist (The American White Paper4 was a pamphlet in that direction); and these loyalties remained solid to the end of his life. He was totally fearless, independent, patriotic and a super Wasp—that he could not help being. His father,5 whom I knew, was exactly the same; so was his mother,6 Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, a very nice and amusing woman. He was a warm-hearted and loyal friend, totally truthful, highly intelligent and very civilised—his knowledge of French literature, particularly Saint-Simon,7 of Chinese political writings, of art, furniture, Greek history and God knows what else was pretty exceptional for an ordinary American political correspondent or columnist.

He was not at that period conspicuously right-wing, though of course he became it later. He did have an obsessive and somewhat apocalyptic vision of the conquest of the civilisation he believed in by barbarians from the East, i.e. the Russians. The Chinese he admired so much that, even though they might conquer the world, he thought that that would be to America’s disadvantage but not to that of the world. Russian Communism would mean total extinction of all values which he believed in (and in which I think I believe too).

With all this, he was bad-tempered, bibulous (as you say), could be a bully—but only towards people whom he suspected of opportunism, running with the tide, above all of holding views, whether in a weak and flexible way or in an obstinate and unyielding way, which he regarded as against the interests of the United States. Hence his dislike for Walter Lippmann (whom I knew well and who was indeed a twig that bent in the wind, honest, intelligent but of no character really, undone by his appalling embarrassment about his Jewish origins, which rattled like a skeleton in a half-opened cupboard); ditto my hero Stevenson, whom he regarded as a weakling, over-high-minded; Scotty Reston, for whom he had no moral or intellectual respect; but equally right-wingers like Arthur Krock,8 whom he despised as one of the vicious defenders of the extreme, slightly Fascist right. He was a deeply neurotic character, lonely, liable to periods of gloom and depression—hence, for the most part, the drink—and certainly to some extent undone by his crypto-homosexuality, which he sought to conceal all his life, but which became more and more widely known, although he never knew the extent to which it was known….


His domestic habits and temperament were those of a rather headstrong eccentric British aristocrat. When he arrived to stay, he wanted the servants to run around, and brought baskets of dirty laundry which had to be washed immediately, and longed to dress every night. If you had seen his room at Avon in Connecticut, and his father, the tobacco- growing squire, and his mother, and the ancestral portraits, you’d have seen where he came from. It certainly involved a high degree of straight social snobbery, but at least you could say it was absorbed at birth—the entire world in which he grew up was affected by it. Nevertheless, in spite of his fanatical anti-Communism, and the fact that he was virtually the first Cold Warrior, there were certain countervailing tendencies—to begin with, what you know already, his passionate concern with civil liberties, his resistance to McCarthyism, the fact that various persons accused by McCarthy, people whom he disliked for their fellow-travelling views and suspected of dishonesty (sometimes legitimately), were nevertheless asked by him to stay with him in order that he might defend them. His most glorious hour was when he defended Henry Wallace, whom he politically detested, from the charge of being a Communist agent. He appeared before the committee, I think the McCarran,9 and testified—naturally the committee could do nothing with so rock-ribbed an anti-Communist as Joe Alsop, and at the end they said “Thank you, Mr Alsop, that will be quite sufficient,” to which he replied “No, senator, it will not be sufficient…,” and carried on for another half-hour, bawling at them.10 So the bawling was not reserved for social inferiors, fellow-travellers, feeble liberals, etc., but was sometimes directed against the grand and powerful.

He could not resist charm and intelligence. Naturally, he began by violently denouncing Bob Silvers. When they met, they became fast friends. He was a great friend of my friend Stuart Hampshire, who is a lifelong socialist and whose views coincided with Joe Alsop’s at very few points. He became a friend of a man called Burdon-Muller, of whom I do not expect you to have heard (he was a rich, eccentric pro-Soviet who lived in Cambridge and Boston) as well as Franklin Roosevelt; and Ben Cohen, whom one cannot accuse of illiberal views—Joe thought him a saint and almost invariably right, though politically, of course, there were disagreements. He was friends, to my great indignation, with the horrible Lillian Hellman, who had praised his stance on civil liberties. But, of course, as time went on he became more and more reactionary, even though one could tease him about that and to some degree he laughed at himself for his lonely, rock-like attempt to stem the irresistible tide of vulgarity, decline in intellectual rigour, betrayal of the old civilisation, etc. which he perceived at Harvard, Washington and wherever.

…He was hideously unpopular among his fellow journalists always, partly because of the upper-class manner, grandeur, snobbery, ordering waiters about, demanding special treatment, etc. He was not one of the boys, ever, but a somewhat eccentric and often appallingly aggressive, bad-tempered shouter. I have been present at dinner parties in his house, attended, as always, by whoever was important in the administration of the day, plus personal friends, which ended in some kind of row—violent altercations between him and the equally conservative Charles Bohlen, frightful scenes with Dean Acheson, whom he rightly suspected of a certain lack of stoutness of character, despite his looking like the Laughing Cavalier, but who, of course, as against Joe, was almost invariably right. All this was very disagreeable, and his violent pro-Vietnam war line was a trifle mad. His attitude later was friendship and approval for those who had supported the war, even if they changed their mind afterwards, e.g. Robert McNamara, but who did not try to work his passage back by what he regarded as the methods used by e.g. Mac Bundy, whom he regarded as a miserable traitor. All this is true. His political attitudes were often dotty, unacceptable and even odious.


Now if you ask me why I remained such friends with him, let me say again: he was a man of incorruptible integrity; affectionate, loyal, civilised, a devoted friend—nothing said of someone, if he really was a friend, would shake his devotion. You could argue with him quite openly, denounce his views, and he remained courteous, inflexible. If ever there was a middle-of-the-road liberal, extreme left of the right, extreme right of the left, it is myself—yet our friendship never wavered. He knew perfectly well that I didn’t like Eisenhower, that I was not all that pro-Kennedy (with whom he was virtually in love), that I thought Nixon and Reagan too awful—it made no difference to our relationship. He disliked Nixon, he was not a buddy of Reagan’s, but voted for them, no doubt, and supported their policies, but was repelled by them, socially and personally; he was not comfortable during the reign of Truman, whom I greatly admired.

He was a total original: the cruel bullying of which you speak did no doubt occur, and so did the drunkenness—if I had been there, even shivering in a corner, and said “Now, Joe, stop this, don’t go on like this,” I think he would have stopped. He prized friendship above almost everything—not above his patriotism, perhaps, but certainly everything else. Arthur Schlesinger’s obituary of him was fundamentally just and generous11: he basically did not care for Arthur, unlike everyone else—he seemed too far to the left (!)—but adored his second wife, who is the daughter of a lady12 he once paid court to. So they remained on terms. Given this, Arthur’s piece about him is very creditable indeed. But they were not friends personally in the way that Chip Bohlen, Philip Graham (who once told me that he had once meditated joining the Soviet Army as a volunteer against the Finns), Fritchey,13 Evangeline Bruce14 or Aline and I were friends. In the end, it was his private person, his warm heart, his honesty, courage and integrity, which no political combination or personal advantage, of whatever kind, ever affected in the smallest degree, that drew one to him. In the end, one simply likes people for what they are, not for this or that reason—I think Montaigne said that.15 The way people look, speak, the expressions on their faces, what one experiences when they enter a room—this is what determines one’s fundamental feelings. He was a man on his own: his marriage was a disaster. He remained incurably solitary; his politics were more often than not deplorable—in personal conversation it became a joke—but you are right, in the kind of situations you describe he must have been often unspeakable.

I have done my best. I don’t know if that explains anything, I only hope it does. Please give my love to both your parents.

Yours ever,

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