February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Americans have never been comfortable with class. We like to think of ourselves as egalitarian, meritocratic. Joseph Alsop never for a moment suffered from this delusion, and his sunny, posthumous memoir, I’ve Seen the Best of It (W. W. Norton & Company, $29.95), is—among other things—an insider’s irresistible record of a time when men of the class he called the “Wasp Ascendancy” still seemed likely to remain in charge of an America that he and they believed could only improve under their steady, confident tutelage.
He was born Joseph Alsop V in 1910, the grandnephew of Theodore Roosevelt, the collateral descendant of one Tory who quit the Continental Congress because it dared sever relations with Great Britain and the direct descendant of another who, according to family legend, during the Revolution kept a portrait of George III in his wine cellar, so that he could lead his children before it in the evenings, commanding, “Bow to your master.”
Alsop’s father was a conservative insurance executive, gentleman farmer, and perennially disappointed Republican office seeker. His mother was Corinne Robinson Alsop, TR’s vigorous niece and so determined a Republican that when Joseph and his younger brother, Stewart, away at college, sent home absentee ballots marked for Democratic candidates, she tore them up, then added two Alsop votes to the GOP column, where she was quite sure they belonged.
The sheltered, comfortable life enjoyed by the three Alsop boys (John, the third son, grew up to carry on the family insurance business) and their sister was an anachronism long before they went off to school: winters at Wood Ford farm, the seven-hundredacre family place at Avon, Connecticut; summers at Henderson in Orange County, New York, a transplanted Scottish castle whose rooms were lined with family portraits and said to be haunted by the ghost of its ancestral builder.
Alsop catalogued the special pleasures of his privileged boyhood with undisguised relish. “To this day,” he wrote in his seventies, “my idea of heaven is to dress in my best garments for a wedding, sit at a table of pleasant friends, and drink champagne in an apple orchard under a New England June sun.”
Actually Alsop spent comparatively little time idling in the New England sun. After Groton and Harvard—from which he was graduated both magna cum laude and a member of Porcellian, the exclusive club whose rejection his distant cousin FDR never quite got over—he moved to Manhattan. There, thanks entirely to his parents’ friendship with its publisher, he got a job with the Herald Tribune . The city editor was not initially pleased: his newest cub reporter was fat and bookish, talked through his teeth, wore Savile Row suits in an era when the fashion standard for reporters was set by the spectacularly rumpled Heywood Broun, and once, briefly, was seen walking a Newspaper Guild picket line wearing a raccoon coat. But he could write, and a series of vivid courtroom pieces about the Bruno Richard Hauptmann trial soon got him sent to Washington, where he settled in 1936 and began to write a newspaper column—first with Robert Kintner, then with his brother Stewart, finally on his own—that ran for nearly half a century.
His only break from journalism came during World War II, when he decided that in part because all his immediate ancestors had used their power and position to avoid taking up arms in any American war, it was his duty to join up. He became an aide to Gen. Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers, spent several months in a Japanese internment camp at Hong Kong—he used the time to master the Analects of Confucius , in Chinese—then helped Chiang Kai-shek get Gen. Joseph Stilwell recalled from China. Thereafter he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese Nationalist cause and an implacable enemy of the Communists.
Like his cousin and close friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Alsop was celebrated for his cheerfully malicious assessments of the posturing politicians, famous and obscure, who came and went in the city he had come to claim as his own, and his memoir is packed with them.
Sen. Jim Ham Lewis, for example, “a grandiloquent Democrat from Illinois, [who] successively wore three wigs—one short, one medium, one long—to give the impression his hair was growing. For heightened effect, when the middle-length or the long wig was in use, he would sprinkle over his shoulders what I think was sawdust, finely ground, to suggest dandruff. And when Senator Lewis wore his long wig, nothing pleased him more than to be told that he was in need of a haircut.”
Henry A. Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, was “a man whose judgment could never be trusted when he strayed more than six feet from a manure pile.”
The trouble with Adlai Stevenson was that he too often defied “Alsop’s Law”: In politics “the important thing is to be able to say ‘Most oranges are round,’ and sound as if you meant it.” Stevenson, Alsop wrote, “was always remembering—he was even hinting to his audience—that no orange is absolutely round, that oranges only seem round, that they have pores on their surface, and so on and on.”
The public officials Alsop most admired were for the most part men of his own class: Robert A. Lovett, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy, Charles Bohlen—the so-called Wise Men who first helped chart American victory in World War II and then mapped the strategies with which the Cold War was waged. They were “as selfless as men can be,” he wrote, “as trustworthy as men ever were, all totally dedicated to the American future.…”
For Alsop the Eisenhower era was a bad time. Most of his friends of more than twenty years were suddenly out of power, replaced by what he called the “eight millionaires and a plumber” who made up Ike’s cabinet. “An extreme self-righteousness prevailed” among them, he remembered. Unlike his old friends, to whom public service was the highest possible calling, “they behaved as though they were somehow sanctified because they had sacrificed their often large business jobs to serve … in Washington.”
But he reserved his greatest scorn for the singularly uncouth senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and several times put his own determinedly anti-Communist credentials on the line in defense of former officials with whose opinions he may not have agreed but whose patriotism he believed beyond questioning.
As Washington and the world beyond it changed, Alsop remained resolutely himself—egregious, according to his brother Stewart, in the strict sense of the term, “ ex grege , outside the flock.” “Joe is a genius,” and “like most geniuses … not easy to work with,” Stewart wrote after the two had agreed to stop trying to compose their column together. “He seemed to feel a psychic need for at least one shouting, foot-stamping row each week.” And he did not suffer those he considered fools at all. Once, when Adm. Lewis Strauss, Elsenhower’s chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, called him in for an interview, flattered him extravagantly, and then refused to answer substantive questions, Alsop said, “In that case, Admiral, you have asked me to see you in order to waste half an hour of my time,” and stalked out of his office.
Venturing out to poll Wisconsin voters with his brother just before the Democratic primary in the icy early spring of 1960, Alsop got himself up in a vast fur hat that had been specially made for him in Paris and a voluminous, fur-lined coaching cloak that had once belonged to his grandfather. The first homeowner took one look, exclaimed, “Holy Mary Mother of God!” and slammed the door. The next was friendlier. An immigrant, she politely answered all the questions he put to her in his upper-class accent, before posing one of her own: “Ascuse me, Meester. Why you spik so broken?”
“What in heaven’s name could she have meant, Stew?” Alsop asked as they trudged to a third home. Its owner was a Lutheran who planned to vote for Hubert Humphrey, she said, because John F. Kennedy was a Catholic.
“Thank you, Madam,” Alsop said as they left. “I think you’re a GODDAMN BIGOT .”
The election of his young friend Kennedy to the Presidency restored Alsop’s spirits for a time. JFK was a man “perfectly formed to lead the United States of America,” he wrote, and he seems to have discovered in him something of the wit and good manners and built-in self-assurance of the best of those among whom he’d grown to manhood.
Kennedy’s murder devastated him: “Of the grim days that followed, I can only say that it was a shattering sensation to discover quite abruptly that one had lived the best years of one’s life between the ages of forty-eight and fifty-three. I had never known I loved the president … until I felt the impact of his death.”
The war that Kennedy left behind brought out the worst in Joseph Alsop. His tours of the Vietnam front—there were a dozen of them—were more like royal progresses than reporter’s forays, with special helicopters and full-scale military escorts laid on wherever he wished to go, and his venomous attacks on younger reporters whose understanding of what was happening turned out to be far greater than his were unworthy of him.
Alsop could see disaster coming. America could not contain the Vietnamese civil war, and in 1975, just five months before the last U.S. troops withdrew from Saigon, he discontinued his column. Thereafter he devoted himself largely to art collecting, and it is perhaps understandable that when he came to write his reminiscences, he was careful to virtually omit the last quarter of a century of his life, during which most traces of the world into which he was born seemed finally to disappear, and the men in whom he had such faith were proved little wiser than anyone else.