Tuesday, September 5, 2017
A Portrait of the Dreaded "A" Disease
One of my first "real" jobs after college was working in Washington D.C. for a U.S. Senator who regularly attracted the attention of the press, including reporter Sally Quinn and her husband and executive editor Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post. I found it especially poignant to read Sally's newly published account of her husband's last years. She writes with great candor about the small and large changes she observed, and the drama of good days and bad days "at the office," in a very public place. Here's an excerpt:
In 2011, a reporter called Ben at the Post, where he maintained an office as a vice president at large, to interview him about something sensitive that had happened at the paper. Ben was very forthcoming — in fact, too forthcoming. He told the reporter much more than he should have, much more than he knew. After the piece came out, I went to Washington Post Company Chairman Don Graham and suggested that it might be time for Ben to stop going to the Post. Don, the kindest human being on the planet, refused to even consider it. However, we did work out a plan. All the secretaries and assistants on the floor were advised never to put a call through to Ben without checking with his secretary Carol or Don or me. Everyone was told to turn down all interview requests. Ben never knew about it.
It had been five years since he had been diagnosed with early-stage dementia, but few outside the family knew it. Almost every day he went down to the Post cafeteria for lunch and would be immediately surrounded by a coterie of reporters and admirers, and that seemed to perk him up. There was always a group conversation and as long as Ben gave somebody the finger or told somebody to “f--- off,” people didn’t seem to notice the forgetfulness that much.
I organized a lunch group at the Madison hotel across from the Post, where I had a running tab. Carol had a sign-up sheet and up to five people could join. It was always full. We called it “Tuesdays with Ben.”
Eventually it became too much to hide Ben Bradlee's diagnosis from friends and work associates:
The A-word is a killer, which is why I always said “dementia,” even though it was never clear which [type] he had. Somehow Alzheimer’s sounds like something one could catch. Dementia sounds tamer, more like gentle aging. At dinners, I would ask my friends to seat me next to Ben so that I could protect him. I’d make sure the person on his other side was aware of Ben’s situation.
The full piece, which is an excerpt from Sally's forthcoming book, Finding Magic: A Spiritual Memoir, is carried in this week's Washington Post and is well worth reading. It is a complex portrait of a hard-driving man and his loving wife and friends.