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Stop the presses: Benjamin C. Bradlee papers open for research

By Ancelyn Krivak

The papers of Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee are now open for research at the Harry Ransom Center. Totaling 187 boxes, the archive contains newsroom files from Newsweek and The Washington Post; a large volume of professional and personal correspondence spanning the late 1950s to the early 2010s; manuscript drafts and research materials for his autobiography A Good Life and other writings; a complete set of desk diaries for the years 1965 to 2008; transcripts of speeches; and subject files of clippings and correspondence about people and topics that piqued Bradlee’s curiosity, from Muhammad Ali to Watergate.

 

Ben Bradlee in his office at <em>The Washington Post</em> with Katharine Graham, Patrick Tyler, and Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., 1983.
Ben Bradlee in his office at The Washington Post with Katharine Graham, Patrick Tyler, and Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., 1983.

 

Ben Bradlee (1921–2014) is one of the best-known American newspaper editors. During his tenure as editor from 1965 to 1991, The Washington Post became one of the world’s preeminent daily papers. His leadership in publishing Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers and Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s reporting on the Watergate scandal established important precedents for freedom of the press and reinvigorated investigative journalism. The recurring issues that Bradlee grappled with in his professional papers, writings, and speeches—such as ethics in journalism, the relationship between government and the press, and fairness and inclusivity in the newsroom and news coverage—remain of vital interest today. The papers housed at the Center document an epoch in newspaper journalism, illuminate still-relevant themes, and reflect the charismatic personality of the man himself. Bradlee’s correspondence and memoranda crackle with irreverent wit and, at times, startle with disarming candor.

 

The materials in the Benjamin C. Bradlee papers complement the Center’s existing holdings in the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate papers. An online finding aid contains a complete list of folder titles and index of correspondents. Here is a brief selection of documents from the Bradlee papers.

 

Bradlee worked at Newsweek’s Washington bureau from 1957 to 1965. He became friends with Senator John F. Kennedy when they lived on the same block in Georgetown. Their personal relationship shaded into a professional one as Bradlee covered Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and then his administration, for Newsweek. This is a page of copy from an interview with Senator Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, circa 1960.
Bradlee was close friends with humorist Art Buchwald and attorney Edward Bennett Williams, and the three of them frequently had lunch at a restaurant near the Washington Post named Sans Souci. In this 1966 memo, Buchwald invites Post publisher Katharine Graham to dine with them.
Bradlee became executive editor of the Washington Post in 1968, and steered the paper through the rapid societal changes of the late 1960s and 1970s. In this 1970 memo, Bradlee addresses female staffers’ concerns over hiring practices and establishes guidelines for news reporters to help them steer clear of language that is discriminatory towards women.
This 1971 note from a file containing documents related to the Post’s legal strategy in the Pentagon Papers case appears to be Bradlee’s short list of items from the “Griswold secret brief” and Gayler affidavit that the Nixon administration claimed would harm national security. The Post chose not to publish papers that mentioned the items on the list.
In this 1973 memo, Bradlee expresses anxiety that the Post is losing ground on Watergate reporting to other news outlets and creates a “task force” to continue to push stories into the paper. The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its Watergate coverage in 1973.
Bradlee was a participant in the Harvard Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal research project carried out on select Harvard University students from the classes of 1939 through 1944. The Bradlee papers contain numerous materials related to the Grant Study, including annual questionnaires sent to participants, newsletters, and correspondence. This 1983 questionnaire asks Bradlee to speculate on how he will spend his retirement.
Correspondence with notable friends and acquaintances from the media, politics, and entertainment is found throughout the Bradlee papers. In 1991 Bradlee’s friend Lauren Bacall sent a postcard to congratulate him on his retirement (signed “B.B.” for “Betty Bacall”).
After retirement, Bradlee planned to write a book called “How to Read a Newspaper,” and his papers contain a variety of clippings and notes related to this unrealized project. This note on bias details his own prejudices for the Washington Redskins and against “esoteric science stories” and encourages readers to develop awareness of their own biases.

 

Ancelyn Krivak is a project archivist at the Harry Ransom Center.

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