ally Quinn, the well-known Washington journalist, has published a new memoir called Finding Magic. Even for those of us who have followed her nearly 50-year career with unflagging interest, it is full of news.
Ingeniously, Quinn has outfitted the book with a literary device guaranteed to discourage bad reviews. Her fellow scribblers can only kick themselves for not thinking of it first. Quinn begins with a loving portrait of her childhood in Georgia, where the family servants schooled her in voodoo. Her mother was already initiated. When the local vet misdiagnosed the family dachshund, Quinn tells us, Mom lost her temper and cried, “I hope you drop dead!”
“And,” she writes laconically, “he did.”
In the next chapter we learn that 10-year-old Sally came under the care of a doctor who upset her mother. Mom fed him the same line she gave the vet, and “he died shortly thereafter.”
Well, life goes on—not for the vet and the doctor, of course, but for Sally. She grew up and moved to Washington and dated a yummy reporter. Once he flirted with another woman. “I won’t say exactly what I did—even now it would be bad luck for me,” she writes. “I worked on the hex for several days.” The woman killed herself. In his reading chair, the reviewer stirs uneasily.
Next we read about Clay Felker, the editor of New York magazine, who commissioned a scurrilous profile of Quinn. She put a hex on him. Suddenly the magazine was sold and Felker was fired and publicly humiliated. “Clay never recovered professionally,” she tells us. “Worse, he got cancer, which ultimately led to his death.”
Here the reviewer pauses to reflect. That’s four hexes and four corpses, two undertaken by Sally when she got extremely upset. And bad reviews can be extremely upsetting to an author. By the time the reviewer reads about the fortune teller—she foretold an unhappy future for Quinn’s son and, after Sally worked her mojo, died of a cerebral hemorrhage—why, the glowing review practically writes itself.
Sally Quinn has been writing books and articles for more than 40 years, yet her prose retains a childlike, disarming artlessness that makes Finding Magic and its serial revelations all the more arresting. She buys a house, she switches jobs, she kills someone with a hex…the tone never changes. “During my college years I had occasional psychic moments,” is how she begins one chapter, as if daring you to stop reading. Another chapter begins: “I love the Tarot.” She talks to ghosts. On her first visit to the Middle East, she faces her own personal Arab–Israeli conflict: She is torn, she tells us, between sleeping with the Israeli defense minister and “the Palestinian leader, an incredible hunk wearing traditional robes.” (She decides to stay faithful to her beau back home.) She reads minds and thinks you can, too: “It is just a matter of time before we don’t have to speak to one another anymore.” She has sex frequently and ardently. It’s all here.
She calls her book a spiritual memoir, though “spiritual” is a word—“faith,” “magic,” and “religion” are others—that she never stops to define. Given her central place in the upper reaches of Washington’s ruling class over the last half-century, we are entitled to read the book as a generational document—an Apologia Pro Vita Sua for the Baby Boomer Georgetown set. One reviewer called her “the quintessential Washingtonian,” and so she is. Sally Quinn is one of the channels through which the revolution of the 1960s entered Washington and remade the city and American politics.
Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post hired her in 1969 to cover parties for the Style section. Her main qualification wasn’t her journalistic skill—she had none—but her connections to Washington’s high society. (Her father was a prominent Army general.) Back then, society reporters were deferential matrons who acted less as reporters than protectors; they might know the town’s salacious secrets but would never think of printing them. Quinn liberated herself from such scruples. She revolutionized the society beat. The journalist became part activist, part tattletale.
“I covered parties the way someone on the ‘Metro’ section covers crimes,” she once said. She had a reputation for being sexy and stylish, qualities she put to good use in an aristocracy dominated by a handful of self-designated wise men, semi-retired diplomats, and aging, ponderous columnists. Her interviewing technique resembled a Heimlich maneuver; it was to Sally that Henry Kissinger confessed to being a “secret swinger” and lived to regret it. Story by story, snicker by snicker, Sally and her peers dismantled the postwar Washington establishment. The establishment was too tired to put up much of a fight.
Like her fellow revolutionaries, Quinn was at first mistaken for an anti-elitist, striking a blow against the hypocrisy and pretension of the old order. She was nothing of the sort. She just favored a different kind of elite—one whose ranks were filled with people like her. By the time the Watergate scandal had laid waste to the capital, the city’s aristocracy had been remade by journalists for journalists, along with the politicians that journalists found appealing. John Kerry, Gary Hart, and Ted Kennedy were early favorites.
Soon enough, as in all revolutions, the vanguard became the bodyguard, and Quinn was top cop, policing the neighborhood and telling the bums to move along now. Early in the Carter presidency, a well-heeled but harmless couple from Georgia called the Bagleys bought a mansion in Georgetown and started throwing parties. These parties were unauthorized, and Quinn wrote an explosive piece in the Post destroying their reputations. The Bagleys left town. (They snuck back in later.) A young hayseed from Pocatello, Idaho, moved to Washington and started inviting big shots like Kissinger to his parties. Sometimes they came, and the situation was getting out of hand! Sally gathered anonymous quotes insulting the young man as a poseur. She strung them into a feature story and got it on the front page of Style. So long, hayseed. “It was like finding the cure for cancer,” she said later.
Quinn’s ruling class is aging now, but it survives, clinging to power, and it’s against this twilight backdrop that her spiritual memoir achieves a kind of poignancy. The elite of Quinn’s generation was the first in American history to turn wholesale from organized religion. “If any of them were religious,” she writes of her peers, “I certainly never knew about it. There was one thing that mattered: the story. Get the story; get it first and get it right. That was their religion. The First Amendment was their religion.” Nice—no getting up early on the Sabbath.
Quinn is proof of the observation attributed to G.K. Chesterton: When a person ceases to believe in God, the danger isn’t that he will believe in nothing, but that he’ll believe in anything. In addition to her hexes and ghosts, her Tarot and telepathy, Sally believes in Ouija boards, palm reading, astrology, fortune telling, Hindu gods, telekinesis, witchcraft, and pretty much anything else that crosses her line of sight. Anything, that is, but God, biblically understood. “In the end I have my own religion,” she writes. “I made it up.” So this is where we are, 50 years after the elites dropped conventional religion in pursuit of…something they could make up.
Self-invented religions will always be more appealing than God. They make no particular demands on the believer, moral ones most importantly. It’s a handy omission. “I am,” she assures us, “a good and compassionate person, ethical and moral, embedded in core values, someone who cares about others.” Meanwhile, her memoir produces plenty of hard evidence to the contrary. There’s that dead fortune teller, for one thing. For another: Her account, utterly remorseless, of how she systematically set about seducing Bradlee away from his wife and children is as harrowing as the hexes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Sally knows I’m not passing judgment on her. You do know that, don’t you, Sally? Right, Sal? Sal?