In a newly published memoir, Sally Quinn, the famous journalist who married iconic Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and became a D.C. society matron, then a religion columnist, reveals a lief-long obsession with mysticism and the occult. Ouija boards, pentagrams, witchcraft, charms, spells, seances, messages from the dead (like Ben), voodoo, the whole thing: Quinn writes that she has had an “epiphany” revealing that “believing in magic is as legitimate as any religion or faith.”
I’ll buy that. I wouldn’t say that the next step is an application to Hogwarts, however.
So these are the people who presume to tell Americans what to think, eh? Good to know.
But I digress. In a recent Washingtonian Magazine profile contrived to puff the release of “Finding Magic,” Bradlee’s widow says that she not only believes in hexes, she’s used them. And they work!
She reveals that, in her less mellow days, she put hexes on three people who promptly wound up having their lives ruined, or ended.
The first, cast in 1969, was spurred by old-fashioned jealousy. Some exotic beauty at a Halloween party inspired lust in Quinn’s beau at the time—and then killed herself just days after Sally cast her spell.
Her second victim was Clay Felker, the longtime editor of New York magazine who oversaw a brutal profile of Quinn in 1973, just before her catastrophic debut on the CBS Morning News. Quinn hexed Felker not long after flaming out at CBS and returning to Washington. “Some time afterward, Rupert Murdoch bought New York magazine in a hostile takeover, and Felker was out,” she writes. “Clay never recovered professionally. Worse, he got cancer, which ultimately caused his death.”
Target number three: a shady psychic who, the autumn after Quinn Bradlee was born, ran afoul of Sally’s maternal instincts. The woman dropped dead before year’s end.
This raises a classic ethics question that I nearly posed today as an Ethics Quiz. I didn’t, because I know the answer and have no doubts about it. (If it’s an ethics quiz, I at least have doubts.) The question would have been:
Ethically rather than legally, is there any difference between Sally Quinn and a murderer?
The answer is no.
I’d say that the first two victims make her the ethical equivalent of someone who is guilty of manslaughter, and the last one, after her first two hexes led to her targets’ deaths, was, again ethically rather than legally, premeditated murder.
Sally says that after the psychic dropped dead, she swore off her Death Hex. That’s admirable. The fact remains, however, the while believing an instrumentality would lead to harm when employed against specific individuals, she employed it, got her desired results, and believed that she was the cause of their subsequent deaths. She also doesn’t express any remorse or regret.
Quinn is nuttier than a fruitcake, of course, but ethically it doesn’t matter. Legally, the fact that there is no nexus between her belief, her actions, her intent and the three deaths make her as innocent as Dreyfus. Ethically, they make her worse than a murderer at heart. She didn’t just wish that her foes were dead, she took what she thought was affirmative action to kill them. She might not have shot them if a loaded gun were handy, but that just evinces squeamishness and a taste for less violent methods. Certainly by the third victim, Sally Quinn believed that her hexes were as effective a gun. That her magically contrived attacks didn’t work is just moral luck.
Her account provides plenty of evidence for me to conclude that Quinn, in addition to being bats, is a frighteningly cruel, arrogant and unethical person, and conceivably dangerous.
This odd episode reminds me of two things. One is a Sixties Jack Lemmon comedy, “How to Murder Your Wife.” Handling his own defense in a murder trial where his missing wife was the alleged victim, Lemon spins a hypothetical about a magic button by which one could, simply by pushing it, instantly make whoever you wanted disappear forever. Nobody would ever know, and the disappearance would never be traced to you. In the movie, every single one of the jurors make it clear that they would push such a button. Watching the movie on TV with me, my Dad said that he did not believe everyone would push that button, because “everyone isn’t a murderer at heart.”
But Sally would push that button. in fact, Sally thinks she did. Three times!
The other memory Sally’s confession revived was of a criminal law exam question, based on an old hypothetical. A man is alone in vast desert, and two of his sworn enemies are stalking him. He is unaware of them, and they are unaware of each other. At night, when the man is asleep, one of his foes poisons the water in his canteens. Later that night, the other foe pours all of the water into the sand. The man dies of thirst.
The question was, who is guilty of what crimes, and why?
The most interesting debate is over the second would-be killer. He saved the man from death by poisoning by pouring out the deadly water. Although the man died of thirst, he was already doomed once his canteens had been poisoned: the actions of the second foe were not responsible for his death.
Both men are guilty of attempted murder. They differ from Sally Quinn because their attempted methods really could have killed their victim, and her method could not. Ethically, however, they are indistinguishable from her.
One more thing: Sally says that her kind, intellectual, progressive friends have been urging her to kill Donald Trump in her trademark way. “You can’t imagine the number of people who have asked me to put a hex on Donald Trump—I mean, I have got friends lined up,” she told the interviewer. “This is my biggest restraint now.”
Think about that.