Taking on the World Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1957, while in a Moscow hotel room awaiting an interview with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, columnist Joe Alsop had sex with a young Russian man. A couple days later, burly KGB agents burst into his room with incriminating photos and threatened him with blackmail unless he agreed to spy for the Soviet Union. Ambassador Charles E. “Chip” Bohlen, a personal friend, advised Alsop to inform the CIA of the experience. At the time, the FBI already knew about a 1954 encounter between Alsop and a gay State Department official stationed in Germany, and J. Edgar Hoover had turned the information over to presidential chief-of-staff Sherman Adams. In 1959, after Alsop wrote a scathing attack on the Eisenhower administration, White House Press Secretary Jim Hagerty threatened to lift the reporter’s White House press pass, telling his boss, “He’s a fag, and we know he is.” This was not the first such incident. Senator Joseph McCarthy had threatened to retaliate for an uncomplimentary piece by exposing Alsop as a “pervert.” Such were the perils of being a closet homosexual in the repressive years of the 1950’s.

What grist for a biographer’s portrait. Unfortunately, Robert W. Merry opts instead for a “life and times” approach that just barely lifts the veil of secrecy on the Alsop brothers’ private lifestyles and concentrates on matters of statecraft and diplomacy rather than social history. Although the brothers once occupied “the pinnacle of the reporter’s trade,” to quote from the title of Merry’s introduction, most all their writings are about as interesting as yesterday’s newspaper. Perhaps the only exceptions are their personal memoirs, Stewart Alsop’s Stay of Execution, about his dying of leukemia, and Joe Alsop’s I’ve Seen the Best of It, which ends, appropriately, with John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Why then should readers give Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the American Century more than a passing glance? Merry answers that the Alsops’ worldviews were representative of the postwar corporate liberal “Establishment” that so shaped public opinion and foreign policy during the Cold War. Clearly they wielded great influence in the political (and social) milieu of their time, culminating with the New Frontier administration of their friend John F. Kennedy. The book opens with an account of a 1961 White House dinner dance attended by leading members of the fourth estate which captures brilliantly, although inadvertently, the glitter and snobbery of the nation’s governing class during the dawn of what would be looked back upon (by Joe Alsop, at least) as akin to the legendary days of Camelot. The thirty-fifth president held journalists in high esteem and enjoyed the lively conversation and comely women that were part of the Georgetown social scene. Joe was its maestro, putting together invitation lists based on accomplishment, power, brains, and wit (not necessarily in that order; the cardinal sin was to be a bore). Speculation persists that Kennedy had a tryst at Joe’s late night Inauguration party, although Merry believes that the host was too loyal to the First Lady to have been a purveyor for the president.

What an odd couple Joe and Stewart were, the elder Alsop a supercilious dandy who spoke with an ersatz British accent, while Stewart was less opinionated, more soft-spoken, saving his most aggressive behavior for the tennis court. Merry describes their childhood in Avon, Connecticut, as almost idyllic and offers no theory as to why Joe turned out to be such a foppish martinet or Stewart so cold and aloof toward women. Indeed, they apparently had loving parents who believed in distant relative Theodore Roosevelt’s ethic of strenuous family activities, both physical and mental. Their father, a gentrified dairyman, was an avid hunter and fisherman who evidently looked distinguished even covered with fertilizer. Their mother loved playing bridge, was a power within local Republican circles, and turned onerous childrearing duties (she had four children and two miscarriages within six years) over to a Scottish nursemaid who became a lifelong family fixture.

The Alsops’ years of formal schooling yielded few hints of the prolific writing careers ahead of them. The author credits the boarding school Groton, whose most famous alumnus was Franklin D. Roosevelt, with being the source of the Alsops’ Anglophilia (astonishingly, the curriculum required years of British history but not American history); but Merry is mute about whether or not homosexual activity was widespread there. Also left unexplained is Joe’s obesity and Stewart’s rebelliousness, which continued at Yale, where he was twice suspended for drinking and carousing. Joe’s lineage helped get him into Harvard’s Porcellian Club, an honor denied FDR. Their...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)