Sunday, July 31, 2011

Meeting Ambassador Bohlen, 1973

Excerpt from Chapter 11.2
Washington Training, 1973-1974

Meeting Ambassador Bohlen.
Shortly after I entered the Foreign Service, I met one of its most illustrious members, Ambassador Charles E. “Chip” Bohlen. Ambassador Bohlen had served with George Kennan in Moscow, and had acted as an interpreter at Yalta, among other things. He succeeded Kennan as Ambassador in Moscow in 1954, and served as Ambassador to France during the Kennedy Administration, after which he retired. The Bohlens lived in Georgetown, and their son Chip was a St. Albans classmate of my college roommate, Kit Briggs. Briggsy and I were invited over to the Bohlen townhouse in late 1973, and I took along a copy of Ambassador Bohlen’s memoirs, “Witness to History,” which he autographed for me. I remember very little of the actual dinner itself, except that the conversation was erudite, and that nearly every inch of wall space seemed to be stuffed with books. In that respect, it was a memorable beginning to my Foreign Service career, and was one of the factors that inspired me to try for a Moscow assignment early on.

I started to read Ambassador Bohlen’s memoirs, but between one thing and another, I never managed to get all the way through them. Briggsy’s mother, Jenskie, who had already noted that I virtually worshipped the ground Ambassador Bohlen walked on, brought me down to earth with her tart evaluation of his abilities as an author. “Chip never could write,” she concluded. I honestly thought the book was better than that. Despite the fact that I never did finish “Witness to History,” I did wind up reading another book in which Ambassador Bohlen figured prominently, this time as a junior officer in Moscow: it was “Bears in the Caviar,” a humorous account of life as Ambassador Bullitt’s staff aide at Spaso House, written by Mrs. Bohlen’s brother and Chip Bohlen’s colleague, Charles Thayer. It was one of the funniest books I have ever read.

In time, I met all of the Bohlen children. Son Chip went on to work in a hedge fund which suffered mightily during the bust of 2000. Celestine worked for the Washington Post, and was one of their correspondents in Moscow during my first tour there. Avis was in the Foreign Service, and went on to become an Assistant Secretary and Ambassador to Bulgaria before retiring. After the 1973 dinner at his town house, I never saw Ambassador Bohlen again. He passed away at the age of 70 in December of 1974, four months after I had completed language training and was already on my first tour in Belgrade. I would have liked to have known him better.

End of Excerpt.

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