How do you make your mark when your parents, Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, are among the most famous figures in Washington lore and you have been born with a significant disability that makes many basic things in life difficult?
You surpass them with a tale so full of blood, guts and gusto that the world simply has to take notice.
Thus does Quinn Bradlee make his mark.
The 28-year-old puts his success down in considerable measure to his Irish roots. In his book he writes, “I always remind him [Ben Bradlee] that the Quinns are from Ireland. Irish Americans take great pride in their Irish ancestry and always have. And that is something that I will never stop talking about.”
That new book, A Life’s Work, by Ben and Quinn Bradlee with observations by Sally Quinn, (Simon and Schuster) tells the heartwarming story of a family who have survived one near-death experience of their child after another, many years when no diagnoses could be made of Quinn’s actual condition, and the incredible love of life and drive to succeed that marked their son’s entry into manhood and independence.
Later this year Quinn Bradlee will be married at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. He has emerged as a national spokesman for children with disabilities. He holds down a full-time job and has just published his second book.
He has done the impossible.
Sitting in the Georgetown mansion his parents call home, Quinn Bradlee strikes me as an emissary from a silent world we think far too little about. How often do we think about the inner life of those we consign to the heap marked disabled or, cruelly, retarded?
There is an endearing honesty to him. He talks about his childhood struggles, his battle against depression, his determination to tell the world that while he may be wired somewhat differently to the rest of us he lacks for nothing when it comes to perception, insight and the need to love and be loved.
The night before we met at his book launch party, attended by such luminaries as Bob Woodward, Maureen Dowd and others, all unabashed fans of Quinn. He was remarkable for his own speech, an honest and vivid account of growing up with famous parents, battling
disability and demons, and ultimately succeeding.
He speaks his mind in a way that some could find unsettling, but which has a refreshing honesty and insight. There is no social filter, no need to worry about niceties. He tells it like it is and his two books to date make that clear. A Different Life, his earlier memoir of growing up disabled, was a critical and publishing success.
We can learn from him about honesty and how those who are different can perceive the world. He is a reporter from a foreign shore, putting us in the mindset of those who have had no spokesman or guide for the longest time. It is a humbling experience to talk to this young man.
Even his parents seem a little in awe. They have the kind of resumes and back story that Hollywood loves. Indeed, Ben Bradlee, the most famous newspaper man of his era, was featured front and center in the movie All the President’s Men.
That was the gripping tale of how the Washington Post newspaper took down the Nixon presidency by digging and digging on a seemingly one-day story about a June 1972 bungled break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building in D.C.
Ben Bradlee was famous before Jason Robards portrayed him, but afterwards he became quite simply the best known and greatest editor of the modern era.
Sally Quinn, on the other hand, has become a Washington legend as a hostess, columnist and style arbiter. Vanity Fair recently devoted a lavish spread to her and made it clear that in the hyper-competitive world of Washington access, power and politics, Sally Quinn reigns supreme.
Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee met late in life, married, and had Quinn, their only child.
He came into the world on April 29th, 1982, and was immediately diagnosed with a heart murmur. It was the beginning of a long series of inexplicable illnesses, one after another, which threatened his life and led to open-heart surgery at just three months of age.
Quinn was slow to learn, slow to focus. One school administrator advised the family that he would need institutional care all his life . It was the kind of life sentence no parents wanted to hear. But Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee would not give up.
Finally, a diagnosis was made. It was VFS, or Velocardiofacial syndrome, a genetic condition that affects one in 2,000 persons worldwide, marked by a series of physical problems and learning disabilities that Quinn suffered from.
As he struggled through childhood Quinn Bradlee developed a thick skin, an acute sense of insight and a determination to not allow his condition to hold him back.
His account of boarding school, of his battles with inner demons, his gradual realization that he had so much to offer and his determination to stand up for others with his condition who had no voice, make up the heart of his first book. His latest book traces the family influences that made that courage possible.
His inspiration was his mother’s father, General William Quinn, or ‘Dandy,’ a deeply proud Irishman who was one of the top intelligence officers in the U.S. Army during World War II.
The disabled grandchild and the hard-bitten general hit it off big when Quinn was growing up. He developed his love of genealogy and Irish heritage from him and the general ensured that his grandson would never shirk a challenge, never fail to do his best and always stand up for what he believed.
Sally Quinn writes movingly in an earlier book A Different Life about what it is like for a parent to raise a special needs child, to see the loneliness when Quinn was always left out, lacking the social networking skills to fully integrate with classmates.
Yet neither she nor her boy gave up.
A Different Life sets the stage for A Life’s Work. The bond between Ben Bradlee and his son Quinn fill these pages. Bradlee is an outdoors man who likes nothing better than to leave the hurly burly of Washington for his beloved West Virginia retreat. Quinn is with him every step of the way.
Out on the land the two bond. Much of the narrative in the book describes the art of clearing brush, cutting down diseased trees, using chainsaws to improve the land.
The extraordinary aspect of the book about father and son bonding is that it is the father, who by the end of it, is learning from the son.
There cannot be too many people who can have that impact on the legendary Ben Bradlee, still hale and hearty at 89. Yet his son reaches him, explains vulnerability, takes him and his wife Sally on their own inner journey to understanding their son.
They and the world are much better for it.