Monday, February 22, 2010

Washington Social Diary - Sally!

Sally Quinn
In 2009, Ben Bradlee, Quinn Bradlee and Sally Quinn, share their personal lives in an interview with Carol Joynt on the set of The Q&A Cafe:
by Carol Joynt

Not for the first time and not for the last, the most talked about person in Washington is Sally Quinn, who is married to Ben Bradlee, with whom she has a son, Quinn Bradlee, who is engaged to be married to Pary Williamson who, as it happens, is pregnant. The Washington wedding, which was supposed to be in the autumn, recently got moved by Sally up to April 10, which is the same day Ben’s granddaughter, Greta Bradlee, long-ago set the date for her wedding in California.

According to Sally, the same date mess was a mere scheduling mistake and mostly Ben’s fault and they weren’t planning to attend the California wedding, anyway. The only one of those excuses believed by Bradlee intimates is that Sally never planned to go to California.

Sally Quinn, Ben Bradlee, Quinn Bradlee, Carol Joynt - before taping an interview for The Q&A Cafe.
I’m not revealing Bradlee secrets; they were published last week in what sometimes seems like Sally Quinn’s personal newsletter, The Washington Post, where Ben once reigned as the nation’s fiercest and most famous editor. Sally wrote a revealing article about the “drama unfolding in our family” that ran in The Post after rumors got out there, as they say. Not only were they out there, they were a wild fire among people who actually know Ben and Sally. One wonders, though: if Ben were still executive editor would he have approved The Post running his wife’s personal jeremiad? As a V.P. at large, did he in this case?

But to go back. A week ago, from a few solid sources, I was sent emails that smoked with sordid “facts” about the behind the scenes of the family drama, especially in regard to the bride to be. Most were too hot to handle. Immediately I shared them with DPC, who chose the high road. “I think that's a lose-lose situation and not one I'd want to partake of.” I talked with JH and we all agreed. Some family business simply does not need to be made public, especially when it would cause ugly collateral damage. My sources went elsewhere and another website ran a modest account, minus the more flammable bits. Sally, with her Post piece, lobbed a Molotov cocktail.

Here’s a revealing glimpse of what I think is the Bradlee-Quinn family dynamic. It comes from when young Quinn lost his virginity during a family holiday on a Caribbean island. It was a laddish late night lark with a friend to a whorehouse. The next day Quinn shared the news with his father, who was essentially nonplussed; possibly even privately pleased the rite of passage had happened. His mother, on the other hand, went nuclear. She took Quinn and his friend back to the brothel, gathered up the whores, and drove the whole lot to a hospital for AIDS testing.

The episode came up when I interviewed all three – Ben, Sally and Quinn – for my local TV program, The Q&A Café, upon the publication of Quinn’s memoir, “A Different Life.” When I asked Quinn to recall the event, Ben groaned. “You don’t have to talk about that.” Quinn and Sally both shot Ben a look. “It’s in the book,” they said. Ben groaned again, shrugged, rolled his eyes and looked away. Quinn and Sally went on to re-tell the story, in which Quinn was embarrassed and Sally was willful. I wondered, is that what it’s like at home?

People ask, “What’s the big deal with Sally Quinn?” Its simple: in a town of mostly gray and beige personalities she is Technicolor, a diva out of opera, and has been since long before she and Ben had their affair, started living together and got married. In the early 70s, when her profile pieces first landed in the Post’s Style section, the town was gob smacked. Before Sally, public people here thought they could have it both ways with the media: live their private lives one way while being safely shielded behind a sober public image. Sally blew off the shield and made private lives quite public, often using the subject’s own words and actions to paint a sensational portrait.
A big house in Georgetown; the Bradlee family abode on N Street.
Sally’s Style stories were great reading. She was a world class shredder long before Shaun White took a snowboard to the half pipe. In so many ways Sally – along with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Watergate - defined the hotness of the Bradlee-era Washington Post. There was one notorious backfire, when she reported that White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski unzipped his fly during an interview. It was retracted the next day.

In 1973 Sally was hired by CBS News to be the next big thing in morning television. She was welcomed to Manhattan with a gossipy New York Magazine cover story that did to her what she had done to others, painting the private Sally as equal parts sexpot, bitch and manipulator, a tone common in the media for colorful/assertive/strong women on the rise. I was at CBS News at the time. We shared a couple of candid, shop-talk lunches with her irascible co-anchor Hughes Rudd. My impression was Sally wasn’t comfortable with television. It wasn’t a good fit, either way, which is why the gig didn’t last much more than six months.

Sally Quinn at an Inauguration night party in 2009.
Sally Quinn, entertaining at home.
Quinn Bradlee, Ben Bradlee, and Hugh Jacobsen at a party at the Bradlee's.
Among the close friends of Sally Quinn: Bob Woodward and Else Walsh.
Part of the Bradlee inner circle: Liz and George Stevens, Jr., here talking to Carol Burnett.
She returned to Washington, to print, and to the blooming romance with Bradlee, who left and divorced his wife. Sally was where she belonged. This didn’t mean she was quiet or off stage. There’s not a moment in her adult life when Sally Quinn has been off the stage. Initially she and Ben lived an almost Bohemian (for them) lifestyle; not married and not in Georgetown. Legend has it that Ben said he would marry Sally when the church picked a Polish pope. Along came Pope John Paul II, and Ben and Sally married. They got a big house in Georgetown and became the prototype for the Washington “power couple.” It was only the late 70s.

The 80s were the formative years of a controversial reputation that has stuck to Sally Quinn. Nobody can be as universally wicked as some people would want you to believe about Sally. They will tell you she’s delusional, vindictive, cruel, controlling and humorless. Sometimes I think her haters will drag her from her home and burn her at the stake in the middle of Wisconsin and M Streets.

Shouldn’t Sally be taken at her word when she writes, “Family, for me, is the most important thing in life.” At its core, that family is Ben and Quinn. They have been through a personal hell that began when Quinn was born with Velo-Cardio Facial Syndrome (VCFS), which causes heart and learning disabilities. Quinn endured a childhood of surgeries, medical treatments, testing and special schools. These ordeals profoundly shape a family, and a marriage, in ways that can’t be understood unless you walk in their shoes. Do certain choices look not so pretty on the outside? It’s the history behind them that changes mere gossip into human narrative.

Quinn, at 27, seems to have made peace with his circumstances. After all, he wrote a book about it. Some say Sally wrote it. Does it matter? What Quinn said in the book, and in his interview with me, is that his life will never be fully normal, he can never be fully on his own. When I asked Quinn if with his condition he could have children, Ben again interjected, “you don’t have to answer that,” but Quinn waved off his father and gladly answered. He said there’s a 50/50 chance that the VCFS could be passed to his child, but that thanks to certain scientific breakthroughs his sperm could be washed to reduce those chances.

Sally has built a layer of friends and buffers around her son to be there today, tomorrow and when she and Ben are gone. Would you do any different if you were the older parent of a child with a disability? Sally is 68-years-old. Ben is 88.

When Quinn Bradlee and Pary Williamson walk down the aisle at the Washington National Cathedral – what Sally referred to as their family “church” - it won’t stop the tittering and gossip about Sally and Ben, his family, her family, and Quinn’s family to be. It goes with a personal landscape Sally created and has acknowledged. “Everyone has a dysfunctional family,” she wrote. “Ours is no exception.”

Interestingly, within weeks of the dueling April nuptials the Bradlee clan will celebrate the publication of a new book by Ben from Simon and Schuster. The subject? Fatherhood.

Don’t cry for Sally Quinn. She’s not a lost lamb in Washington. She has detractors but she also has friends. Her enemies, if that’s what they are, are just louder. Sally writes a lot of copy inches – she analyzes Washington, takes Presidents to task, muses on religion, entertaining and life. What a lot of people here wait for is the day Sally writes a column about how sometimes she is her own worst enemy.

Desiree Rogers.

From both France and the White House I’m hearing credible chatter that a French state visit to Washington is in the works. If it happens it would be late March or early April. Apart from the serious business between Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy – Iran, for example - there’s the likelihood of a glittering State Dinner, since almost all official visits include a State Dinner.

If you are a White House whose first State Dinner became a debacle thanks to a trio of self-promoting gate crashers, what better rebound than to try it all again (minus the crashers) with the other most glamorous First Lady on the world stage: Carla Bruni. There won’t be room for the all the cameras trying to grab the photo ops: Carla and Michelle, Barack and Nicolas; here, there, everywhere; arriving, departing, looking hot, glam and in demand. It easily would have the potential to be the flashiest night at the White House since the Reagan era, when Princess Diana danced with John Travolta.

Not to mention the joy this occasion could bring to the on-the-ropes office of Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. Before Tiger Woods made his much-covered public statement last Friday, political operative James Carville was asked what the golfer needed to do to get back on top of his game. Carville said it was simple: apologize and then go win the Masters.

That same logic works for Rogers. If this visit happens, and there’s a dinner, and it goes off with splendid and elegant ease, that will bury the blot of Tareq, Michaele and Carlos, and Rogers will have her game back.

Again, it’s not official. The parties involved want it to happen. It’s in the hands of diplomatic schedulers. For now, the Obamas are planning a spring break trip with their daughters to Indonesia and Australia.
The Jacobsen home in Georgetown.

The almost 40 inches of snow that fell here is melting. It’s down by half and going fast, which made Saturday night a good night to shake off cabin fever and go out. My choice was an exclusive little gathering of close friends at the Georgetown home of architect Simon Jacobsen and his wife, Ruth. While the party was at their home, the main host was Jacobsen’s father, that other architect, Hugh Newell Jacobsen.

Father and son not only work together in the family firm but also live across the street from each other. The whole family shares a fondness for the piano styling of Dan Ruskin, who plays daily during lunch at the downtown Prime Rib restaurant. Hugh’s table is #42, which puts him practically on the bench with Ruskin.
Hugh Jacobsen thanks his guests.
The 20 or so guests sat in the white on white living room, on white wood folding chairs, sipping white champagne as Ruskin took the ivories through the highlights of the Cole Porter song book as well as some of his own ditties. He’s a natural song and story man, which comes as no surprise given the bloodline. His father was a concert pianist. His brother is musical comedian Mark Russell.

“I just love this,” Jacobsen said as he welcomed the guests, beaming. “There’s not a great song Dan can’t play.” When the performance ended, the party moved downstairs to the white dining room and a buffet feast of incredible desserts from Georgetown’s own Baked & Wired: brownies, cookies, pies, tarts and an awesome chocolate layer cake that would make any grandmother proud. Also, more champagne, pulled fresh from snow on the terrace outside.
Dan Ruskin, looking in from the outside.
Dan Ruskin sings and plays Cole Porter.
The leftover snow came in useful as a champagne cooler.
Desserts from Baked & Wired for after the performance.
Guests at the dessert buffet.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.
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