He was also an advocate for education and the study of history, including working for years as an active trustee on the boards of several major educational, historical, and archeological research institutions.
A member of the Boston Brahmin Crowninshield family, Bradlee was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 26, 1921. His father was Frederick Josiah Bradlee, Jr. (1892–1970), a direct descendant of Nathan Bradley—the first American Bradley, born in the colony of Massachusetts in 1631. His mother, Josephine de Gersdorff (1896–1975), was awarded the French Legion of Honour for starting an orphanage that sheltered children from Nazi Germany during World War II. Bradlee's maternal grandfather, Carl August de Gersdorff (1865–1944), the son of a German immigrant, was a wealthy New York lawyer. Bradlee's maternal grandmother was Helen Suzette Crowninshield (1868–1941), daughter of artist Frederic Crowninshield (1845–1918), another member of the Crowninshield family. His great-great-uncle was U.S. lawyer Joseph Hodges Choate, 34th U.S. ambassador to Britain, and his great uncle was Francis "Frank" Welch Crowninshield, the creator and editor of Vanity Fair, and a roommate of Condé Nast. He had a brother named Frederick Bradlee (1919–2003), a writer and Broadway stage actor.
Chevalier Josephine de Gersdorff, Bradlee's mother, was a direct descendant of Heinrich XXIX, Count of Reuss-Ebersdorf, who was a lineal descendant of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, King John of Denmark, King Casimir IV of Poland, and John V, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. Through his father Frederick, Bradlee was also a lineal descendant of King Henry VII of England by an unknown British woman through their son Sir Roland de Velville. His maternal great grandfather was Dr. Ernst Bruno von Gersdorff, who was a third cousin of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom through Heinrich XXIX.
Bradlee, the second of three children, grew up in a wealthy family with domestic staff. With his brother, Freddy, and sister, Constance, he learned French, took piano lessons, and went to the symphony and the opera. The stock market crash of 1929 decimated the family's wealth however. During the Great Depression, Bradlee's father worked odd jobs to support his family, including keeping the books for various clubs and institutions and supervising the janitors at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Bradlee attended Dexter School before finishing at St. Mark's School, where he played varsity baseball. While attending St. Mark's, he contracted polio. He exercised regularly at home and developed strong arms and chest. He was able to fight off the effects of polio and could walk without limping. Thereafter he attended Harvard College, where he was a Greek–English major and joined the Naval ROTC.
Bradlee received his naval commission two hours after graduating in 1942, joined the Office of Naval Intelligence, and worked as a communications officer in the Pacific during World War II. His duties included handling classified and coded cables, serving primarily on the destroyer USS Philip fighting off the shore of Guam and arriving at Guadalcanal with the Second Transport Group, part of Task Group 62.4, commanded by Rear Admiral Norman Scott. Bradlee's main battles were Vella Lavella, Saipan, Tinian, and Bougainville. He also fought in the biggest naval battle ever fought, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines Campaign, in the Borneo Campaign, and made every landing in the Solomon Islands campaign.
Bradlee's first marriage was to Jean Saltonstall, who also came from a wealthy and prominent Boston Brahmin family. They married on August 8, 1942, and had one son, Ben Bradlee Jr., who became a deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe.
After the war, in 1946, Bradlee became a reporter at the New Hampshire Sunday News, a venture he helped launch. After he sold the paper, in 1948 he started working for The Washington Post as a reporter. He got to know associate publisher Philip Graham, who was the son-in-law of the publisher, Eugene Meyer. On November 1, 1950, Bradlee was alighting from a streetcar in front of the White House just as two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to shoot their way into Blair House in an attempt to kill President Harry S. Truman. In 1951 Graham helped Bradlee become assistant press attaché in the American embassy in Paris, France.
In 1952 Bradlee joined the staff of the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), the embassy's propaganda unit. USIE produced films, magazines, research, speeches, and news items for use by the CIA throughout Europe. USIE (later known as USIA) also controlled the Voice of America, a means of disseminating pro-American "cultural information" worldwide. While at the USIE, according to a Justice Department memo from an assistant U.S. attorney in the Rosenberg Trial, Bradlee was helping the CIA manage European propaganda regarding the spying conviction and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953. The memo, addressed to U.S. Attorney Myles Lane and dated December 13, 1952, states that "[Mr. Bradlee] further advised that he was sent here by Robert Thayer, who is the head of the CIA in Paris...he stated that he was supposed to have been met by a representative of the CIA at the airport but missed connections" and that "he has been trying to get in touch with [CIA Director] Allen Dulles."
This memorandum was cited as evidence of Bradlee’s CIA connections by author Deborah Davis in her 1979 biography of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Katharine the Great: Katharine Graham and her Washington Post Empire. Graham and Bradlee, in a controversial action that drew widespread accusations of censorship, demanded and obtained the recall of the book by Davis’s publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which first disavowed the book, and then recalled and shredded 20,000 copies. Davis subsequently won a judgment against her publisher, however, and the Justice Department memorandum that formed the primary basis for her claims regarding Bradlee’s CIA affiliation was never disavowed, even by Bradlee himself. It appeared in two subsequent editions of Davis’s book without challenge and was cited by author Carol Felsenthal, in her 1999 book Power, Privilege, and The Post: The Katharine Graham Story. Reporter Christopher Reed, in his obituary on Bradlee in The Guardian, states that Bradlee "spent many years undercover as a counter-espionage informant, a government propagandist and an unofficial asset of the Central Intelligence Agency,” initially by promulgating "CIA-directed European propaganda urging the controversial execution of the convicted American spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg."
Bradlee was officially employed by USIE until 1953, and he began working for Newsweek in 1954. While based in France, Bradlee divorced his first wife and married Antoinette Pinchot in 1957. At the time of the marriage, Antoinette's sister, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was married to Cord Meyer, a key figure in Operation Mockingbird, a CIA program to influence the media. Antoinette Bradlee was also a close friend of Cicely d'Autremont, who was married to CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton. Bradlee became friends with Angleton but the two allegedly parted ways after the October 12, 1964 murder of Bradlee’s sister-in-law Mary Pinchot Meyer, whose CIA connections and romantic ties to the late President John F. Kennedy made her death the object of intense scrutiny. Bradlee and Angleton gave conflicting accounts of the events surrounding the search for and disposition of the diary in which Pinchot Meyer recorded her affair with Kennedy.
In 1957, while working as a reporter for Newsweek, Bradlee created controversy when he interviewed members of the FLN. They were Algerian guerrillas who were in rebellion against the French government at the time. According to Deborah Davis, author of the Katharine Graham biography Katharine the Great, this had all the "earmarks of an intelligence operation". As a result of these interviews, Bradlee was forced to leave France.
As a reporter in the 1950s, Bradlee became close friends with then-senator John F. Kennedy, who had graduated from Harvard two years before Bradlee, and lived nearby. In 1960 Bradlee toured with both Kennedy and Richard Nixon in their presidential campaigns. He later wrote a book, Conversations With Kennedy (W.W. Norton, 1975), recounting their relationship during those years. Bradlee was, at this point, Washington Bureau chief for Newsweek, a position from which he helped negotiate the sale of the magazine to The Washington Post holding company. Bradlee maintained that position until being promoted to managing editor at the Post in 1965. He became executive editor in 1968.
After Bradlee and Pinchot divorced, Bradlee married fellow journalist Sally Quinn on October 20, 1978. Quinn and Bradlee had one child, Quinn Bradlee, who was born in 1982 when Quinn was 41 and Bradlee was 61. In 2009 they appeared with Quinn Bradlee on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS and spoke of their son's having been born with Velo-cardio-facial syndrome, also known as DiGeorge syndrome.
Bradlee retired as the executive editor of The Washington Post in September 1991 but continued to serve as vice president at large until his death. He was succeeded as executive editor at the Post by Leonard Downie Jr., whom Bradlee had appointed as managing editor seven years earlier.
Under Bradlee's leadership, The Washington Post took on major challenges during the Nixon administration. In 1971 The New York Times and the Post successfully challenged the government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. One year later, Bradlee backed reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they probed the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel. According to Bradlee:
You had a lot of Cuban or Spanish-speaking guys in masks and rubber gloves, with walkie-talkies, arrested in the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at 2 in the morning. What the hell were they in there for? What were they doing? The follow-up story was based primarily on their arraignment in court, and it was based on information given our police reporter, Al Lewis, by the cops, showing them an address book that one of the burglars had in his pocket, and in the address book was the name 'Hunt,' H-u-n-t, and the phone number was the White House phone number, which Al Lewis and every reporter worth his salt knew. And when, the next day, Woodward—this is probably Sunday or maybe Monday, because the burglary was Saturday morning early—called the number and asked to speak to Mr. Hunt, and the operator said, 'Well, he's not here now; he's over at' such-and-such a place, gave him another number, and Woodward called him up, and Hunt answered the phone, and Woodward said, 'We want to know why your name was in the address book of the Watergate burglars.' And there is this long, deathly hush, and Hunt said, 'Oh my God!' and hung up. So you had the White House. You have Hunt saying 'Oh my God!' At a later arraignment, one of the guys whispered to a judge. The judge said, 'What do you do?' and Woodward overheard the words 'CIA.' So if your interest isn't whetted by this time, you're not a journalist.
Ensuing investigations of suspected cover-ups led inexorably to congressional committees, conflicting testimonies, and ultimately to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. For decades, Bradlee was one of only four publicly known people who knew the true identity of press informant Deep Throat, the other three being Woodward, Bernstein, and Deep Throat himself, who later revealed himself to be Nixon's FBI associate director Mark Felt.
In 1981 Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for "Jimmy's World", a profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict. Cooke's article turned out to be fiction: there was no such addict. As executive editor, Bradlee was roundly criticized in many circles for failing to ensure the article's accuracy. After questions about the story's veracity arose, Bradlee (along with publisher Donald Graham) ordered a "full disclosure" investigation to ascertain the truth. Bradlee personally apologized to Mayor Marion Barry and the chief of police of Washington, D.C., for the Post's fictitious article. Cooke, meanwhile, was forced to resign and relinquish the Pulitzer.
In recognition of his work as editor of the Washington Post, Bradlee won the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1998.
Bradlee published an autobiography in 1995, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. He had an acting role in Born Yesterday, the 1993 remake of the 1950 romantic comedy. In 1983 he gave the inaugural Vance Distinguished Lecture at Central Connecticut State University. On May 3, 2006, Bradlee received a Doctor of Humane Letters from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Prior to receiving the honorary degree, he taught occasional journalism courses at Georgetown.
In 1991 he was persuaded by then–governor of Maryland William Donald Schaefer to accept the chairmanship of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission and continued in that position through 2003. He also served for many years as a member of the board of trustees at St. Mary's College of Maryland, and endowed the Benjamin C. Bradlee Annual Lecture in Journalism there. He continued to serve as vice chairman of the school's board of trustees.
In 1991, Bradlee delivered the Theodore H. White lecture at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His message: Lying in Washington, whether in the White House or the Congress, is wrong, immoral, tearing at the fiber of our national instincts and institutions — and must stop. He said, "Lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years, that we've all become immunized to it." He went on to suggest that the deceit was degrading the respect for the truth.
In the fall of 2005, Jim Lehrer conducted six hours of interviews with Bradlee on a variety of topics, from the responsibilities of the press to Watergate to the Valerie Plame affair. The interviews were edited for an hour-long documentary, Free Speech: Jim Lehrer and Ben Bradlee, which premiered on PBS on June 19, 2006.
At The Washington Post, Bradlee carried the title vice president at large. He and Quinn lived at the Todd Lincoln House in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. The middle part of the house was built in 1792. They also restored Porto Bello, their home in Drayden, Maryland.
Bradlee received the French Legion of Honor, the highest award given by the French government, at a ceremony in 2007 in Paris.
Bradlee was named as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on August 8, 2013, and was presented the medal at a White House ceremony on November 20, 2013.
In late September 2014, Bradlee entered hospice care due to declining health as a result of Alzheimer's disease. He died of natural causes on October 21, 2014, at his home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 93. His funeral was held at the Washington National Cathedral on October 29. He was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. afterwards.
Bradlee has drawn criticism from several quarters for his selective testimony at the 1965 trial of the man accused of murdering Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was shot to death on October 12, 1964 while walking on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath in Georgetown. Attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense (Alfred Hantman and Dovey J. Roundtree), in addition to D.C. Police Detective Bernie Crooke, along with authors Peter Janney and Nina Burleigh, have all noted the significant difference between the limited information Bradlee divulged under oath at the 1965 trial, and what he revealed 30 years later in his 1995 memoir A Good Life.
Pinchot Meyer biographers Janney and Burleigh have both criticized Bradlee's omission of key information under oath. "Bradlee had excoriated Cord Meyer [Pinchot Meyer’s ex-husband] for his 'derisive scorn' for the people's right to know in the 1960s, but the rules changed when the subject of a story was his sister-in-law," author Burleigh wrote. "The First Amendment champion of the Watergate investigation admitted in his memoir that he gave Mary Meyer's diary to the CIA because it was 'a family document.'"
In his 1995 memoir A Good Life, Bradlee revealed that his sister-in-law’s diary contained information about her affair with the late President Kennedy and the fact that Bradlee had conspired with CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton and others to destroy it. At the 1965 trial, however, he failed to mention the diary when asked under oath what he had found when searching her studio on the night of the murder.
In a 1991 interview with the late author Leo Damore, prosecuting attorney Hantman said that having knowledge of the diary at the trial “could have changed everything.” In her 2009 autobiography, Justice Older than the Law, defense counsel Dovey Johnson Roundtree expresses shock at learning of the diary’s significance from Bradlee’s book, and states, “James Angleton’s awareness of the diary’s existence and his interest in finding it, reading it, and destroying it – all of that unsettled me deeply when I read Mr. Bradlee’s 1995 account, as did his insistence that the diary was a private document…Had I been aware of it, I would have felt compelled to pursue it.”
For many years Bradlee served on the board of trustees of St. Mary's College of Maryland. He was very active on the board and also played key roles in the establishment of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the college, where he also served on the advisory board.
He is also known for his work on the board of trustees of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, as well as narrating a documentary produced by the organization on the history of the early Maryland colony.Actor Jason Robards portrayed Bradlee in the film All the President's Men, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
G. D. Spradlin played the role of Bradlee in Dick, a spoof of Watergate.
Henderson Forsythe played Bradlee in the romantic comedy Chances Are.
Tom Hanks is currently portraying Bradlee in director Steven Spielberg's upcoming historical drama The Papers.
Bradlee, Ben. Conversations With Kennedy (W W Norton & Co Inc, November 1, 1984) ISBN 978-0-393-30189-2
Bradlee, Ben. A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures (Simon & Schuster, October, 1995) ISBN 978-0-684-80894-9