Alsop was born in Avon, Connecticut, to the socially prominent old Yankee family of Joseph Wright Alsop IV (1876–1953) and his wife Corinne Douglas Robinson (1886–1971). His mother was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and was also related to President James Monroe. Both his parents were active in Republican politics. His father sought the governorship of Connecticut several times, his mother founded the Connecticut League of Republican Women in 1917, and both served in the Connecticut General Assembly.
Alsop graduated from the Groton School in 1928, and from Harvard University in 1932.
After college, Alsop became a reporter, then an unusual career for someone with an Ivy League diploma. He began his career with the New York Herald Tribune and in a short time he established a substantial reputation as a journalist, particularly by his comprehensive reportage of the Bruno Hauptmann trial in 1934.
Because of his family ties to the Roosevelts, Alsop soon became well-connected in Franklin Roosevelt's Washington. By 1936 the Saturday Evening Post had awarded him a contract to write about politics with fellow journalist Turner Catledge. Two years later, the North American News Alliance (NANA) contracted Alsop and Robert E. Kintner to write a nationally-syndicated column on a daily basis. His first book The 168 Days (1938), covering Roosevelt's unsuccessful campaign to enlarge the Supreme Court, became a bestseller. In 1940, Alsop and Kintner moved from NANA to the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1941, after it had become clear that the United States would soon enter World War II, Alsop and Kintner suspended their column and volunteered for the armed forces. Alsop entered the Navy and used his political connections to be assigned to Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group, to become famous as the Flying Tigers, as Staff Historian, while the group was training at Toungoo, Burma.
While on a supply mission for Chennault in December 1941, Alsop was captured and interned at Hong Kong by the Japanese. Repatriated on the neutral liner Gripsholm, he rejoined Chennault in Kunming, China and served with him for the rest of the war.
After the war, Alsop resumed his journalism career, now working with his brother Stewart Alsop to produce on a thrice-weekly piece called "Matter of Fact". The use of the word "fact" reflected Alsop's pride in producing a column based on reporting, rather than opinions pieces like those of many columnists. While his brother Stewart remained headquartered in Washington to cover domestic politics, Joseph traveled the world, covering foreign affairs. Their partnership lasted from 1945 until 1958, when Joseph became the sole author of "Matter of Fact" until his retirement in 1974.
The Alsops once described themselves as "Republicans by inheritance and registration, and...conservatives by political conviction." Despite his identity as a conservative Republican, however, Alsop was an early supporter of the presidential ambitions of Democrat John F. Kennedy and became a close friend and influential adviser to Kennedy after his election in November 1960. Alsop was a vocal supporter of America's involvement in Vietnam, which led to bitter breaks with many of his liberal friends and a decline in the influence of his column.
In 1961 he married Susan Mary Jay Patten, the widow of William Patten, an American diplomat who was one of Alsop's friends. By this marriage he had two stepchildren, William and Anne. They divorced in 1978.
A noted art connoisseur and collector, he delivered six lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on The History of Art Collecting in the summer of 1978.
Joseph Alsop was at work on a memoir when he died at his home in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1989. The memoir was published posthumously as I've Seen the Best of It.
Alsop kept his homosexuality a closely guarded secret all of his life. Richard Helms called him "a scrupulously closeted homosexual." Nevertheless, Senator Joseph McCarthy insinuated that Alsop was homosexual in the course of a dispute with the Saturday Evening Post about its coverage of his campaign to remove "perverts" from government employment. When McCarthy implied that Alsop was not "healthy and normal," a Post editor vouched for him: "I know Alsop well, and I know he is a man of high character, with great courage and integrity."
Early in 1957, the KGB photographed him in a hotel room in Moscow having sex with another man, a Soviet agent. He rebuffed Soviet attempts at blackmail, instead writing "a detailed account of the incident and a relevant narrative history of his sex life". It has been described as "brimming with revelations about Alsop's sex life on several continents," including a report that one of his lovers was Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr., who resigned as Dwight Eisenhower's appointments secretary in 1953. His accounts, delivered to a friend in the CIA, quickly reached the FBI, allowing J. Edgar Hoover to spread the information through the Eisenhower administration, many of whose members had fought sharp battles with Alsop. Hoover told Lyndon Johnson about the Moscow incident in 1964, and Johnson told Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about Alsop's FBI file.
In 1965, Alsop complained to friends that Johnson was tapping his phone, a claim that infuriated the President, who believed that he protected Alsop from McCarthy's attacks years before. Alsop told White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers that he believed the Administration was tapping his phone and spreading gossip about his personal life, all in an attempt to stop leaks. When Moyers reported the charges to the President, Johnson ordered Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to be certain no such wiretap was in place and protested that he never ordered one: "I'm as innocent of it as I am of murdering your wife," he told Katzenbach.
In the 1970s, the Soviets sent Alsop's embarrassing photos to several prominent American journalists without consequences. As a consequence, Alsop considered making his homosexuality public to end the harassment, but ultimately did not.
In 1967, Gore Vidal published Washington, D.C., a novel in which the character of a gay journalist is loosely based on Alsop.
David Auburn's play, The Columnist, which ran on Broadway from April 25 to July 8, 2012, dramatizes Alsop's life, notably the interplay of his politics, his journalism, and his sexuality.
Burial: Indian Hill Cemetery, Middletown, Middlesex County, Connecticut, USA. Plot: Alsop tomb, grave 8. Note: Three Alsop Mausoleums stand together. He is in the largest free standing mausoleum. Built of beautiful Brown stone.
I've Seen the Best of It by Joseph W. Alsop
Paperback: 567 pages
Publisher: Axios Press; Reprint edition (February 16, 2009)
Amazon: I've Seen the Best of It
A fixture in Washington society, Joseph Alsop knew intimately everyone who mattered in American politics, including all the presidents of his day, but was especially close to John and Jacqueline Kennedy.He also visited Churchill in London, de Gaulle in Paris, Adenauer in Bonn, and writes entertainingly about these and other larger-than-life figures.No journalist since Henry Adams so brilliantly described the habits of the great and near-great of his day, in government and elsewhere.
Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop - Guardians of the American Century by Robert W. Merry
Paperback: 688 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 21, 2012)
Amazon: Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop - Guardians of the American Century
In 1948 the column-writing Alsop brothers produced an article for the Saturday Evening Post, then the country's preminent weekly magazine. Its title: ``Must America Save the World?'' Their answer was a resounding yes. Indeed, Joseph and Stewart Alsop were there in those heady postwar years when the country's foreign-policy elite created what became known as the American Century. As men of words, they served as confidants of and cheerleaders for these men of deeds, who came largely from the country's patrician class. The Alsop brothers were themselves sons of this class. Theodore Roosevelt was the brothers' great-uncle. Eleanor Roosevelt was their mother's first cousin. They grew up with members of this Anglo-Saxon elite, whent to school with them, socializedd with them. And they threw the considerable weight of their column behnd the efforts of these statesmen to refashion the world. Writing four times a week, they appeared in nearly two hundred newspapers; their work also graced the pages of the major magazines of the time. Thus, they wielded immense influence throughout the nation from the victory in World War II to the defeat in Vietnam. Stewart was a political analyst of rare acumen, and widely appreciated for his bonhomie, while Joe, his older brother, was a curmudgeon with an aristocratic bearing and a biting wit. He once likened a dinner at Lyndon Johnson's to ``going to an opera in which one man sings all the parts.'' On another occasion he characterized the august New York Times, whose reporting he didn't like, as a ``lunatic cathedral.'' He was a friend and confidant of John Kennedy, a teacher of Washington ways to Jackie Kennedy. When he called people in the highest echelons of officaldolm, they responded. The brothers' connection with the high and mighty of Washington makes for dramatic reading. These pages serve as a window on such notables of American wartime and postwar history as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jack and Jackie Kennedy, General Claire Chennault of the wartime China theater, secretaries of state Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger, defense secretaries James Forrestal and Robert McNamara, and various Supreme Court justices and top-level senators. It's a human story as well -- about the brothers' harrowing wartime experiences; about a loving but occasionally tumultuous brotherly relationship; about friendships made and lost; about careers that soared but also, in Joe's case, faltered over the difficult issue of Vietnam. In Taking On the World, Robert W. Merry, himself a Washington insider, has fashioned an intricate and fascinating combination of biography and narrative history. As Merry puts it, ``Within the lifetime of the Alsop brothers the country was remade. And its remaking illuminates their careers, just as their careers illuminate the American Century.'' Robert Merry casts brilliant light on these two remarkable men, and on one of the most tumultuous periods of the country's history.
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (May 15, 2006)
Amazon: The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
In Cold War America, Senator Joseph McCarthy enjoyed tremendous support in the fight against what he called atheistic communism. But that support stemmed less from his wild charges about communists than his more substantiated charges that "sex perverts" had infiltrated government agencies. Although now remembered as an attack on suspected disloyalty, McCarthyism introduced "moral values" into the American political arsenal. Warning of a spreading homosexual menace, McCarthy and his Republican allies learned how to win votes.
Winner of three book awards, The Lavender Scare masterfully traces the origins of contemporary sexual politics to Cold War hysteria over national security. Drawing on newly declassified documents and interviews with former government officials, historian David Johnson chronicles how the myth that homosexuals threatened national security determined government policy for decades, ruined thousands of lives, and pushed many to suicide. As Johnson shows, this myth not only outlived McCarthy but, by the 1960s, helped launch a new civil rights struggle.
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