John Lithgow on Playing Joseph Alsop in The Columnist

John Lithgow embodies Joseph Alsop on Broadway (left), and the man himself. Andrew Eccles (left); Bachrach / Getty Images

“Now, wait a second, Mr. President!” The words pop like firecrackers in the middle of the recorded conversation. This was Joseph Alsop talking on the phone to Lyndon Johnson on Nov. 25, 1963, days after JFK’s assassination had abruptly elevated Johnson to the presidency. The columnist was counseling the new commander in chief on the creation of the Warren Commission, and that sharp phrase leaves little doubt of Alsop’s opinion of his own superior wisdom. It is hard to imagine any journalist in American history adopting such a tone with a sitting president, let alone the bluff, authoritative LBJ. But Joe Alsop was not just any journalist.

Power: Alsop was a giant in a long-lost era of print journalism. He and Stewart, his younger brother and sometime writing partner, were children of Northeastern privilege. Eleanor Roosevelt was a first cousin. Educated at Harvard and Yale, respectively, the Alsops wrote newspaper prose with Henry James–ian flourish and a self-assertiveness born of noblesse oblige. Joe in particular used his syndicated column to lecture policymakers from the lowliest congressmen to the mightiest world leaders. He dealt with all of them as if he were a stern schoolmaster and they were his wayward pupils. His pronouncements were impossible to ignore. In today’s journalistic landscape, the only figure wielding a fraction of Joe Alsop’s power is Rush Limbaugh. In every other way, Joe and Rush are polar opposites. And Joe would have regarded Rush as an ignorant vulgarian, beneath his contempt.

Secrets: Joe’s status in the social and political hierarchy of midcentury Washington, D.C., was equally lofty. He invited every politician of note to his Georgetown dinner table, where his dandified voice dominated every combative debate. At the center of Washington life, he was loved, hated, and feared in equal measure. His out-size personality was shot through with complexity and contradiction. His arrogance was tempered with generosity, his abrasiveness with humor. Politically conservative, he was a worshipful adherent of both FDR and JFK. Despite his intellectual agility, he beat the drum too loudly and too long in favor of the Vietnam War. He tyrannized Stewart and yet loved him like ... well, like a brother. And the deepest duality of Joe’s nature was sexual. Presenting himself to the world as an attentive husband and doting stepfather, he kept his homosexuality a fiercely guarded secret. In an era when secret homosexuals and secret communists lived in the same feverish state of jeopardy and fear, Joe’s social flair and political swagger provided him with vivid protective coloration.

Stage: As a dramatic character, Joe Alsop brims with theatricality. So it is small wonder that playwright David Auburn (a Pulitzer winner for “Proof”) has seized on Joe as the title character for his latest play, “The Columnist.” Auburn tracks him from 1954 to 1968, a crucial period in the nation’s life, bifurcated by the trauma of Jack Kennedy’s death. In the play, Joe’s story resonates with the nation’s story over the same stretch of time. And it strikes a poignant note: for all his fame, notoriety, and power, Joe has been forgotten by all but the chattering class of 70-year-olds and older. But Auburn has chosen to place him center stage once again—a brilliant, seductive, infuriating, secretive, altogether captivating leading man, born to the spotlight. The daunting task of bringing him to life falls to me this spring in the play’s premiere run at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. In creating the role of Joe Alsop, I get the chance to recall this amazing man to older generations and introduce him to younger ones. I think Joe himself would have loved the attention. A quote from the play is perfectly apt: on hearing that journalist David Halberstam intends to treat him harshly in his upcoming book about the catastrophic follies of Vietnam, Alsop blithely replies, “Well. Spell my name correctly.”