On Oscar de la Renta and Ben Bradlee

He made women look beautiful. That is, among other things, a gracious thing for a man to do.

He was an elegant man, which you’d expect—his job was elegance—but he was also an example of great personal dignity and, I hope, a carrier of it. He was sick for many years before his death and bore his illness manfully, with grace and containment.

His life was fancy but he was no snob. The last time I spent time with him, two years ago at a friend’s birthday party in a Manhattan Italian restaurant, the waiters surrounded him at evening’s end. They didn’t want to know about movie stars or first ladies, they wanted to know more about something he’d mentioned in passing when he’d been there before. Many decades ago he had, as a young man and before he was successful, gone to an obscure Asian shirt maker who made shirts so beautiful and so inexpensive that to that day he got all his shirts made there. Who was the shirt maker? How could they get the shirts? He stayed at the end of the party, a longish one, to tell them exactly where to go, how to order, why he still wore only those shirts. Having found perfection as a young man he wasn’t about to let it go. You have to be loyal to excellence. The men appreciated that in him, and he appreciated it in them.

He struck me, in perhaps a dozen conversations over many years, as unjudging and yet discerning. That is a hard combination to hold in your head. It’s hard not to be censorious when you can see.

But he took people case by case and without letting previous assumptions govern what he experienced. He was a loyal and affectionate friend. He knew the kind of people about whom others want to gossip, but he didn’t put his friends’ names into the air. That might have enhanced his immediate status but it would have endangered them so he didn’t do it. He was discreet without seeming to withhold information, another hard combination. There was something about him that was Old New York: He had true and real friendships with people across all spectrums, in all areas and of all cultural and political persuasions. He didn’t make much of it but there was grit in his loyalty. If he liked you, you were in and deserved his protectiveness, and if you weren’t in with anyone else that was their problem.

Once, 22 years ago, he called me out of the blue and asked if I would help him think through a high school commencement address. He talked about what he wanted to tell these gifted and wonderful 17- and 18-year-old boys. I listened as his words bubbled. At the end I told him what I thought I was hearing: He wanted to tell them to have wise hearts and warm brains. He wanted them not to be cold in their thinking and judging, and yet not to be unquestioningly accepting of their own emotional responses to things. Yes, he said, that’s it. And that’s what he said.

I think now that was a description of him: a warm mind and a wise heart.

I said at the top that I hope Oscar proves to have been a carrier of dignity, an encourager of it, even when he’s gone. There are fewer and fewer in my beloved city who can make this old town work with all its divided and competing parts. Oscar was both a cultural and social force, and as those things he was both a leader and an example. He penetrated to the essence of a person and put aside the outer differences in which we are all encased.

New York needs to remember this style. My city now is increasingly a town of babyish partisans, especially on the liberal and Democratic side, which is the biggest and almost only side. Their primary fault is not that they can see no goodness on other sides, though that is often true, but that they don’t even know what their own side believes, and so they cannot see potential areas of progress and peace. They know nothing. They watch a little cable, go to dinner, take their cues. Not only are they smug, their smugness is unearned. And they are running the city, in almost every area.

Oscar, that discerning man, was not like that. I hope the old style of his dignity and discernment spreads.

There is something I said to a friend I was visiting in Connecticut three weeks ago, after Oscar and his wife, Annette, equally elegant and discerning, called to say they could not make it by for dinner Saturday night. He was not feeling well, recent tests were bad. Unspoken but obvious as my friend relayed the news was the fact that his long struggle was ending.

I told my friend what I thought of when I thought of Oscar. It was the scene in the movie “A River Runs Through It” when the minister and father of the murdered son remembers, with his surviving son, the boy who had died. His son tried to sum him up, and stumbled into banalities.

“You know more than that,” says the father. “He was beautiful.”

So too for this worldly and thoughtfully, I think perhaps lovingly, open minded and encompassing man, the stoic and dignified Oscar De la Renta. Rest in peace.

*   *   *

Ben Bradlee was something else, a man who I’m fairly certain at some point understood himself to be playing one of the great parts of all time, that of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee—rogue, irreverent crusader, charismatic leader of journalism, upper-class WASP throwback who had the wit to see his kind were a receding wave and he might as well be at the top as it crested, and show the boys how it’s done.

The great work of his life was Watergate, which took down a Republican president. Those writing of him tend to note he didn’t care much about politics or ideology, and that is certainly true. He loved journalism, he loved the story, the hunt, the chase. But be honest: He was only too happy if Republicans were the quarry because, let’s face it, they weren’t in the least attractive or stylish or from anyplace you’d find . . . interesting. They had no élan. They didn’t know how to do it. They were grubby, or earnest, or sheep who thought themselves foxes. And Bradlee did care about those things, about style and how people of his time, class, ethos and profession viewed the good guys and the bad guys. Ideology and stands and policies were part of it, always—but only part.

Meeting him over the years I found him friendly, burly, aware of his power. He had a beautiful quality in a journalist, the curiosity of a child. It was almost innocent. He wanted to know why things were and who did what and how it happened. He loved information. Some people think there’s nothing new under the sun, but you could imagine him bounding out of bed each morning: “What’s up! What’s happening! Who was at the party?”

I never quite understood why his friendship with John F. Kennedy was so controversial. Why shouldn’t they have been friends? They were a lot alike, from the same generation, with similar backgrounds—both fought in the war, the same interest in power. Bradlee got exclusives from JFK; JFK in turn got the kind of treatment a young man on the way up who didn’t want to lose access would tend to provide. They were practical men. But Bradlee didn’t try to hide their relationship and in fact wrote books about it.

Shortly after Bradlee’s second memoir came out, I bumped into him, congratulated him and mentioned how candid I thought he was about Kennedy in the book. “Candid?” he said. “Candid?”

Um, yes, I said, not understanding his reaction. Was he telling me he had not been candid? Was he saying his candor was to be expected? I never knew, but he was defensive on the subject. Maybe this was because of conservative criticism, though I can’t imagine a conservative could ruffle Ben Bradlee. I think some Torquemadas of his profession accused him of being insufficiently pure. But I never understood journalism to be pure.

The beautiful part of Ben Bradlee’s legacy: leaving the American public a memory of a newsroom run by a man so personally confident he would back young nobodies doggedly going after a story that, if true, was going to be huge, generation-sized, but the pursuit of which carried risk. He backed Woodward and Bernstein. That was his job. But it doesn’t always happen that way in journalism, that the top guy does his job. Bradlee, and Katharine Graham, deserves credit for it, and fame. If the Post had been all wrong in its Watergate reporting, and not just wrong at times as it was, it could have done the Post in.

Also he was by all accounts a heck of a lot of fun, and all professions need people who remind you of joy.

Other parts of Bradlee’s legacy are less fortunate though not precisely or only his fault. We did see him as Jason Robards. The Watergate saga made two things clear to an entire rising generation of journalists in the 1970s and ’80s, many of whom were more explicitly political and ideological than Bradlee himself. One is that you can make a career going after Republicans and conservatives in politics and government.

The other, more damaging, is that you can advance and pursue what you think of as ideological progress and political justice by going into journalism. Journalism in this thinking isn’t an end in itself, it’s something you do to advance an agenda.

In the late ’70s some newsrooms were going from places populated by tough, professional journalists who were personally more or less liberal, to young people of the left who were operating within journalism to achieve a higher political justice. But they didn’t say they were people of the left. They thought of themselves as normal and modern, and as normal, modern people, they didn’t like Republicans or conservatism. This evolution has never sufficiently righted itself.

I have made references to class, and here is a way it figured in as a journalistic reality. It is the famous “Jimmy’s World” story, in which a Washington Post reporter told the story of an impoverished 8-year-old boy in the District whose father was a drug addict and who shot his son up with heroin. When the story’s fraudulence was exposed, Bradlee moved to find out what had happened and return the Pulitzer Prize the story had received.

But I remember reading the original story the day it came out, and knowing as I read—literally knowing as i read, and I was not alone—that the story was not true, that it was fiction. I knew this because in my life I had known heroin addicts. And heroin addicts do not waste their heroin on children, they want it for themselves. They are desperate people in search of their own expensive soothing and pleasure, not anyone else’s, certainly not a child’s.

Ben Bradlee was not a man whose background would give him that kind of knowledge, nor was he heavily surrounded by people who would have it. The reporter, Janet Cooke, wasn’t just a fabulist, she was a fabulist who didn’t have a clue as to the realities of which she was writing.

Journalists once were rougher folk. They came from the bottom or middle and scrapped their way up. In Bradlee’s time, and not only at his newspaper, it all became fancy, and journalism became another step removed from life as it is lived. Reporters now are mostly from the Ivy League, the upper middle, are tidily raised, directed toward attainment, and seem to see large parts of America as a teamin’ steamin’ Petri dish with all these bacteria running around . . .

When legacy media lost its monopoly in the past 15 years it was surely in part because of the elite nature—and uniform thinking—of big journalism’s practitioners. As soon as people got other options they took them.

That’s not Ben Bradlee’s fault, but these trends were coming forward when he was the biggest guy in the field, and in ways he contributed. Janet Cooke was a beautiful young black woman who said she’d gone to Vassar. She hadn’t, but she knew what to say to get into the Post.

Ben Bradlee was a great editor, a vivid figure, a man of guts and a knockoff of nobody.

He wasn’t afraid of history, he entered it each day.

He had hunger, and hunger in life—hunger for life—is a beautiful thing.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, rest in peace.