Friday, October 30, 2009

Love story

Among my other accomplishments during my two days at the FDR Presidential Library was bringing to life the story of how Claiborne met Nuala and then they married, all back in 1944, when Pell was recuperating in Newport from a case of undulant fever he contracted while serving in the Coast Guard in Italy. I knew the broad strokes, of course, from Nuala and Pell himself -- but the details, spelled out in letter exchanges with Pell's father, Herbert -- are now clear.
Here is a page from the Sept. 26, 1944, letter from Pell to his father in which he professes (for the first time to Herbert) his love for the young Nuala O'Donnell.
Pell writes:
Now comes a slight cough of introduction. Ha-rumph!!
I am really very much in love and expect to marry Nuala O'Donnell. I have been very sure myself but didn't say anything before since I didn't want to get you excited in case it didn't work out.

It did work out: They married in New York that December.
Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library...

Comes this wonderful shot of the 14-year-old Claiborne Pell and his young half-brother, Hugo Koehler, in London in the summer of 1933. Pell and Koehler were with their mother, the former Matilda (Bigelow) Pell -- and this photo, according to Pell's notes, was taken with Matilda's new Leica camera.
This was but one of many gems I found today as I research the papers of Claiborne's father, Herbert, whose Hopewell Junction estate, Pellbridge, is not far from the library. FDR was an old friend of Herbert. I'll be back at the library first thing tomorrow for more...
Image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


In his personal appointment book for September 1960, Pell marked the 28th, date of the primary election, as "Pelection Day." He was right -- he was the runaway winner of a three-way Democratic primary. He would never lose another election. And, yes, the primary that year was on a Wednesday.
Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Rhode Island Library.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The young Claiborne Pell had a bit of an artist's eye. He liked to draw boats, a portend perhaps of his ocean- and sea-related legislation -- and also airplanes. Here's a drawing of a monoplane, when Pell was about 12, which would have been mot too long after the excitement of Lindbergh's transatlantic crossing in an aircraft that looked something like this...
Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Rhode Island Library.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Press releases

As the September 1960 Democratic primary neared, with first-time-for-anything-candidate Pell a supposed underdog in a three-way race with two better-known candidates, Claiborne sent out a flurry of press releases. Here's one of them -- his personally-edited copy and the final version that resulted.
Images courtesy of Special Collections, University of Rhode Island Library.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Trinity Church

Claiborne Pell's funeral was in Newport's historic Trinity Church -- and so was that of his father, Herbert, in July 1961. A plaque is being erected in Claiborne's honor, just as his father was honored with the plaque pictured here, which I photographed yesterday on a visit to the church and a private guided tour by the church's Tom Erb. The father-son relationship is a critical one in my biography, and it's a them i will strike from the opening chapter.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The story of his life... at age 13

With the expert guidance of University of Rhode Island Library archivist Mark Dionne, who has been a tremendous resource, I pored through a box of old materials yesterday that included more letters, drawings photos and more from Claiborne Pell's childhood. This was a great find, as I thought we had already gone through everything that was on file. Here is an autobiography that Claiborne write in the early 1930s. It's not dated, but an educated guess based on the materials around it is that he was 13 at the time.
And check out the young Pell's letter he submitted to the editor of the New York Times endorsing FDR, a friend of Pell's father, Herbert. Pell was 15 years old when he wrote it on March 5, 1934. A nice try, I figured -- but lo and behold, a search of the Times online archives revealed that it was published on May 10 of that year. Politics was in his blood...
Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Rhode Island Library.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An eccentric stepmother

Yesterday found me in Newport, interviewing Janet Pell, Claiborne's daughter-in-law, and Nuala again. Nuala shared stories of Claiborne's stepmother, the eccentric but gifted artist Olive Bigelow Pell, a distant cousing of Claiborne's ...mother, Matilda Pell. Olive painted a wedding portrait of Nuala and Claiborne, pictured here in the background in a Connie Grosch photo that illustrated my 2005 Projo story about the Pells, "A Remarkable Life."

Friday, October 9, 2009

John Lewis

John Lewis, now in his 90s, was Pell's first campaign manager -- helped steer him to victory in 1960 against huge odds. I interview John this morning, and here is a picture of the Pell watch that he still wears.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

JFK and Pell

Claiborne Pell's friendship with John F. Kennedy (and Jackie)began years before JFK became president. Here's a letter from Kennedy to Pell thanking him for Pell's support in his 1958 Senate reelection campaign.
Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Rhode Island Library.