September 28, 1987 12:00 PM

From a room deep within the rambling house in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, down past the portraits and signed photos of men prominent in American public life, comes the sound of throaty laughter. Blue-eyed, 60ish, and unfailingly blithe of spirit, Joan Braden is hugging her bone-thin legs and saying, “It seems to me I’ve spent most of my life explaining why somebody can’t come to my bedroom or why I won’t go to theirs. It’s a bore.”

Fending off the male sex may have lost its novelty for Braden. But her teasing reminiscences about the powerful men she has known are once again the hot dish in Washington, where Braden’s 82-page book proposal has stirred up one of the more delicious controversies of the season. Washingtonians have savored, in particular, the shower scene with Nelson Rockefeller, a naughty bedroom vignette with Bobby Kennedy begging for sweet consolation and the international jaunts with Robert McNamara…all this, apparently, as Joan’s devoted husband, CNN political commentator, Tom Braden, 69, tended the home fires. The Bradens are one of Washington’s best-known couples, often hosting dinner parties where the power elite debate the nation’s future. They have a brood of eight children (which Tom wrote about in his book, Eight Is Enough, upon which the TV sitcom is based).

Interestingly, the clamor continues unabated, even though Braden has retracted her proposal. She yanked it back from publishers after a worried Jackie Kennedy Onassis called her over rumors that the proposal contained unseemly Kennedy revelations.

The Bradens, meanwhile, have sought to distance themselves from the proposal, blaming its peek-a-boo titillations on Joan’s co-author, Washington journalist and novelist Les Whitten. “I sound schizophrenic,” says Joan, a Washington public relations consultant. “I’m not that woman in those stories, whoever she is.” And Tom: “I told her she was a damn fool. I said, ‘If you’re going to write a book, sit down and write a chapter and see what it looks like. You can’t write a book with some guy you never met before in your life.’ I feel sorry for her. She just got burned.” For his part Whitten insists that Joan approved “every word” he wrote, and he has abandoned the project.

As Braden sits and fields questions in the sun-room overlooking the backyard pool of her home in Chevy Chase, Md., it’s clear that what she objects to—in retrospect, at least—is not the content of the proposal but the coy kiss-and-tell, sometimes breathless manner in which it is presented. One passage, for example, describes an aborted tryst with Bobby Kennedy that took place in her hotel room after his brother’s assassination:

My heart wrenched from complicated tugs of emotion. [Bobby] had never seemed more vulnerable. When he asked me to go upstairs, I went. On the bed, we kissed. Then he got up to take off his tie. But I could not go through with it. He was hurt, silent and angry. I watched his straight back under the streetlights as he walked toward his car. Why hadn’t I done it?…Tom would have understood, even if Ethel would not have.

Asked whether this really happened, Braden does not deny the accuracy of the passage, but seeks to mitigate its Silhouette Romance style of writing. “Bobby was distraught,” she explains. “I was a friend. I had been through the campaign with him. Yes, he did come to where I was staying to talk to me. Yes, I did feel miserable for him. But I have really strong feelings about wives. I do not believe you do anything when somebody is married.”

Although her relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, the late Governor of New York and Vice-President, was the subject of speculation and gossip for years, Joan claims that too was an innocent friendship. Braden worked for Rocky as his assistant during the ’50s; in fact it was he who introduced her to her husband, who was then executive secretary of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Asked about Rocky’s slipping into the shower with her, she says, “It was totally innocent, totally Nelson trying to shock me. We had just finished up a report, and we were celebrating over champagne and caviar at his father’s apartment. I had to go to a dinner afterward, and he said, ‘Why don’t you shower here?’ I got in, and the next thing I knew, he was stepping in. I squealed and ran out. He thought it was hilarious. I got dressed and left quite annoyed.”

In the proposal Braden sends a more mixed set of signals about her and Rocky—seemingly trying at once to both dampen and stoke the public’s curiosity about what went on between them:

News stories to the contrary, we were never lovers; therefore rumors that he was the father of one of my children are a lie. We never went beyond a few kisses, nor did he ever hold me except when we danced in his apartment to Louis Armstrong or other favorites.

One might well imagine that Tom Braden would not be terribly keen about all this—the stolen kisses, the private dancing. If one does imagine this, one is wrong. The test case is his wife’s friendship with Robert McNamara. In the book proposal Joan admits to telling the Washington Post three years ago that her relationship to the widowed former defense secretary and World Bank president was “romantic.” Now she calls him “my closest friend and mentor.” Whatever the case, during the past few years Joan has traveled all over the world with McNamara, visiting South Africa at the invitation of the Ford Foundation, dining with the Queen of the Netherlands and with Swedish Premier Olof Palme just months before his assassination.

And what does Tom say about this? “I think Joan and Bob are very lucky,” he says. “They are both good people, and they enjoy each other’s company. I don’t have any feeling of envy or wounded pride that Joan goes out and has dinner once in a while with Bob. Sometimes I go too.

“Look,” he continues, “marriage is a damned important institution. It’s the basis of everything. Even with eight children, I never expected Joan to be tied down washing dirty dishes and changing diapers when things came along that interested her…I certainly wouldn’t have thought of saying, ‘Joan, you can’t do this. You’ve got to stay with me.’ I suppose there are husbands and wives that do that, but they are very insecure and tiny minded and scared.”

In the now-famous proposal Braden admitted to just one act of consummated infidelity. Her partner, says Braden, was a well-known figure she declines to name, who—

slipped into my bedroom when I was asleep (as was his wife in the same house). He broke a vial of, I think, amyl nitrite—a ‘popper’—beneath my nose and made love to me. The drug had weakened a reserve in me built up, and maintained, over thirty years. The next day, I cannot honestly say I was annoyed.

Without declaring that theirs is an open marriage, Braden makes plain she would not deny her husband an equivalent dalliance:

If he were going to Paris with a brainless beauty I wouldn’t like it a bit. But if it were a woman of substance, say an Anne Armstrong or a Sandra Day O’Connor, whether he went to bed with her or not, I would not try to stop him.

In the latest turn of what both say has been a devoted marriage, Tom has been drafted to be the co-author of his wife’s new literary endeavor, a radically revised set of memoirs. According to Joan, the book is to be a sort of paean to their marriage. She says, “It is going to be about how it is possible to be happily married, have children, go to work and meet other people and learn from them.”

It is being left up to Tom—who is either the ultimate good sport or a first-class patsy—to figure out how to write a book about his wife minus the juicy scenes with the leading men. “I don’t know that a man has ever written a book about his wife,” says Tom. “I can’t think of any. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it or not. But I’ll tell you one thing—I won’t be sending out any proposal.”

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