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On Ben Bradlee, 1921-2014

Ben Bradlee
Ben Bradlee
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Benjamin C. Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor best known for defying the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers and, later, for shepherding the reporting that forced the first resignation of a president in American history, died Tuesday at his home in Washington of natural causes. He was 93.

Bradlee loomed large in the journalistic firmament with his role in Nixon-era investigations, but he also led a transformation of the paper he oversaw as editor for 26 years. The Post grew from a local paper to a national voice, questioning the U.S. government's power and spreading bureaus across the world. He started the Style section, the first newspaper section to zig from the traditional women's section into one that treated gossip and society as reporting beats to cover.

He also lived a life to be traced in gossip columns. Much of it he wrote about in his own books, A Good Life and Conversations with Kennedy. The latter told the tale of the time he became close friends with his neighbor – another young man with a young family from the northeast residing in Washington, DC in the late '50s.

His friend, it just so happened, became president in 1960. While Bradlee rose through the ranks as a Newsweek correspondent, John F. Kennedy, then still a senator, would use the alleyway behind their homes to avoid the press and drop by Bradlee's home for an evening respite.

In 2011, Bradlee recalled their friendship:

"I don’t want to disappoint too many people, but ... the number of interesting political, historical conversations we had, you could stick in your ear," Bradlee recalls. "It wasn’t that many." Instead, the two talked about what any other men might: mutual friends, their young families — and, of course, "We talked about girls."

When he took over the reigns of the Post, he forged a myth-making partnership with then-owner and publisher Katharine Graham. He also became known as a fierce and fiercely loyal editor, sprinkling his encouragement with curses and demanding the best from the talented staff he brought in as the paper grew. Marcus Brauchli, editor of the Washington Post from 2008-2012 said in an email after Bradlee's death, "He will forever define what it meant to be a newspaper editor. Nobody who came before or after approached him."

And, though Bradlee stepped down as editor of the Washington Post in 1991, he stayed on at the paper, presiding over it as an elder statesmen. In 2010, he helped ease the transition to the digital age with graceful humor. He appeared in a YouTube ad for the Washington Post iPad app, teaching his Watergate reporting star Bob Woodward how to use it: "These kids think tweets twit themselves," he said, feet up on a desk in his old editor's office.

Only recently did he stop hosting his regular Tuesday meal with Post writers and editors.

At 92, even though dementia was setting in, his blue, patrician eyes would gleam mischievously and it was difficult to see at first that a man battling with old age. He would grip your hand and smile broadly as he pulled you in for a hug. He would greet women lustily and say how lucky he was to be standing in front of such beauty. He would tease men by cracking on the state of their clothes. He would pour himself bourbon and offer champagne. He would call up old stories from his youth, from his time as a correspondent in the 50s in Paris and Africa or when he started Style at the Post. "We wanted to have a little fun," he'd say. He would grow solemn and sweet when talking about his four children, his wife Sally Quinn, and their extended family.

It was difficult to tell he was declining in health, and easy to imagine what he must have been at the height of his career. Even when he did ask for a bit of guidance, it was always jovial and curious: "So, what are we doing here?"

In 2012, he asked that question at his home in Washington. A group of Washington Post developers, writers, and designers were there to test a new live blog platform. I had asked Sally Quinn to let us try out the new platform by providing commentary for a Mad Men season premiere live blog. Who better to weigh in on how accurately the show depicted the debonair life of the 1960s than Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee?

Ben, as always, didn't hold back his opinion: "The '60s were way more interesting."

He, on the other hand, was always interesting, always generous, always amazing.

Many words will spill out about the titan of The Washington Post, but for a primer, here's where to turn:

The Washington Post's obituary on Ben Bradlee

Sally Quinn on Ben Bradlee

The New Yorker's David Remnick on Ben Bradlee

"Ben had total joie de journalism. It oozed from every pore"

The Washington Post App for iPad

What it was like to meet Ben Bradlee

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