This last year has been a hard one for everyone. It’s easy to think that the next guy has it better. Michael Bierut never has to get work and solves problems instantly, Dana Arnett has no worries, Marian Bantjes is sitting calmly at her studio in the woods or feeding the happy woodland creatures, Sean Adams is listening to the Beach Boys and driving around Beverly Hills. But like everyone else, they and I still pump gas, pay bills, load the dishwasher, and worry. I tend to think the same thing about previous generations of my family. They seemed to spend time touring Europe, leisurely riding through the countryside, and occasionally running for office. My grandmother’s cousin Bill (William C. Bullitt) was one of these people. I have photos of him looking dapper and sophisticated. He, seemingly, led a charmed life of privilege.
I recently finished a book, So Close To Greatness, about Bill Bullitt and his life was far from charmed. Like all of us, he worked hard for his beliefs, juggled a career and family, and wanted respect from his peers. He was born in Philadelphia in 1891 to the Philadelphia arm of the family. He went to Yale and Harvard Law. He served President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. He was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and then France, and was one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s inner circle. This would all appear, on paper, to be charmed. But, life wasn’t that easy.
Bill Bullitt’s second wife was Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in Reds), widow of the radical communist, Jack Reed. Bullitt and Bryant lived in Paris and were part of the ex-pat community of the 1920s. Once again, on paper, this was a golden time. But Louise slowly went mad, became an alcoholic, enjoyed entering dinner parties in the nude, and they were divorced. The invasion of the German army ended Bullitt’s service as the ambassador to France. After his return to the United States, he lobbied to be part of Roosevelt’s cabinet. A mislaid plan to expose Secretary of State Sumner Welles’ predilection for Pullman porters ended his friendship with Roosevelt and ended his political career.
However, throughout all of these trials, Bullitt remained gracious and elegant. His response to the invasion of the German army was to order all good champagne and caviar to be taken with him and the embassy staff to the basement. “We may be killed,” he said, “But I’ll be damned if we’ll be annoyed.”