News & Politics

Why Ben Bradlee Has Sally Quinn in a Labyrinth

Sally Quinn’s concrete circle helps her in her search for faith.

Photograph by Ron Aria

Sally Quinn has found religion and resurrected her career with On Faith, her online collaboration with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.

She sees it as a progression rather than a conversion.

“This is what we call Act III,” Quinn says. “First I wanted to be a movie star—and failed. Then I was a feature writer for many years. Now I am a blogger about religion.”

At 65.

Quinn is modest about her second act. As a Washington Post writer, she helped set the standard for tough profiles in the Post’s Style section in the 1970s. She also married her boss, Ben Bradlee, then the Post’s executive editor.

Quinn and Bradlee hosted boozy, elegant dinner parties at their Georgetown home; Quinn wrote novels and a book about being a hostess. She picked a fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton when the latter was First Lady and deemed the Clintons not fit for the Washington social scene.

But she never found religion.

“I’ve been an atheist all my life,” she says. “Jon convinced me not to use that word. He said I was defining myself negatively.

“So I don’t call myself anything,” she says. “A seeker, perhaps.”

Quinn was casting about for her next move when she sought guidance from a higher authority.

“I had been interested for a couple of years in religion and how it affects policy,” she says. “I was thinking of writing a book about religion in Washington.”

Why not religion online? “I described my idea to Don Graham,” Quinn says. “He thought it was a great idea.”

She then told Graham: “I don’t know anything about religion.”

He said: “I want you to do it.”

Quinn sought out Meacham as a partner. He was recently named editor of Newsweek, which is owned by the Post Company.

In developing On Faith, Quinn and Meacham assembled a group of panelists. The two pose a question each week, ask the panelists to opine, and invite anyone to respond. Since the site’s launch in November, they have posed queries on morality, interfaith couples, religion and politics, and theology.

Last month Quinn tried to heat up On Faith. She asked, “Why do you think some religions have regarded sex as sacred while others have regarded it as a sin?”

In response, panelist Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a professor at Brooklyn College, wrote that Catholics believe “the more times you have sex, the more grace you both receive.”

Starhawk, a Wiccan, weighed in on a question about global warming and caring for Mother Earth.

Does Quinn believe in God?

“My idea of God is defined through others,” she says. “Six months ago I would have said no. Now, God is in all the things that make my life important: to work, to feel fulfilled, to love family.

“Joy is essential.”

The word “spirituality” is “overused,” she says. Does she have spiritual moments?

“I walk the labyrinth,” she says.

For millennia, the labyrinth has represented a kind of pilgrimage and a form of meditation. There is a labyrinth in the Chartres Cathedral in France. The Washington National Cathedral has two canvas labyrinths patterned after that one.

“Ben built a beautiful one for me,” Quinn says.

It is a 50-foot concrete circle at their country estate in southern Maryland on the St. Mary’s River. Among its stones, Quinn says, she has placed some of her mother’s ashes, a piece of the oak from her father’s family’s place, Georgia roses from her mother’s family, precious things from friends.

“It’s a very peaceful place on the banks of the river,” she says. “I can stay there for hours. It makes me feel very calm.”

Maybe Sally Quinn has gotten religion.