Statesman, egghead, lover, hero

The first story in this space appeared exactly two years ago. I’m big on dates that have meaning, so I chose July 14 because it was the 50th anniversary of the death of Adlai Stevenson.

Stevenson was a hero in my house when I was growing up. My mother’s hero, anyway.

She voted for him for president, in 1952 and 1956. He lost twice, of course.

Dorothy Becker and Adlai Stevenson, with apologies to Jude the Apostle and Bernie Sanders, are my patron saints of lost causes.

Stevenson was the inspiration for the character of William Russell in Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man.

Russell was a former secretary of state running for his party’s presidential nomination. The rap on Russell – and Stevenson – was that he was an egghead, too brainy to be president. He lost, of course.

In the movie version of The Best Man, Russell, played by Henry Fonda, is asked by a reporter, “Do you think people mistrust intellectuals like you in politics?”

“Intellectual? You mean I wrote a book? Well, as Bertrand Russell said, people in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one. Actually, it’s the other way around.”

Flash forward to the White House in 2017. On second thought, for the moment, let’s stay in the past.

Stevenson was JFK’s ambassador to the United Nations. It was the former Illinois governor, the egghead, whose words crushed the Soviet ambassador, Valerian Zorin, in the Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

“Let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no?”

“I am not in an American courtroom, sir,” the Russian replied, “and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor does. In due course, sir, you will have your reply. Do not worry.”

You are in the court of world opinion right now and you can answer yes or no …”

The Russian tried to duck the question once again.

Stevenson went in for the kill. “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over … And I’m also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”

Which he did. Three days later, the crisis was over.

Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come

In yours and my discharge.

Shakespeare, The Tempest

Okay, let’s fast forward to last week’s Trump-Putin tryst in Hamburg, the German city where the Beatles first made their marks.

Oh, please, say to me
You’ll let me be your man.
And, please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand.
You let me hold your hand.
I want to hold your hand.


Trump and Putin met for more than two hours in Hamburg. Here’s how the American CEO described his faceoff with the ex-KGB officer on whether the Kremlin orchestrated a cyberattack on the U.S. election:

“I said, ‘Did you do it?’ He said, ‘No, I did not, absolutely not.’ I then asked him a second time, in a totally different way. He said, ‘Absolutely not.’”


Not exactly Stevenson facing down the Russian bear – “I want to say to you, Mr. Zorin, that I don’t have your talent for obfuscation, for distortion, for confusing language, and for doubletalk.”

His words would today fit Putin. Or Trump. (Though the vocabulary might be beyond the comprehension of the Tweeter in Chief.)

Stevenson was in London in July 1965 with his longtime lover – her husband apparently didn’t mind, and he was divorced – Marietta Peabody Tree.

Marietta Tree

The daughter of a Massachusetts Episcopal Church rector, the young Ms. Tree had been an ardent supporter of Stevenson’s presidential runs and served under him as the American representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Marietta Tree reminds me of the Viennese socialite and seductress Alma Schindler (1879-1964), who bedded, among others, composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel.

Alma, tell us,
All modern women are jealous.
Though you didn’t even use Ponds,
You got Gustav and Walter and Franz.

– Tom Lehrer

Marietta’s romantic tree and progeny included a first husband, New York lawyer Desmond FitzGerald and their daughter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Frances FitzGerald; film director John Huston, with whom she had a passionate affair; a second husband, Ronald Tree, a wealthy British politician, and their daughter, the ’60s fashion model Penelope Tree.

Stevenson popped up in the show biz scandal sheets as well, as a frequent escort of Lauren Bacall after Bogie’s death.

In any case, on July 14, 1965, Adlai Stevenson and Marietta Tree, who was nearly 20 years younger, were walking through London’s Grosvenor Square when he had a massive heart attack and crashed to the pavement.

He died later that day in St. George’s Hospital at the age of 65. LBJ dispatched Air Force One to London to bring Stevenson’s body home.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II – his namesake grandfather had been vice president under Grover Cleveland – was buried in the family plot in Bloomington, Illinois. President Johnson and Lady Bird sat in the front row at the funeral.

I couldn’t make it. I was a counsellor at a camp in the Catskills and had lifeguard duty that day.