Member Interview – Ben Bradlee Jr.

What is your current project and what stage is it at?

Bradlee's previous books include a biography of Oliver North.

Bradlee’s previous books include a biography of Oliver North.

I am reviewing page proofs for my biography of the late baseball great Ted Williams, to be published December 3 by Little, Brown. The book—entitled The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams—took me more than ten years to research and write, far longer than I ever imagined when I took a leave of absence from my job as Deputy Managing Editor of the Boston Globe to undertake this project in late 2002, and later resigned. It was liberating to have the luxury of time—time to pore through thousands of newspaper articles from 1935 to 2002 chronicling Williams’s life; time to interview 600-odd people who had touched his life in ways big and small; time to digest and shape a staggering amount of information; and time to write a book of 800-plus pages in a way that people will hopefully find interesting and illuminating. I decided not to skimp on the central baseball part of Ted’s life but nevertheless to concentrate my efforts on areas that had been far less chronicled, such as his troubled childhood, his anger and its source, his kindness to sick children and others down on their luck, his war service, his dealings with the sportswriters who covered him (a dynamic essential to understanding Williams), his love and mastery of fishing as an example of his striving for excellence in anything he undertook, his relationships with his wives, other women, and his children, his vibrant second act in retirement, and finally a detailed examination of the dark cryonics affair, which, sadly, dominated the Williams postmortems.

Which person would you most like to write about?

Well, the person I most wanted to write about was the man I just finished writing about: Williams. He had been a childhood hero of mine, someone I’d followed for years both during his playing career and into his retirement. In his death, I was struck by how much interest there still was in his life, by how many different people he had touched in different ways, and by what a rich, extraordinary life he had led. Now I’m on the prowl for another subject to write about, a person as compelling as I found Williams—or more so.

What’s your favorite biography/who is your favorite biographer?

The Power Broker, By Robert Caro. Caro is an exemplar of the biography craft—painstaking, dogged, patient, persistent, old-school but still groundbreaking. Nearly 40 years on Lyndon Johnson? Incredible.

What was your most frustrating moment as a biographer?

Being told during my first two years researching the book by Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell and Claudia Williams—Ted’s two daughters, who were vital to understanding the Williams family dynamic—that there was no way they would ever talk to me.

Most satisfying?

Getting both daughters, quite separately, to change their minds and cooperate fully, starting in 2004. Claudia’s cooperation was especially important since she controlled her father’s estate. Many of my interviews with her took place in Ted’s Florida house, and she came to trust me enough to allow me to remain in the house by myself, free to rummage around as I pleased through his papers, records, scrapbooks, letters, journals, wartime pilot’s logs, and fishing logs. This sort of stuff is a biographer’s dream and yielded nuggets such as Ted’s private address book, containing names of many people I’d never heard of but who ended up providing useful insights about Williams when interviewed; as well as letters from people such as Richard Nixon, Bob Feller, and John Updike. Claudia also shared Ted’s private family photos, tape recordings, and videos with me, and helped persuade her mother—Ted’s third wife, Dolores Williams—to give me her first interview. Like Bobby-Jo, Claudia provided important insights into growing up with Ted—his view of women, his anger, his insecurity, and his record as a father. But perhaps the most significant thing Claudia supplied was her family’s first full explanation, including many new details, of the cryonics affair.

One research/marketing/attitudinal tip to share?

Rather than simply dig into Ted Williams’s life dispassionately as an objective observer, BIO member Jane Leavy urged me to think about why the person I was writing about was important to me. I found this a useful exercise that helped focus the mind and coalesce themes.