Bradlee died at home of natural causes, The Post reported.
With full backing from his publisher, Katharine Graham, Bradlee led The Post into the first rank of American newspapers, courting controversy and giving it standing as a thorn in the side of Washington officials.
When government officials called to complain, Bradlee acted as a buffer between them and his staff. "Just get it right," he would tell his reporters. Most of the time they did, but there were mistakes, one so big that the paper had to return a Pulitzer Prize.
Bradlee - "this last of the lion-king newspaper editors," as Phil Bronstein, a former editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, described him - could be classy or profane, an energetic figure with a boxer's nose who almost invariably dressed in a white-collared, bold-striped Turnbull & Asser shirt, the sleeves rolled up.
When not prowling the newsroom like a restless coach, encouraging his handpicked reporters and editors, he sat behind a glass office wall that afforded him a view of them and they a view of him.
"We would follow this man over any hill, into any battle, no matter what lay ahead," his successor, Leonard Downie Jr., once said.
His rise at The Post was swift. A former Newsweek reporter, as well as neighbor and friend of John F. Kennedy's, Bradlee rejoined the paper as deputy managing editor in 1965 (he worked there for a few years as a reporter early in his career). Within three months he was named managing editor, the second in command; within three years he was executive editor.
The Post as he had found it was a sleepy competitor to The Evening Star and The Washington Daily News, and he began invigorating it. He transformed the "women's" section into Style, a brash and gossipy overview of Washington mores. He started building up the staff, determined "that a Washington Post reporter would be the best in town on every beat," as he wrote in a 1995 memoir, "A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures." He added, "We had a long way to go."
How long became painfully clear to him in June 1971, when The Post was scooped by The New York Times on the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of United States involvement in Vietnam.
After The Times printed excerpts for three days, a federal court enjoined it from publishing any more, arguing that publication would irreparably harm the nation. The Post, meanwhile, had obtained its own copy of the papers and prepared to publish.
But The Post was on the verge of a $35 million stock offering, and publishing could have scuttled the deal. At the same time, Bradlee was under pressure from reporters threatening to quit if he caved in. It was up to Graham to choose. She decided to publish.
Cementing a Reputation
The government tried to enjoin The Post from publishing, as it had The Times, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of both papers. More than anything else, Bradlee recalled, the publication of the Pentagon Papers "forged forever between the Grahams and the newsroom a sense of confidence within The Post, a sense of mission."
Watergate consolidated The Post's reputation as a crusading newspaper. A break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972 - the White House soon characterized it as a "third-rate burglary" - caught the attention of two young reporters on the metropolitan staff, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Soon they were working the phones, wearing out shoe leather and putting two and two together.
With the help of others on the staff and the support of Bradlee and his editors - and Graham - they uncovered a political scandal involving secret funds, espionage, sabotage, dirty tricks and illegal wiretapping. Along the way they withstood repeated denials by the White House, threats from the attorney general (who ended up in prison) and the uncomfortable feeling of being alone on the story of the century.
When the trail of crimes and shenanigans led directly to the White House, Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974. The tapes that he himself had made of conversations in the Oval Office confirmed what The Post had been reporting. Graham wrote to Bradlee in her Christmas letter that year, "We were only saved from extinction by someone mad enough not only to tape himself but to tape himself talking about how to conceal it."
All the President's Men
Bradlee's Post and Woodward and Bernstein, as the two became known, captured the popular imagination. Their exploits seemed straight out of a Hollywood movie: two young reporters boldly taking on the White House in dogged pursuit of the truth, their spines steeled by a courageous editor.
The story, of course, became the basis of a best-seller, "All the President's Men," by Woodward and Bernstein, and the book did become, in 1976, a Hollywood box-office hit. Jason Robards Jr. played Bradlee and won an Oscar for his performance.
In their book, describing meetings in Bradlee's office, Woodward and Bernstein recalled how Bradlee would pick up an undersize sponge-rubber basketball and toss it at a small hoop attached to a window.
"The gesture was indicative both of the editor's short attention span and of a studied informality," they wrote. "There was an alluring combination of aristocrat and commoner about Bradlee."
They observed that double-edged manner in Washington society, sometimes seeing it displayed in one swoop, as when Bradlee would "grind his cigarettes out in a demitasse cup during a formal dinner party."
"Bradlee," they added, "was one of the few persons who could pull that kind of thing off and leave the hostess saying how charming he was."
After Watergate, journalism schools filled up with would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, and the business of journalism changed, taking on an even tougher hide of skepticism than the one that formed during the Vietnam War.
"No matter how many spin doctors were provided by no matter how many sides of how many arguments," Bradlee wrote, "from Watergate on, I started looking for the truth after hearing the official version of a truth."
Bradlee had been consumed by Watergate, spending most of his waking hours at The Post, when he started receiving what he called anonymous "mash notes." His second marriage, to the former Antoinette Pinchot, was cooling, and the flirtation intrigued him. In 1973, Sally Quinn, an irreverent Style reporter, let him know that she was his secret admirer.
After Bradlee's divorce, a third marriage was a questionable proposition. He said he once told a reporter that he would marry Quinn when the Catholic Church elected a Polish pope. On Oct. 16, 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland became pope; four days later, the couple were married.
Survivors include his wife and, The Post reported, their son, Quinn Bradlee; three children from his previous marriages, Benjamin C. Bradlee Jr., Dominic Bradlee and Marina Murdock; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. Antoinette Pinchot Bradlee died in November 2011.
The Post's Watergate coverage won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for public service. It was one of 18 Pulitzers that The Post received during Bradlee's tenure. (It had won only a handful before then.) The total would have been 19 if The Post had not been compelled to return one awarded to a young reporter, Janet Cooke, for an article, titled "Jimmy's World," about an 8-year-old drug addict whose heroin supplier was his mother's live-in lover. Only after she was given the prize was it discovered that she had fabricated the story - and lied about her credentials when she was hired.
Bradlee offered to resign over the affair but received the same support from Graham's son Donald, who had become the publisher, as he had received from Graham during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate crises.
By the time of the Janet Cooke episode, Bradlee had weathered strikes by members of the Newspaper Guild, many of them his friends, and the pressmen, who had vandalized the pressroom. During those strikes he served as a reporter, mailroom clerk and general lifter of spirits.
He had also endured libel suits and government efforts - unsuccessful ones - to stop The Post from publishing articles on the ground of national security. In one case even his own friends pressured him, to no avail, to a kill a story.
The article, appearing on the cover of the Style section on Sept. 19, 1986, had to do with the discovery that the diplomat W. Averell Harriman had not, in fact, been buried at the time of his funeral, on July 29 - and that his final resting place would not, as had been widely reported, be next to that of his second wife, Marie, on the Harriman estate, north of New York City. Rather, The Post revealed, on the instructions of Pamela Harriman, Harriman's third wife and widow, his remains had been placed in a crypt while a permanent lakeside burial site was being prepared three miles away.
"The passage of time," Bradlee wrote, "has done nothing to dim my enthusiasm for this story. No one should be able to perpetrate a fraud on the public and escape the modest consequences."
Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee was born in Boston on Aug. 26, 1921, the second son of Frederick Josiah Bradlee Jr. and Josephine de Gersdorff Bradlee. In a family that moved from 211 Beacon St. to 295 Beacon St. to 267 Beacon St. and finally to 280 Beacon St., his boyhood, as he wrote, was "not adventuresome."
With his brother, Freddy, and a sister, Constance, he learned French, took piano lessons and went to the symphony and the opera. He was at St. Mark's School when he was stricken with polio during an epidemic. But his self-confidence was undiminished: He exercised rigorously at home, and when he returned to school the next fall he had noticeably strong arms and chest and could walk without limping.
Continuing a family tradition that dated to 1795, he attended Harvard, where he joined the Naval ROTC. As a sophomore he was one of 268 young Harvard men, including John F. Kennedy, chosen, as "well adjusted," to participate in the now celebrated Grant longitudinal study, which tracked their lives over the years.
On Aug. 8, 1942, Bradlee graduated ("by the skin of his teeth," he wrote of himself) as a Greek-English major, was commissioned an ensign and married Jean Saltonstall - all in all, a busy day.
A month later, Bradlee shipped out to the Pacific on the destroyer Philip and saw combat for two years. During the last year of World War II he helped other destroyers run shipboard information centers.
After the war, Bradlee and a group of friends started The New Hampshire Sunday News, a weekly. For a time he thought "very, very, very seriously" about entering politics, he said in 1960. When the paper was sold, he snagged his first job at The Washington Post, in 1948.
One Saturday, as he took a tour of the White House, a delegation of French officials was visiting President Harry S. Truman and no translator could be found. Bradlee filled in.
In 1951 he was offered the job of press attaché in Paris and left for France with his wife and his young son, Benjamin Jr. From the embassy job he moved on to Newsweek in 1954, as European correspondent based in Paris.
His work was thriving, but his marriage was falling apart and finally disintegrated when he met Antoinette Pinchot Pittman, known as Tony. They were married in 1957. A year later, Bradlee took up his post as the low man in Newsweek's Washington bureau.
He also took up residence on N Street in Georgetown, in a house next door to Kennedy, then a young senator from Massachusetts. Thus began a rewarding and sometimes uneasy friendship. (The two had not been close at Harvard.)
Bradlee fell under pressure to separate what information he learned as a Kennedy intimate from what he could use as a reporter. But his inside track on the Kennedy campaign for the White House in 1960 elevated him from rookie status at Newsweek. He later said Kennedy had been aware that he was keeping notes of their encounters, which Bradlee published in 1975 in the not-always-flattering book "Conversations With Kennedy."
As journalism changed and private lives became fair game, Bradlee had to answer criticism that he never reported on what he later conceded was Kennedy's proclivity to jump "casually from bed to bed with a wide variety of women." But he insisted in his memoir that he knew nothing of Kennedy's sex life at the time, adding, "I am appalled by the details that have emerged."
Concerned about rumors that Newsweek was going to be sold, Bradlee, in a moment of brashness, decided late one night to call Philip Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, with an urgent message: Buy Newsweek.
"It was the best telephone call I ever made - the luckiest, most productive, most exciting," he later wrote.
Graham saw Bradlee that night, and they talked until dawn. On March 9, 1961, The Post acquired Newsweek, and Bradlee, soon to become the magazine's Washington bureau chief, was rewarded with enough Post stock, as a finder's fee, to live as a wealthy man.
Bradlee continued his friendship with Kennedy and the Kennedy clan. When the president was assassinated in 1963, Bradlee was among the friends invited to receive the first lady in Washington. "There is no more haunting sight in all the history I've observed," he wrote in his memoir, "than Jackie Kennedy, walking slowly, unsteadily into those hospital rooms, her pink suit stained with her husband's blood."
Months before Kennedy's death, Philip Graham committed suicide, leaving his widow, Katharine, in charge of the family business. Two years later she was still finding her way at a newspaper that had been suffering losses of $1 million a year when she proposed that Bradlee join The Post as a deputy managing editor. The two formed a lasting bond.
Their relationship came under scrutiny in a 2012 biography by Jeff Himmelman, a journalist and former research assistant to Woodward. (Himmelman had helped Quinn Bradlee write "A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures," a 2009 memoir about his coping with velo-cardio-facial syndrome, a genetic disorder.)
The book, "Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee," though praised in reviews, was denounced by many Bradlee associates, including Woodward, as a betrayal. The book suggests that Bradlee had questioned Woodward and Bernstein's reporting during Watergate. And through letters and interviews it reveals intimate details of Bradlee's family life, including an assertion by Bradlee that he and Graham, who died in 2001, had had a mutual romantic interest that was never acted on.
Bradlee remained with the paper for 26 years, stepping down in 1991 at age 70. Named vice president at large, he had an office at The Post and became what he called "a stop on the tour" for new reporters.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, in 2013.
In his memoir he confessed to having no overarching prescriptions for the practice of journalism. He wrote that he knew of nothing more sophisticated than the motto of one of his grade-school teachers: "Our best today; better tomorrow."
"Put out the best, most honest newspaper you can today," he said, "and put out a better one the next day."