Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: As remembered by Jon Meacham

Historians in the News

On a Saturday evening in Georgetown in late 1946, the columnist Joe Alsop was giving a dinner at his house in the 2700 block of Dumbarton. The guests were predictably drawn from the glamorous and the powerful; Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and influential journalists frequently came to Alsop's table. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., not yet 30 and already a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, was there, as were the Henry Cabot Lodges. Mrs. Lodge, Schlesinger noted in a letter to his parents, was "exceedingly attractive." There was one other guest of interest: a congressman-elect from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. "Kennedy seemed very sincere and not unintelligent," Schlesinger wrote, "but kind of on the conservative side."

The scene is classic Schlesinger: there he is, at once a historian of the past and a player in the politics of the moment, savoring a good dinner with good company, surveying the table with an astute eye—by turns generous, pitiless and politically incisive. Schlesinger, who died last week in New York City at 89, knew everyone and seemed to know everything. He loved parties, martinis, politics, the movies, bow ties (which he favored because FDR and Churchill did) and bourbon whisky; he could effortlessly move from debating Franklin Roosevelt's prewar policy of aid to Great Britain to parsing the relative merits of Kentucky's Knob Creek versus Tennessee's Jack Daniel's.

Born in 1917, the son of Arthur Meier Schlesinger, the eminent Harvard historian, young Arthur loved his childhood in Cambridge; he immersed himself in the works of G. A. Henty, Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. His early reading, followed by Exeter and Harvard, nurtured a vibrant literary and historical imagination.

In his books and essays Schlesinger chronicled the intellectual, the popular and the political with a sure hand, recapturing, in Winston Churchill's phrase, "the passions of former days" with such force that a reader can virtually smell the smoke of Roosevelt's cigarette or feel the cold of JFK's Inaugural noontime. He was a master of narrative, of the well-turned phrase and the cinematic scene, but prided himself on breaking new analytical ground. "History is indeed an argument without end," he wrote. "That is why it is so much fun."...
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