A Very Winning Loser

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Wendell Willkie campaigning in his hometown of Elwood, Indiana, August 1940

“I’d watch Willkie,” wrote the New York Times columnist Arthur Krock in February 1939, quoting an anonymous Republican observer who admitted that Wendell Willkie was a “long shot” candidate for the presidency of the United States and “the darkest horse in the stable” for 1940. Readers of the Times may have been forgiven for asking, Why Willkie? Some may have wondered, Who is Willkie?

Wendell Willkie was a fireball of energy, tenacity, business acumen, ideas, and ideals. His exuberance is matched by that of David Levering Lewis, the biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois, in his deeply researched and highly absorbing book The Improbable Wendell Willkie. Improbable indeed: a Democrat from a small town in Indiana who registered as a Republican only in the fall of 1939; a highly regarded corporate lawyer and the head of Commonwealth and Southern, one of the country’s largest utilities holding companies, who had never run for public office before his nomination as the 1940 Republican candidate for president; a supporter of the New Deal and an internationalist who, while rattling reactionaries and isolationists in his own party, left a stunning legacy of responsible bipartisanship in a time of national and global emergency; and a farsighted pioneer in civil rights.

Booth Tarkington, whose native Indiana provided the small-town landscape for much of his fiction, once described Willkie as someone “familiar to us, a man wholly natural in manner, a man with no pose, no ‘swellness,’ no condescension…. A man as American as the courthouse yard.” Yet in 1940 that homespun fellow lived not in Elwood, Indiana, where he had been born in 1892, or in Coffeyville, Kansas, where he had taught high school, or in Bloomington, Indiana, where he earned a law degree in 1916, or in Rushville, where he owned a home and farmland, but at 1010 Fifth Avenue, in a splendid apartment overlooking Central Park. He had moved to New York in 1929 to serve as counsel for Commonwealth and Southern. He had a wife, Edith, who spent much of her time in Indiana, relegated to “spousal formality”; an only son, Philip, who attended Princeton; and a beautiful, talented lover.

That lover was his “Dear Irita, you whom I admire inordinately and love excessively,” in whose apartment he often met nonchalantly with reporters. Irita Bradford Van Doren was the book editor for the New York Herald Tribune and the former wife of Carl Van Doren, the Columbia professor and biographer. She was Willkie’s passport to New York intellectual circles as well as to the titans of publishing who hungered for a forward-looking Republican who could challenge Franklin Roosevelt: Helen and Ogden Reid, owners of the Herald Tribune; Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate; Russell Davenport, the managing editor of Fortune and a major figure in Willkie’s…

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