An in-depth biography of 20th-century journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop from historical writer Merry (A Country of Vast Designs, 2009, etc.).
Born into a wealthy Connecticut family in the early 1900s, the Alsop brothers followed a trajectory of American aristocracy from private school (Groton) to the Ivy League (Harvard for Joe, Yale for Stewart) to the top tier of Washington, D.C., society. With help from family connections (they were relatives of the Roosevelts) and their own tenacity, the brothers developed close relationships with many of the movers and shakers of 20th-century American history. The Alsops gained national attention for their syndicated column, “Matter of Fact,” and both continued their careers as journalists once the column ended. The list of government officials the brothers met with under settings both formal (on the record interviews) and somewhat less formal (dinner parties) reads like an answer sheet to a U.S. History 101 exam: John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, etc. Reading about the personal and professional lives of two well-connected journalists can at times seem like one long parade of champagne and expensive suits. At their most domesticated, the brothers interviewed sources, formed their opinions and made sure their column was complete before cocktails were served. The story of the Alsops fascinates when the brothers are working well beyond their comfortable homes in Washington (or a friend’s comfortable home in Paris or elsewhere). Joe’s time spent with the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam provides a haunting look at the struggle the U.S. would come to face following the French defeat. Stewart’s reporting on the Watts Riot in Los Angeles shows an almost comical view of the challenges facing America in the 1960s. Merry’s handling of the Alsops’ story, though at times sluggish with their blue-blooded excess, creates a multidimensional understanding of their lives, work and country. While portions of the book—such as coverage of Robert A. Taft’s primary results—may appeal only to select political junkies, the range of historical topics the Alsop brothers traversed offers something for anyone interested in the time period and the people who helped to shape it.
Dawdles occasionally, but ultimately a satisfying tour of 20th-century American politics via the life of two D.C. insiders.