Joseph Alsop belonged to that long line of opinionated American journalists who are convinced only they know what is best for the country, and anyone who disagrees with them can go to hell. The Columnist, David Auburn's docudrama of sorts on the last few years of Alsop's career, gives just a glimpse of one of the fourth estate's most conflicted pundits in the twilight of his career.
The Columnist focuses mainly on Alsop's tightly closeted homosexuality and his dwindling influence during the Vietnam War era. The opening scene takes place in a Moscow hotel room where in 1957 the K.G.B. caught him in a honey trap and photographed him having sex with a young Soviet man. In the play, those photos stalk Alsop the rest of his working life and bear on his later relationships with his wife, political sources, and colleagues in the press corps.
The action leaps from that ill-fated tryst in Moscow to Alsop's house in Georgetown four years later. It is the wee hours of the morning following the day John Kennedy was sworn in as president, and Alsop is still in his tuxedo, popping champagne corks with his fiancée, Susan Mary Patten, and his brother Stewart. Although it is late, Alsop insists they keep the party going in case some other "guests" arrive. Sure enough, the new president drops by for a nightcap after the round of inaugural balls is over.
The late-night Kennedy visit to Alsop's house is well known, but other incidents in The Columnist have been tweaked under Auburn's dramatic license, and at least one is an outright fabrication. For example, Alsop never met his Russian one-night stand again, and while his stepdaughter, named Abigail in the play, is a central character, there is no mention of his stepson. And his brother Stewart died in 1974, four years before Joseph's divorce, which coincided with his retirement.
Joseph Alsop was certainly a complicated man. A staunch Republican who championed Roosevelt's New Deal and regarded Kennedy as a sort of messiah, he was a liberal (remember when there was a liberal wing to the G.O.P.?) on most domestic issues, but a fervent anti-Communist and a screeching hawk on foreign policy. As the anointed Connecticut Yankee in Camelot, those thousand days of Kennedy's presidency were the heyday of Alsop's column, which at one time was syndicated in 300 newspapers. But his ongoing feud with David Halberstam of The New York Times, a major subplot in the play is only one example of his growing estrangement from journalistic colleagues.
Auburn's Alsop is a fastidious man who put coasters under guests' drinks, and a snob who dropped names like a social-climber. He was a control freak who insisted on having the last word on everything from the seating chart at his famous dinner parties to the hem length on his stepdaughter's skirts. He was an original WASP and proud of it.
By limiting the scope of his play to Alsop's fear of being outed and his rabid support of the Vietnam War, Auburn never examines other facets of a man who was also an avid art collector and connoisseur and who lectured at the National Gallery, who served in the Navy in World War II and was captured and interned by the Japanese. And unlike many of his 21st-century successors who clog the airwaves and the Internet with political rants, Alsop was an erudite scholar who stuck to the facts, at least as he saw them.
John Lithgow gives a performance as Alsop that matches his character - loud and at times obnoxious, but with a hint at the frailty underneath. Grace Gummer is sympathetic as Abigail and Boyd Gaines delivers a fine turn as Stewart Alsop.