News & Politics

Growing Up Different and Bradlee

Quinn Bradlee with his parents, Ben and Sally. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

We knew Sally Quinn as the former Army brat who became a snarky Washington Post Style writer skewering DC’s powerful—and then married her boss, Ben Bradlee.

We knew her as the socialite who wrote a few failed novels about Washington socialites.

Now she’s also known as the co-moderator of On Faith,’s section about spirituality and religion.

But who knew she was a helicopter mom? Sally as hovering mother comes through clearly in the eyes of her son, Quinn Bradlee, whose memoir, A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures, is just hitting stores.

When he was almost two, he started having seizures, which rattled his parents. “Especially my mom,” he writes, “because she freaks out about everything.”

Like when she got the news Quinn had been admitted to a boarding school in New York, which meant he’d be leaving home for the first time.

She thought she was having a heart attack, so Ben rushed her to the hospital, only to learn it was an anxiety attack. “She can be a little high-strung at times,” Quinn writes.

After reading A Different Life, you might understand Sally’s need to hover. Quinn Bradlee’s is a brutally honest tale of how he grew up hampered by physical and mental maladies in a world of wealth and privilege.

It’s also a medical mystery about his disability, VCFS, with notes from Dr. Robert Shprintzen, who discovered the genetic puzzle behind the disability and diagnosed it in young Bradlee.

A Different Life took a well-worn path to publication, thanks to some usual suspects in Ben and Sally’s crowd.

Ben and Sally hired Kyle Gibson to ghostwrite the book; Gibson had written anchor Ted Koppel’s memoir with him.

Peter Osnos, editor of PublicAffairs, agreed to publish the book. Osnos owes his rise in journalism—his profession before he turned to books—to Bradlee at the Post.

The project floundered.

Jeff Himmelman was working on a biography of Ben in 2007. Himmelman had worked with Bob Woodward in writing Maestro, about former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, in 2000; he’d also worked on the Post’s Pulitzer-winning 9/11 series. Then he went on tour to play music in his band, Down Dexter. He returned to DC in 2007 to work on the Ben Bradlee bio. The project floundered.

Sally asked Himmelman if he’d consider ghosting Quinn’s book. Then 25, Quinn was ready to focus.

They met every day. “I would break out the tape recorder and talk,” Himmelman says. “I had access to Kyle Gibson’s tapes. Quinn wrote a few sections, but he’s not able to sit down and hammer out a book.”

The result is a revealing narrative in Quinn Bradlee’s voice. “I’m well aware of the alcoholism that’s in my family, on both sides,” he writes at one point.

“Sally and Ben stayed out of our hair completely,” says Himmelman. “It’s not as if they stage-managed me.”

Sally was surprised by some of the details of Quinn’s “getting laid” on the island of Saint Martin. And by the neo-Nazi and the drug dealer her son lived with in boarding school. And that her son idolizes Post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

Himmelman is back writing his biography of Ben Bradlee’s days at the Post. Quinn Bradlee has started a blog on HealthCentral, a Web site founded and run by Chris Schroeder, who is connected to Ben and Sally via his days as head of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.

On reading the book, Ben Bradlee wept. He’s 87. Sensing his father’s aging, Quinn Bradlee writes: “I’m mad at time.”

Of Sally he writes: “My Mom will be around forever, one way or another.”

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.  

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