FDR's Global

Benjamin Welles
(St. Martins)

Sumner Welles was one of those insufferable Groton/Harvard types. Beautifully groomed, tall, austere, chilly --- he had it all. He was rich, he was smart, he was handsome --- in that 1920's type of well-groomed, double-breasted handsome. (All his clothes were tailored in London; they even fabricated his shoes.)

He travelled the world, joined the State Department, and, as under-secretary, worked closely with Franklin D. Roosevelt (they had graduated from the same schools; had known each other almost from the beginning). Because of that powerful connection, he was deeply involved in the preliminary work towards setting up the United Nations, and --- earlier --- in the negotiations during and after the invasions of the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Cuba. (Unfortunately, he took to Fulgencio Batista, and helped make it possible for that dictator to run Cuba, creating thirty years of garish tyranny).

Welles' grasp of world affairs was astonishing; he spoke several languages, and was known as a man who would work nonstop on whatever project was sent his way. He was once described by Washington columnists Alsop and Kintner as a "tall, powerfully-built, beautifully tailored man with the glacial manner, and an expression which suggests that a morsel of bad fish has somehow or other lodged itself in his moustache." His role, according to Benjamin Welles, his son, and author of this biography, was as one who

    wielded a major influence on U. S. foreign policy, thought shrewdly, practically, forcefully and always to one end --- maintaining a reasonably healthy international situation without involving the United States in dangerous commitments.

But fate --- in the form of the strange windings of his icy personality --- intervened. On a presidential train to Alabama, in 1940, Welles, drunk, tried to seduce not one but several sleeping-car porters. As the author says,

    Possibly no one would believe that a senior government official in his right mind --- least of all the patrician Under Secretary of State --- would solicit Pullman porters on a train carrying the President, the cabinet, the Secret Service and railway officials.

But it was so (a similar incident occurred on another train weeks later), and although it took three years, the man who rose to, in effect, be such a powerful force in U. S. foreign affairs, a major architect of what was to become the U. N., was finally driven from office. (According to his son, he was able to stay as long as he did because Roosevelt believed that what a man did when drunk should not be held against him.)

This is an exhaustive study of a fascinating man, by his son, but --- to this reader --- that son is uncomfortable with his subject (as he must have been, most certainly, with an iceberg of a father). There is a feeling of unresolved tension, a son trying to describe his father as a statesman, and, at the same time, deal with the truth of a very troubled man. There are certainly touching passages, such as when he describes months, as a boy, with his father, in Paris --- which come across as obviously affectionate memories. Yet, Welles, Senior was a man who was, he says, a "secret drinker, physically and emotionally exhausted by ten years of crushing responsibility." The result:

    Weary and in his cups, he let the bisexual urges latent in his nature burst their bonds, leading to tawdry advances to railway porters and others.

("Tawdry" in our view doesn't sound or feel like exactly the right word.) The last eighteen years of Welle's life --- 1943 - 1961 --- were a mess. He turned morose, drank to such an extent that his wife abandoned him, and hired on as butler a bisexual ne'er-do-well named Gustave who turned his world and his life to a shambles --- chasing the maids around the kitchen with a meat-cleaver, for one. It was a time marked by bitter memories and bitter vituperative letters directed at his enemies, all left over from his days of glory. His troubles were revealed to the world in a 1956 issue of Confidential, the primary outing magazine of its day. These and other revelations caused Welles to attempt suicide in a creek near his mansion, in the middle of the winter.

It's a woeful tale of hubris and a man at war with his own passions, but there is something rather diffident in his son's account, told distantly; coldly, even. For one thing, Benjamin refers to himself, rather oddly, in the third person, as if he didn't want to seem too involved. (When one writes about a close family member, one should not have to refer to one's self as "he.) It appears that this is a tale by a man who hasn't fully integrated as writer and as son the story of one who was fearfully proud when successful, and fearfully tortured when unmasked.

--- Ralph R. Doister

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