Washington is full of people telling others how to live their lives or at least wishing they could. Same for the media world. I call it the Mink Stole Ladies Syndrome, based on a party scene in The Solomon Scandals from the D.C. of several decades ago.
Sally Sterling Quinn, with her judgmental dissections of social-climbers such as the late Steve Martindale, isn’t entirely innocent (nor am I, since this post is a bit of a Catch-22).
Having entertained for eons on the Georgetown party circuit, not to mention all her media work, Ms. Quinn probably has committed her own share of solid-gold gaffes. She might admit to as much. On top of everything else, her relations with her stepchildren have been Katrina-stormy at times.
But could critiques of Ms. Quinn’s life, in Vanity Fair, Gawker and elsewhere, be a little over the top—complete with Gawker’s high-schoolish headline, “Sally Quinn Is a Creep”?
Even the Vanity Fair writer, Evgenia Peretz, acknowledges the obvious; yes, Ms. Quinn has been a hyper-dedicated mother toward Quinn Bradlee, who suffers from learning disabilities. She could easily have followed an expert’s advice and have locked him up in an institution, freeing many thousands of extra hours for her journalism and entertaining. On top of that, despite all the time Ms. Peretz must have lavished on her highly readable profile of Ms. Quinn, do we know the full story of the society doyenne’s relations with the stepchildren? Families can mystify and surprise even friends. Consider the separation of Al and Tipper Gore. Remember? The Gores’ marriage would last forever, while the Clintons would race to the courts for a divorce the very nanosecond Bill left the White House.
I’d also caution the media against the reflexive dismissals of Ms. Quinn as a pure elitist snob. There is that side of her, granted, and Sally-haters have even summoned up a comparison between Ms. Quinn and Marie Antoinette, who, like her, gloried in the rural life or, as the critics might put it, the synthetic rustic. But wait. The ultimate elitist wouldn’t blog for the Washington Post and write party tips for the masses; do you really think Ms. Quinn is the same as Washington’s old cave-dwellers? What’s more, consider her enthusiastic approval of Quinn’s engagement to a yoga instructor named Pary Williamson (photo). For all I know, maybe Ms. Williamson is a Vassar honors graduate born to blue-blooded millionaires. But buried in the Vanity Fair article are a few facts that suggest otherwise: “While some observers question Pary’s motives—she seemed to appear out of nowhere and is said to have had a hardscrabble life—those who know her disagree. ‘She really is a very upbeat, very exuberant, sweet, nice person and believes in all the spiritual values of yoga and all that stuff,’ says one of her students. ‘The whole idea of your life lived out in public is not her style at all.’”
Let’s decode that, or try to. What does Ms. Peretz mean by “hardscrabble life”? That like most other small-business people, Ms. Williamson has had to struggle? That she might actually come from a mere middle-class background or, gasp, even below? If so, the facts would not jibe very well with the image of Ms. Quinn as an unmitigated snob. Granted, Ms. Williamson is an instructor to such luminaries as David Gregory, Rahm Emanuel and Katharine Weymouth, but who’s to say her connections will endure forever? Might Sally Quinn’s eagerness to do the right thing for her son have beaten out snobbery? Based on what I’ve read, I think so. Quinn Bradlee has written of his family’s preparations for his life after his elderly parents die. If the publicity is right—I can’t say—Ms. Williamson will be a partner rather than a mere “caretaker.”
While Ms. Quinn’s relations with parts of her extended family are dysfunctional in the extreme, I suspect that her own immediate family, step-children excluded, has been far, far more functional than those of many of the critics. Could a little jealousy be at work here? I wonder after having read A Different Life (Quinn’s memoirs) and A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons, a collaboration between Ben and Quinn Bradlee, “with observations by Sally Quinn.” Father and son love to saw down trees and do other yard work, and Ms. Quinn has bought her own pink model. In fact, the family acquired a retreat in rural Maryland because the one in West Virginia was too remote, in case Quinn needed medical help for one of his many health problems. Antoinette synthetic? Hardly. Tree-work is what Ben Bradlee enjoyed as a boy: “Pop and I worked out in the woods from the beginning.” Ms. Quinn recognized her husband’s love of tree-chopping and learned to feel comfortable with a saw. In this case she might as well have been a Walmart mom.
Going by some morsels in the Vanity Fair article, I’d wonder, too, about Ms. Quinn’s enemies portraying her as a full-strength home-wrecker. The marriage may already been doomed. Tony Bradlee “had found Washington journalism shallow,” writes Ms. Peretz, and “was getting increasingly swept up in the mysticism of the George Gurdjieff spiritual movement.” By contrast, according to Bradlee’s memoirs, Sally Quinn “found the all-consuming nature of my involvement with the Post natural, even exhilarating.” If Sally Quinn hadn’t appeared, might another woman? I’m not condoning Bradlee’s timing. But it’s his life, and I find it endlessly baffling how people dedicated to the right of corporations to foul the Gulf of Mexico—or at least try to lobby away the regulatory apparatus—would want to dictate their “morality” to Bradlee and wife.
Simply put, although I’d never confuse Sally Quinn with Mother Teresa, it’s time for some tolerance.
Amazon mystery: As of this writing, I don’t see a single customer review of A Life’s Work (rank 28,940 in Books) on Amazon—rather strange, given Sally Quinn’s stature in the media. Part of the reason could be that Quinn Bradlee’s memoirs have already scooped the new book and more directly address the needs of parents of children with learning disabilities. Another could be what others have already noted—the dueling-weddings controversy. Still another could be that A Life’s Work is so full of intimate details that outsiders might feel they are trespassing, especially if they believe they cannot be completely laudatory. I’d rate Work four out of five stars. The book has its flaws but is worth reading if you want between-the-lines knowledge of the ways of certain members of the Post media elite. Ditto—as in the case of A Different Life—if you’re the parent of a child with learning disabilities.
It’s worth noting that Evgenia is Marty Peretz’s daughter. Reading the article, I repeatedly had the feeling it just might be that some real or perceived slight at a Georgetown get-together long, long ago is supposed to be avenged by the article.
Yes, Evgenia is almost surely Marty Peretz’s daughter. I don’t know about cause-effect—just that the piece was a good read but could have been fairer to Ms. Quinn and certainly to Ms. Williamson. I’d welcome further thoughts on this and other related matters from you or others. Appreciated your dropping by. – DR
Okay–Quinn doesn’t have just “learning disabilities”. It’s quite a bit more serious than transposing letters. Sally’s been trying to pretend he’s neurotypical since he was a baby.
Pary appeared out of nowhere, and latched on to him, sealing the deal with a baby. Considering he’s never going to be employed, really, Ben will make sure that his newest grandkid will be taken care of forever. Pary got knocked up after knowing Quinn for 4 months. Quick work.
Oh, and I was surprised the piece didn’t mention Svetlana, Sally’s astrologer whom she got a column in the WaPo, back in the day.
Thanks for your thoughts, Ornette, but if you read Quinn Badlee’s writings, it’s clear that he and his family acknowledge the extent of his cognitive challenges. As for whether Pary Williamson wanted the pregnancy, we don’t know the full facts, and in the absence of them, I’ll give the family the benefit of the doubt. I vaguely recall the fuss over the astrologer but don’t know enough about it to take a stand.
At a more cosmic level, I’m curious why Quinn-Sally-Ben issues are of interest to you, beyond the family’s social and journalistic prominence. Is this your poster-family for what’s wrong with Washington? Here’s my own take. We know that D.C. is a corrupt place and that Congress is for sale, as shown by the tax laws favoring the ultra rich. Not to mention huge giveaways to contractors of all kinds (one of the forms of sleaze I describe in The Solomon Scandals). Going after a disabled young man and his family isn’t going to change Washington. If you’re a true connoisseur of scandal, you might enjoy The New Yorker’s dissection of the Koch family’s D.C.-related activities—read about all the money they’ve tossed at politicians in part to advance their corporate interests.