University News

From The Herald to the UN

Memories of Richard Holbrooke '62 at Brown

Sunday, May 29, 2011

“The room allocated to the Russians for press conferences was full,” wrote then-Herald staff writer Richard Holbrooke ’62 in an Oct. 9, 1960 supplement to The Herald. “Reporters flowed out into the hall as Mikhail A. Kharlamov, Soviet press secretary, began speaking … then we walked across the lobby — crossing an invisible Iron Curtain somewhere on the way.”

As a Brown sophomore, Holbrooke was in an enviable position for many young journalists, as he accompanied New York Times correspondents to a press conference at the 1960 Paris Peace Summit. Held between the “big four” global powers — the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany and France — the summit was ultimately a failed attempt to reach diplomatic understanding between nations immersed in Cold War politics. On May 1, a United States U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace. The event poisoned the tenor of the summit’s peace talks, and Holbrooke was there, right in the thick of it, watching history unfold before his very eyes.

Crossing through that “Iron Curtain” would not be the last time Holbrooke would find himself caught up in the tumult and excitement of history being made. During his life after Brown, he would often play the role of history maker.

While he is remembered as one of the nation’s leading diplomats, the Holbrooke who wrote that piece for The Herald was far removed from the future deal maker and player on the international stage he would later become. Known simply as Dick to his friends, the undergrad Holbrooke was a young man staring at diplomats from the outside, wanting to use his skills as a writer and communicator for journalism, not foreign policy.

While most Brown students focused on coursework and exams in Providence, Holbrooke was sent by The Herald to cover the summit in a seven-part series. Only a sophomore at the time, Holbrooke was sent as part of an initiative geared to expand “coverage of significant extra-campus events,” as described in a short April 28, 1960 press release in The Herald.

He ended up doing much more. Two days before the summit’s opening session, Holbrooke met Clifton Daniel, assistant managing editor of the Times, who asked him to help the newspaper’s staff during their coverage of the event.  

Holbrooke was there for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s press conference in front of television camera crews and nearly 3,000 correspondents from various media outlets. In the supplement — which describes his experience working with the Times’ reporters — Holbrooke writes in a perceptive, detailed way, often tinged with slight humor.

“There was a short silence, and then, suddenly, unexpectedly, the round, bald head of Premier (Khrushchev) rose from behind the podium,” Holbrooke wrote.

He continued by describing the journalists’ reactions to Khrushchev’s appearance. “The Palais de Chaillot went berserk. Journalists who are expected to present to a person conducting a press conference a certain minimum objectivity, were screaming, yelling, booing, hissing, and cheering.”  

 Holbrooke’s piece for The Herald offers a fascinating snapshot of history written by a man who himself would eventually be the subject of countless articles and news reports. After Brown, he would grow into one of the most influential diplomats in United States history. His accomplishments are too many to list. They include brokering the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that effectively ended the Bosnian War, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for both Asia and Europe, and in his last public position, serving as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration — just a few in a storied career.

On Dec. 13, 2010, Holbrooke died suddenly from a ruptured aorta. He was 69 years old, and he had seen the world, living at the heart of some of the most momentous events in modern history.


The college sweetheart

For those who knew him at Brown, Holbrooke is remembered as a friend and leader before he was a diplomat.

“We met at the very beginning of his junior year, my sophomore year,” said Litty Holbrooke ’63, Holbrooke’s first wife and college girlfriend.

They met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend, and Litty — whose last name was Sullivan at the time — said the two of them got along immediately. “I thought he was cute,” she said, adding that “we hit it off and we started dating, and that was just it. We immediately fell in together and we continued that way.”

It was the beginning of a relationship that would continue long after they both left College Hill. The pair married in June 1964 when Holbrooke was working in Saigon for the State Department, and spent most of the years of their marriage traveling to the different places where he was stationed for work, having two sons along the way.

In college, Holbrooke’s professional aspirations were always balanced between foreign service and journalism.  

“I think at Brown, he kind of half-jokingly, half-sincerely used to say that what he aspired to be would be either Secretary of State or Managing Editor of the New York Times,” Litty said.

After Brown, Holbrooke applied to, and was rejected by, the Times. He then decided to work for the State Department, a choice that would pave the way for his later work as a diplomat.

Despite moving up the ranks of foreign policy makers, Holbrooke never moved too far from his love of journalism. During the early years of their marriage when Holbrooke was stationed in Saigon, Litty lived in Bangkok and welcomed visits from some of her husband’s journalist friends.

“He would tell his friends to come and visit me and take me out to dinner, so I had a nice succession of journalists who would come through Bangkok for visits,” she said.


A mind ‘like a sponge’

This interest in journalism began at Brown, where Holbrooke’s work at The Herald led him to move up the ranks from a staff writer to editor-in-chief.

“The BDH was very important to him,” Litty said. “The BDH was the most important of his extracurriculars at Brown.”

Bob Ebin ’62, a former Herald business manager, remained a close friend of Holbrooke’s over the past 50 years. Ebin and Holbrooke even lived in the same apartment house in New York for a little over a decade.

“In college, we would prowl around with our girlfriends,” Ebin said. “He was a very interesting guy.”  

“He did not drink, which was unusual for the time, and he had an incredible, searching mind.”

Both history majors, Ebin and Holbrooke took several classes together. It was in these classes where Ebin was able to observe firsthand the ways in which “Dick’s mind was like a sponge — it would soak up everything and anything,” he said.

Litty agreed. “He was very interested in history, and I think that is something that hasn’t really been written about a lot,” she said.

“That was a lifelong interest for him, and he was genuinely interested in it. He loved history so much so that he always loved hanging out with men who had lived it,” she added.


Making history

As a man who lived history, Holbrooke made some of his own while at Brown. During his time as Herald editor-in-chief, Holbrooke found the paper facing a writer shortage. In order to increase recruitment, Holbrooke decided to seek out writers at Pembroke College, Brown’s all-female sister college.

With separate campus activities, dormitories and curfews, Pembroke and Brown stood as two sides of the same College Hill campus community. While The Herald was an all-male daily publication, the Pembroke Record offered a weekly equivalent for the sister campus.

Susanna Opper ’62 answered Holbrooke’s ad looking for new writers.

“I liked to break down barriers and I said, ‘OK,’ ” Opper said. “My first article assigned was a review of a dance program.”

Opper said that while the concept of having female staff members on a male college newspaper does not seem that radical now, at the time, it caused some controversy at Pembroke.

“It was a pretty radical step, and the Record was very upset with me,” Opper said.

The following summer, Opper was given the opportunity to work on a more complex piece for Holbrooke. She was in Germany when Lyndon Johnson came to speak to the people of Berlin to address the building of the Berlin Wall. Opper wrote an article about the speech, a topic that immediately appealed to Holbrooke.

“He was at Brown what he was to become later on — no-nonsense, get the job done,” she said. “He was someone of the philosophy of, take the tough stand if you need to.”

“You want women on the paper? He needed to do it, and then he did it,” she said. “He was very conscientious about the paper. If you had a deadline, you met the deadline.”

Another history-making move by Holbrooke was his initiative to bring Malcolm X to speak on campus. At the height of his fame, Malcolm X brought an air of controversy to campus, Litty said.

“Dick arranged it, and The Brown Daily Herald and some other organization invited him to speak. Brown was quite unhappy about it because this guy was controversial and also a little scary in the sense that he always traveled with all of these bodyguards,” Litty said.

Litty said she remembered the packed room and the excitement that spread around campus. “It was all quite tense and exciting. It was a major event on campus at that point and Dick organized it.”


‘Deadly serious and seriously playful’

Underneath the hard work and dedication to the paper, Holbrooke’s friends knew his lighter and gentler side, too.

“Dick was an odd but thoroughly engaging mixture of deadly serious and seriously playful,” wrote Larry Chase ’62 in an email to The Herald.

A former Herald editorial chairman, Chase spent a summer sharing a Greenwich Village apartment in New York with Holbrooke. Holbrooke was a “copy boy” at the New York Times, while Chase had a job with the New York Telephone Company.

Within a month of his employment, Holbrooke managed to have a piece published in the Times. It was an editorial piece on graffiti, and even though Holbrooke did not receive a byline, “it was a three-to-five paragraph piece that he was proud to get published,” Litty said.

According to Chase, Holbrooke’s appetite for news was unquenchable. Working the night shift at the Times, Holbrooke would come home to the apartment each morning with copies of the Times, in addition to all of the other New York papers, and read every one, Chase wrote.

Holbrooke’s appetite extended beyond news. Chase wrote that it was a summer of eating hot dogs for dinner, with Chase buying packages of eight. While he would eat two hot dogs, “Dick would eat the other six at a single sitting.”

It was this playful side that extended to nights working on The Herald. “He — and the rest of the BDHers — enjoyed poking fun at the administration in the paper, finding ways to work around Pembroke’s nightly curfew, etc.,” Chase wrote.

“Once I found him in the BDH office tightly wrapping a BDH colleague in a long strip of that spooled yellow wire-service paper that used to spit out (Associated Press) and (United Press International) reports,” Chase wrote. “The victim needed help to escape.”

‘The beginnings of it all’

Through the lighter college years, Litty said that there were clear signs of the man Holbrooke would become.

“Obviously we were very different people then, and he was a very different person then,” she said. “He wasn’t at the prime of his career, but you could see the beginnings of it all.”

“After Bosnia and Milosevic, he became much tougher, and he wasn’t that way at Brown or in the earlier years,” she added.

Though Holbrooke and his friends would joke about his ambitions to be a star journalist or Secretary of State, for Chase it was clear that Dick was on a unique path.

“I suspect not one of us was ever the least bit surprised to read about him in the papers over the years,” he wrote.

When he died, the United States mourned the loss of a national champion who defended diplomacy abroad. But for those who knew him at Brown, he was something a bit more human than the larger-than-life image that developed.

“I felt there was a hole in my heart,” Ebin said. “He had a relationship with a lot of people close to him who felt an enormous loss.”

In reading Holbrooke’s piece in The Herald supplement about his time at the summit, one can sense the young man’s intense excitement at observing a piece of history.

“The summit was over. We all knew we had witnessed a terrible turning-point in the Cold War,” Holbrooke wrote.

There he was, standing with a crowd of seasoned journalists, a young man present at the breakdown of diplomacy. Little did he know, he would end up being one of diplomacy’s most prominent champions.