One could hardly hope for a more scintillating guide through late 20th-century America than historian Arthur W. Schlesinger Jr. He mingled with almost tactile relish among Washington political insiders, the East Coast intelligentsia and Broadway and Hollywood glitterati and he had cogent (and sometimes scorching) opinions about all of them.
Schlesinger, who died in February at the age of 89, tapped his sons Andrew and Stephen to edit the diaries he had compiled in his various roles as university professor, advisor to actual and would-be presidents, political anthropologist and public intellectual. The resulting volume, Journals: 1952-2000, pares 6,000 typewritten pages down to less than 1,000. Andrew Schlesinger, a writer and documentary filmmaker, tells BookPage that despite its wealth of details and insights, the manuscript held no real surprises for him or his brother.
"[My father] had freely shared his opinions around the dining table except for all the details, of course, and all the conversations and interactions. The general story was familiar to us. . . . We knew who he liked and disliked and who he respected and didn't respect." This proud and steadfast liberal adored President Kennedy, had a grudging and diminishing admiration for Johnson, despised Nixon and showed a patrician disgust toward Carter. Readers will search Journals in vain for any overarching political theory, but they will find themselves awash in discussions of political strategy.
Schlesinger had ample disrespect for two people currently in the news: presidential advisor Norman Podhoretz and hawkish Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman. He dismissed the former as odious and despicable and the latter as a sanctimonious prick (to which Hillary Clinton demurred, "Well, he is certainly sanctimonious.") His assessments of people for whom he had some affection could be just as withering. Of his Harvard classmate, Caspar Weinberger, he observed, "Cap was as usual amiable and unruffled, explaining everything with the placid certitude and quiet lucidity of a madman."
During his years with Adlai Stevenson and JFK, Schlesinger barely mentions his finances as he flies about the country, lodging at the best hotels and dining at the most fashionable restaurants. But after his divorce and remarriage and his move from Cambridge to New York, money or the lack of it begins to loom large in his diaries. "The financial pressure is acute," he moans in 1975. In 1982, he rejoices that he has received an exceedingly generous sum for acting as a consultant to ABC on a Franklin D. Roosevelt special. Two years later, he has to sell his vacation house in Florida, noting that Alimony consumes my CUNY salary. In 1986, he flatly declares, "We are broke."
"Living in New York City was much more expensive than living in Cambridge," says his son. "He had to be a professional writer to stay in his lifestyle. There was no margin for error there. Maybe this motivated him. Who knows? He was extremely productive." Indeed, Schlesinger turned out a stream of books and magazine articles and supplemented his writing income with lucrative speaking engagements. According to the younger Schlesinger, "there was very, very little in the journals that was too personal to publish because [t]his stuff had already been filtered through my father's mind." His father makes no mention of falling in love with the woman who would become his second wife, but he does write that "the marriage is one of the [t]wo events of more than routine importance in recent weeks." The other event was the release of the Pentagon Papers.
Schlesinger takes note of his birthdays by writing down matter-of-fact inventories of how he feels and what he's done: At 68, he reflects, "What in the world has happened to all those years? My achievement is so much less than so many writers who were dead before they were 68. I guess they concentrated their energies, while I have dissipated mine." As age wears him down, he faces the additional indignity of seeing his beloved liberal label falling into disrepute. "He couldn't believe it how so many people could be so misinformed and misguided," Andrew says. "But he didn't change his mind that he was correct."
Social butterfly that he was, Schlesinger surely would have reveled in the list of luminaries who spoke at his memorial service. Among these were former President Clinton, Sen. Ted Kennedy, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actress Lauren Bacall and Norman Mailer. Hardly the usual sendoff for an academic.
If this excerpt from the historian's journals is well received," his son says, more may be published. In any event, they all will eventually be available to scholars. Schlesinger's papers, including the complete journals, have been sold to the New York Public Library.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.