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On Monday evening, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger celebrated his 90th birthday with an exclusive party held at the St. Regis Hotel. Guests included Oscar de la Renta, Bill and Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State John Kerry and several former secretaries of state.
To mark the occasion, WWD took a look back in its archives at some of the most notable of its many interviews with the famed diplomat. Here, in full, a memorable interview titled “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Now,” from Sept. 8, 1971, written by a HotPants-wearing WWD staffer, Kandy Stroud, as well as photos of Kissinger culled from the paper’s coverage over the years.
SAN CLEMENTE, CALIF. — Henry Kissinger, sex symbol of the Nixon Administration, steps out of his office onto a sun-drenched San Clemente terrace with a cup of black coffee and sits in a white deck chair with his legs crossed.
The man who has pressured Moscow, drafted State of the World addresses, advised the President to enter Cambodia and paved the road to Red China appears as something of an anachronism in his baggy, midnight blue cotton trousers, black-tie shoes, bright blue unfitted blazer, blue and white striped shirt and striped tie.
“What are you trying to do? Seduce me?” Henry will tease as he notices his visitor’s HotPants. “You know I like these HotPants very much.” Then he’ll light your cigaret, touching your hand as all Continentals do, offer you a cup of coffee and discuss trivia as readily as he would a Sino-Soviet entente.
The impeccably tidy image is perfect for dealing with Alexei Kosygin or Chou En-lai, or lecturing at Harvard, but one cannot help wonder if the movie stars mind that the ankle socks of Washington’s greatest swinger are falling down, that his wiry chestnut hair, which flashes golden in the intense white sunlight, is too close-cropped to run their fingers through or that at least 10 of his 178 pounds protrude over his thin black belt, somehow shortening his 5 feet 9 inches.
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But suddenly an electric twinkle will flash through the intense blue of his eyes and one catches an inkling of that movie star magnetism … that special quality which causes some people to call him “Cuddly Kissinger.”
Henry is always friendly, particularly with women. Whether on the telephone, at parties or in person, this man who commands more of the President’s attention than almost any other living person, is gentle, boyish, even a bit insecure. And he pays rapt attention to every question as though he had nothing in the world more pressing to consider. Columnist Mary McGrory attests to that.
“Henry is a superb listener, which I think is the secret of his power with the President. He pays total attention. He not only waits until you finish speaking, he gives you time for afterthought and revision.”
When it is Henry’s time to answer, he speaks slowly in deep, mellow Wagnerian tones, carefully weighing words and revising them himself. He is a man to whom semantics are vitally important.
He talks about his job, his hours, his relationship with the President. Foreign policy adviser was not a job Henry sought or expected, he says. After all, he had counseled two Democratic presidents — Johnson and Kennedy — and had a veritable fleet of Democratic friends. Strangely, it was Nelson Rockefeller who suggested Henry take the post.
Henry had been an associate of Rockefeller and was lunching with him in his 54th Street apartment one late November noon in 1968 when Dwight Chapin, the President’s assistant, called and said, “The President-elect would like to see you in his office in Washington on Monday.” Henry thought Mr. Nixon just wanted to discuss foreign policy. “I had no idea he was going to offer me a job.”
And when the offer was made, Henry did not jump at it. “I told him I’d have to think about it.” But Rockefeller persuaded Henry. “He said, ‘Never talk to me again,’ if I didn’t accept. He thought it was my public duty.” Henry dutifully accepted and ever since he’s been working round the clock from the minute he reaches the White House at 7:45 a.m. to the time he leaves (“Never before 8:30 p.m.”).
Two Germans who live next door testify to that dawn departure, but also comment on Henry’s aloofness. “We say, ‘Guten Morgen, Herr Kissinger,’ every morning when we walk our poodle, but he never replies.” Henry says simply, “I’m probably preoccupied.”
And he has every reason to be. He has lived Vietnam every step of the way, masterminded the Cambodian invasion, prepared Mr. Nixon’s State of the World address and paved the way to Communist China. He negotiates with ambassadors, heads of state and visiting dignitaries, wages the President’s war with the Cabinet and fends off the bureaucracy.
Henry probably spends more time than anyone in Washington with the President. He is in the Chief Executive’s office every morning, and sometimes as often as four or five times a day. He dines with him once a week. On trips abroad, he is with the President constantly. Attorney General John Mitchell once told WWD Kissinger sees everything that goes to the President, including reports from the CIA and FBI.
Although Henry denies he sees anything “except those things that concern foreign policy,” he admits he screens whatever messages or reports come from “lower level” department types. Whatever Henry considers irrelevant never reaches the President. “I see everything first to insure there is one central place for followup so the President doesn’t have so many balls to juggle.”
Sources also say Henry monitors his phone calls with the President — but Henry denies that too. “I simply keep a log of my schedule, of whom I talk to and what I talked to them about so I can refer back should problems arise.”
He describes the President as “detached, precise, analytical and easy to work for,” and says “when it comes to foreign policy, he never shows impatience.”
Henry scuttles away from the subject of Vietnam except to assert that he does not believe war has “a positive side. It is, at best, the lesser of two evils.” And he generalizes about China. “I was very moved and impressed by my experience. I look forward to returning so I can see the countryside and meet some of the ordinary people.” He will not discuss his background as he does with friends who sit next to him at dinner parties either. But those friends tell you that Henry’s past was not easy. Henry was not always the swinging single he is today.
He was born May 27, 1923, into a Jewish middle class family in Furth, just outside Nuremberg, and from 1930-38 during the Nazi occupation, Henry was a social outcast. He was kicked out of his school by the Nazis, forced to attend an all-Jewish school, and was often beaten up along the way. He was forbidden to use the public swimming pools or to mingle with other German youths. Eleven members of his family died by Nazi hands.
By the time Henry escaped to the United States with his parents he had become a withdrawn, suspicious young man. At George Washington High School on New York’s Upper West Side, he avoided his classmates. Henry would cross to the other side of the street when he saw a group of his peers approaching.
“He was totally withdrawn,” says Fritz Kraemer, director of a military government school for officers of the 84th Division of the U.S. Army, which Henry entered as a private in 1943. (It was Kraemer who discovered Henry’s extraordinary mind and advised him to continue his education. Henry’s greatest desire in life until then had been to become an accountant.)
In 1949, Kissinger married Ann Fleischer, who also had come to this country from Germany. The marriage lasted until 1964, when they were divorced.
When Henry went to Harvard his intellectual enlightenment began, but the social awakening did not. “He was a total introvert,” says a classmate, “brilliant but shy. It’s hard to understand his popularity now.”
Henry avoids that topic, but when it comes to discussing his life as “Playboy of the Western Wing,” he lights up. It is a subject that has great appeal to him. As someone who has known him for 15 years says, “Henry likes to believe that although he’s a serious Germanic scholar, he’s really a frivolous playboy, that he’s Metternich, the Papillion, light, gay and 18th Century.”
In fact if you ask Henry how he likes being called “Washington’s greatest swinger,” he replies unabashedly, “That’s no compliment. That’s faint praise.” Tease him about the bells in Jill St. John’s alarm system going off recently when Henry and Jill walked out to her pool and he’ll say, “What did you expect? ... I was teaching her chess.” Or ask him if he likes Washington’s social merry-go-round and he answers, “You haven’t exactly seen me avoiding it have you?”