Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Born Today: Prominent Closeted Journalist Joe Alsop

John Rous/AP
Joseph Alsop was born today, October 10, in 1910. He was a journalist and syndicated newspaper columnist from the 1930s through the 1970s. His influential journalism and status as a top insider in Washington was prominent from 1945 to the late 1960s, often in conjunction with his brother Stewart Alsop. 

James Kirchick in an article in The Atlantic described Joe Alsop as, "The dean of Washington’s foreign-policy columnists, a committed Cold Warrior, the doyen of Georgetown society, close confidante to presidents, senators, secretaries of state—and secretly gay."

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 fast established a substantial reputation as a journalist, particularly by his comprehensive reportage of the Bruno Hauptmann trial in 1934.

In 1941, after it had become clear that the United States would soon enter World War II, Alsop volunteered for the armed forces and entered the US Navy. He was assigned as Staff Historian to Claire Lee Chennault's American Volunteer Group, later famous as the Flying Tigers, while the group was training at Toungoo, Burma. 

While on a supply mission for Chennault late in the fall of 1941, he found himself in Hong Kong on December 7, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Unable to secure passage out of the city, Alsop was eventually taken into custody as an enemy alien and interned at Hong Kong by the Japanese. After 6 months, he was repatriated through a prisoner exchange as a journalist, but he had really been a combatant, a fact he managed to conceal by changing into civilian clothes and with the help of friends. He eventually rejoined Chennault in Kunming, China and served with him for the remaining months of the war.

In subsequent years, Alsop also helped the CIA in its intelligence-gathering activities, using his status as a foreign correspondent as cover. In 1953, Alsop covered Philippine elections at the CIA's request.

After the war, Alsop resumed his journalism career, now working with his brother Stewart to produce a thrice-weekly piece, called "Matter of Fact", for the Herald Tribune. Stewart remained headquartered in Washington to cover domestic politics, and 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.

In 1961, he married Susan Mary Jay Patten. The couple divorced in 1978. Alsop kept his homosexuality a closely guarded secret all of his life.

Early in 1957, the KGB photographed Alsop 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 had 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 President Lyndon B. Johnson about the Moscow incident in 1964, and Johnson told Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about Alsop's FBI file.

In 1965, Alsop complained to friends that Johnson was tapping his phone, a claim that infuriated Johnson, 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 adverse consequences. Alsop even considered making his homosexuality public to end the harassment, but ultimately did not.

He 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.

David Auburn's play The Columnist, which ran on Broadway from April 25 to July 8, 2012, starring John Lithgow, dramatizes Alsop's life, notably the interplay of his politics, his journalism, and his sexuality.

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