Late on a bright summer morning, Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr. walks briskly into P. J. Moriarty’s, a pub in his neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Pat Moriarty’s is a classic Irish watering place where the service is polite, the decor old-fashioned.
Schlesinger is, as usual, a little early for an appointment. He sits down at a table and orders his favorite drink, a dry martini. Reluctantly, he is prepared to talk about himself—something he does not find easy to do.
Quickly the conversation turns instead to American intellectual history, a subject Schlesinger taught in a popular course at Harvard from 1946 to 1961. “I really do believe,” Schlesinger, 58, says, “in the frailty of human striving, in the tragedy of history and in the poignancy and irony of human existence.” He pauses and adds with a smile, “I know a professor’s decisions make absolutely no difference. But the decisions on history a politician makes have a great effect.”
Ordering a rare Dublin broil (really a London broil), Schlesinger sits back against the red leather. (He has been known to leave a dinner party as early as possible if a hostess serves something that he loathes, such as chicken curry.) Schlesinger this day seems in a good mood. And why not? His life is a testimony to the fact that an egghead can work hard and still have fun. As a writer, Schlesinger has produced 17 volumes of history, two of which have won a Pulitzer Prize. As a host, Schlesinger entertains the cream of the American social, political and art worlds. As a man, Schlesinger luxuriates in a rewarding family life, keeping in close touch with his four children from his former marriage—Steve, a writer for TIME in New York; Kathy, a Denver TV consultant; Chrissie, an artist in Los Angeles who specializes in murals; and Andy, who also lives in Los Angeles and writes film scripts.
Schlesinger has a second wife, Alexandra Emmet, who is roughly 20 years younger, and a second family. He considers Alexandra’s son from her former marriage, Peter Allan, 11, as much his own as their son, Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Emmet Schlesinger, born in June 1972.
Up at 7 every morning, Arthur goes immediately to his study, a comfortable room filled with books on the third floor of his townhouse, and he writes. At the moment he is half done with Robert Kennedy and His Times, to be published next spring by Houghton Mifflin. Unlike some historians, Schlesinger does all the research for his books himself. To prepare for this book, he spent many months examining the private papers and diaries of Robert F. Kennedy, at the invitation of his widow, Ethel. For a summer Schlesinger lived and worked at Hickory Hill, the Kennedy home in McLean, Va. It was the scene of a celebrated incident in 1962 when Schlesinger was pushed fully clothed into the pool. Ethel Kennedy was long suspected but Stewart Udall’s wife, Lee, later confessed she did it because, as she explained, “he was standing there holding forth and looking so Arthurish, and something came over me.” (The “Arthurish” look is partly his fidelity to bow ties. He has never been seen in anything else. Schlesinger is a man of vast knowledge and strong opinions, which he is not reluctant to share with others. Such people should never stand close to swimming pools after the second drink at parties.)
After finishing 10 pages without fail, Schlesinger breaks for lunch, often with companions like former Ambassador to the United Nations Marietta Tree, actress Lauren Bacall (who calls him “one of the most thoughtful people I know”) or his wife and their closest friends, Stephen and Jean Smith. She is one of the Kennedy sisters.
Afternoons he works in a big white garret office at the City University of New York on 42nd Street. There, as Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities (a chair set up to bring prominent intellectuals to the university), Schlesinger does research for the two-hour seminar on American cultural history he teaches every Monday.
In the evenings the Schlesingers often go out, and their pictures and names regularly appear in New York society pages. It is an unusual life for an academic, but no matter how late he stays out, Schlesinger, a light drinker in the evening, is always at work early next day. The pace seems to agree with him; he rarely takes a vacation. His wife calls his energy and discipline “amazing.”
A Cushing, Alexandra grew up in New York society, went to finishing school in France, then on to Radcliffe. Schlesinger had met Alexandra’s mother, Lily Cushing, many years earlier and had found her to be “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” In 1955, when he first met Alexandra, who was then at Radcliffe, he recognized her as Lily’s daughter and invited her to audit his American history class at Harvard.
“I went,” she says, “but never took the class. I did see him, however, at parties he had at his home. They were the best parties in Cambridge. He always had the most interesting people there.” (Guests included theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, author Edmund Wilson.) She saw Schlesinger again years later when he was separated from his first wife, Marion, and living in New York City. They were married in 1971. Part of Alexandra’s job as Mrs. Schlesinger is to fend off the outside world when her husband is writing. He can be gruff as a bear if interrupted. “He’s not always the most diplomatic person,” she admits, but adds, “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”
Schlesinger was born in 1917 in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a distinguished historian who taught at Ohio State University but moved to Harvard a few years after Arthur was born. Arthur went to Philips Exeter Academy and later to Harvard, graduating summa cum laude in 1938. In the summer of 1942 Schlesinger went to work for the Office of War Information. Then he switched to the OSS, the wartime forerunner of the CIA, and was stationed first in Washington, then in London, Paris and Germany. In the OSS, as everywhere else Schlesinger has worked, he was known as an amiable gossip. A woman who had just arrived in wartime London from Washington headquarters remembers being cautioned: “Don’t tell Arthur anything you don’t want broadcast. He can’t keep a secret.”
In 1945 Schlesinger’s book The Age of Jackson, which he had written before the war, won the Pulitzer Prize for history. Schlesinger returned to Harvard as an associate professor. Soon, however, he began moving out of the academic world and into political action. In 1952 and 1956 he served as a member of Adlai Stevenson’s staff during his presidential campaigns.
Schlesinger flowered as a political adviser during the Kennedy years. “It was actually RFK who got me into the White House,” Schlesinger says. “Bobby wanted to diversify the White House. He didn’t want just political people around the President. I guess I was the general liaison with the liberals and the intellectuals.”
Economist Galbraith, an old Schlesinger friend, recalls, “Jack Kennedy used to talk to Arthur whenever he was opening up a new range of thought. Kennedy liked this. It helped him get out of the rut of memorandums and papers and files. Arthur could be counted on to take an independent view of matters. He has never been one to accept conventional wisdom.”
Myer Feldman, deputy special counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, says that Schlesinger was “a fast thinker, and his views were always unequivocal. He was impatient with people who could not grasp his ideas.”
When Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon Johnson returned to Washington as the new President, Schlesinger angered some grieving New Frontiersmen when he hurried to shake Johnson’s hand as he came off Air Force One. But as the kind of Eastern intellectual whom Johnson was uncomfortable around, Schlesinger’s days in the White House were numbered. Privately Johnson often scorned Schlesinger’s role in the Kennedy administration. “Hell, Jack only kept Arthur around to write Christmas greetings to the U.N.,” Johnson once said.
Schlesinger went back to teaching and writing—his memoir of the Kennedy administration, A Thousand Days, was a best-seller—and he now professes no desire ever to return to politics. “I served under the best possible circumstances,” he says, “and now all I want is to be left alone to be a historian. When I finish the book I’m writing now, I plan to go back to The Age of Roosevelt. I want to write three or four more volumes and just keep on going.”
In the present election campaign Schlesinger has reservations about Jimmy Carter, but concedes that he will vote for him. What interests Schlesinger most about a candidate, he says, is his sense of humor, and he fears that Carter doesn’t have one. By that measurement, Schlesinger believes “the most classy candidate was Mo Udall.” Who are other Democrats he admires? “Mike Mansfield. Frank Church. Teddy Kennedy.” Does he think that Teddy will ever run for President? “I don’t know. But I hope he does. I think he would make an excellent President.”
Two qualities mark Arthur Schlesinger the host. One is his ability to converse entertainingly about nearly any subject. Movies are a favorite: he has loved them since childhood. “I once found a diary,” he recalls, “in which I kept an account of every movie I saw from 1933 to 1939. When I was a boy, my two heroes were H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, the critic. Oh, I wanted to be a critic. When I first came to New York, I used to stand outside the building where Nathan lived. Once I actually encountered him in an elevator, but I was too frightened to speak to him. What are some of my favorite films? 8 ½. High Noon. I think that Nashville is the best American film of recent times.” Schlesinger writes about movies from time to time for Vogue.
At his cocktail parties Schlesinger also tries to combine people of all ages and interests, as at a reception he gave recently to celebrate the publication of his son Steve’s book The New Reformers. The guest list itself was worth a story in Women’s Wear Daily. Mrs. Schlesinger invited her cousins Jonathan Churchill, a lawyer, and Cass Canfield Jr., an editor at Harper & Row. There were Tim Seldes, a literary agent; Jann Wenner, editor, and Joe Armstrong, publisher, of Rolling Stone; actress Phyllis Newman and lyricist Adolph Green; director Sidney Lumet and his wife, Gail; Peter and Cheray Duchin; the Steve Smiths.
The party spilled out of the bright yellow living room, down the steps and into the large garden. From there the guests could look up and see both their host and hostess in a large bay window on the second floor. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was having a very good time.