Monday, January 5

ON THE OTHER HAND: THE MAN BEHIND CLAIBORNE PELL

Del Marbrook - When John E. Mulligan of The Providence Journal, William H. Honan of The New York Times and the late J.Y. Smith of The Washington Post wrote Senator Claiborne Pell's obituary they omitted an important facet of Rhode Island and national history, namely that an idealist of humble working class origins almost single-handedly made the aristocratic and often aloof Claiborne Pell palatable to the state's hoi poloi.

Very few savvy observers thought in 1961 when Senator Pell entered the political arena that he could defeat Dennis J. Roberts in the Democratic primary. Roberts was well known and firmly entrenched. Pell would need know-how and backroom information he simply didn't have. With considerable acumen he turned improbably to Raymond Nels Nelson, then the Warwick bureau manager of The Providence Journal's state staff. He could have turned to reporters with higher profiles, although they probably wouldn't have risked joining him. His choice of Ray Nelson was in many ways inspired, and it's not a stretch to say he probably owed his career to it.

There were a number of newsmen in the state who knew its politics as well as Ray, if not better, but none were as popular or gregarious. Ray's parents were Swedish immigrants. Ray himself never attended college. The towering, affable Nelson started at The Journal as a typist after his honorable discharge from the Navy. As a reporter he had a reputation for knowing more about Warwick and the state's Florentine politics than any man could reasonably be expected to know. He was ebullient, the sort of man to whom people from all walks of life clamored to confide things. It was hard to imagine this warmhearted giant without a telephone on his shoulder. Ray's canniness helped to make the patrician Pell understandable to Rhode Island's diverse and hectic electorate.

Ray understood the working class's attitude towards The Journal, which was key to getting Pell elected. He understood that The Journal was trusted and disliked at the same time. He steered the Newport and Westchester aristo through the Legion and VFW and union halls. He saw that the French-speaking Pell would have an advantage over opponents in the Blackstone Valley where many voters spoke French. His good humor and myriad contacts broke the ice for Pell. But few of Ray's colleagues advised him to quit his secure job and risk his future and his family's on a political unknown who seemed uncomfortable in the rough-and-tumble environment of Rhode Island's often corrupt politics.

There was about Claiborne Pell an innocence, an honesty and idealism that powerfully appealed to Ray Nelson, and against most advice he threw his lot in with the remote unknown. When Pell was elected Ray went to Washington as his administrative assistant. He knew Claiborne Pell would be a one-termer if he didn't quickly grasp how to tend his political fences back home, how to serve his constituents, how to steer clear of the usual imbroglios in a state known for its political infighting and Machiavellian politicians. He conceived of his job as keeping the senator electable and popular, but Claiborne Pell was soon pursuing his scholarly inclinations in Washington and the more secure Ray Nelson made his political base the greater the distance intellectually between the two men became.

When Ray openly declared himself a gay man, Pell, an active supporter of gay rights, relegated him to a lesser job in a windowless basement office of the Senate Rules Committee. It was a crushing blow to Ray Nelson, but he bore it with dignity and humor, as was his wont. He told me that the senator had indicated that his invaluable aide did not have the breadth of knowledge, particularly in foreign affairs, required of an AA serving a senator who was so vitally interested in world affairs and education. My response was that none of those lofty interests would do the senator much good without someone watching the home fires. Ray nodded ruefully. But by that time the senator's seat had become a sinecure.

Rhode Islanders had come to love and admire his eccentricities and integrity. The senator's death, the death of an inarguably noble man in most respects, should not be observed without mentioning that a working class idealist risked everything to get him elected and to keep him in office. It's a quintessentially American story, rich in human interest and somehow reassuring. And yet the press has succeeded in writing Ray Nelson out of the senator's history for no apparent reason other than that it was an inconvenient truth, a source of a bit of discomfort among all the encomiums.

That The Providence Journal should have omitted mention of Ray Nelson is passing strange. The cause could not have been a loss of institutional memory, however reduced in estate The Journal, like so many other papers, now finds itself, because its own library is undoubtedly full of stories mentioning Ray Nelson in connection with Claiborne Pell. This is revisionism by omission, and it's deplorable that readers should not be told of a humble man's idealism simply because the events in his life made some people a bit squeamish.

Raymond Nels Nelson, a former typist renowned for his speed on the teletypes newspapers used to use, was bludgeoned to death on June 1, 1981, by a typewriter in his apartment at 701 Quincy Street, NE, in Washington. The case is still open and there is a $25,000 reward for information. Ray was 59-years-old. I was one of his friends and colleagues who spoke at his funeral. After the service Senator Pell and I embraced and he asked me what he should have done. It was characteristic of him. He too was a humble man, however high his origins. I told him the simple truth, I didn't know.

Ray Nelson is remembered by a handful of remaining Journal colleagues as the man to call when you needed help, the man who was there when you were down, the man who always had time to listen to you, even if he did have two other people on the line.

21 Comments:

At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Del - Ray recruited me to work for the Senator in Washington DC in 1967. He was an amazing character. My cohorts and I - all 19 and 20 year olds, tasting freedom from RI parents for the first time - were called "weekend hippies" by Ray. He felt that he had to be our parent in absentia, and warned us time and again about the dangers of such behavior.

He did always have three people on hold on the telephone. As a receptionist in the senator's office for a while, I clearly remember Ray yelling from his little back office "get me Del Marbrook." Your piece about him is magnificent. Had it not been for Ray I would never have left RI for Washington DC and had the adventures I did. Now, a quite mature woman, no longer a weekend hippie, and recently moved back to RI, I am so happy to be reminded of the man who was for some reason never mentioned at the time of the good senator's death. Thanks for reminding us.

 
At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Marbrook,

Thank you for the opportunity to read this excellent and flawlessly written piece about the man behind The Man.

Regarding the 1960 upset primary win of the underdog Claiborne Pell over the more popular Dennis Roberts, your tribute was indeed illuminating; more so by reading between the lines as by reading the lines themselves.

You describe the patrician, blue blooded Pell as "a political unknown who seemed uncomfortable in the rough-and-tumble environment of Rhode Island's often corrupt politics."; a politician who would need to grasp "....how to steer clear of the usual imbroglios in a state known for its political infighting and Machiavellian politicians." and Mr. Nelson as: "...a reporter he had a reputation for knowing more about Warwick and the state's Florentine politics than any man could reasonably be expected to know."

Corruption. Elections. Machiavellian Politicians. 'Murder by Typewriter.' Themes worthy of a crime novel by Dixon Hawke.

Surely Mr. Nelson, well entrenched himself in the 'imbroglios' and other goings on in the capitol city not far from Warwick, also knew that the headquarters of the New England Mafia was located on Federal Hill in Providence. Though I can't, as the previous poster, claim the formidable memory of a name heard 42 years ago, 50 years ago the name of Raymond Patriarca was well known in R.I. circles and Mr. Nelson may have had, at least, a passing acquaintance with the legendary head of that crime syndicate, one who also controlled the labor unions.

Is there more to this lore? One can't help but view a faint and ghostly pentimento; the image of the underbelly of the business of politics emerging beneath the painting being sold.

 
At 10:19 AM, Blogger Del & Marilyn said...

Yes, it is the stuff of crime novels. In fact, the famous crime writer George Higgins worked for The Providence Journal and, I'm sure,knew Ray Nelson. Raymond L.S. Patriarca was a ubiquitous figure back when Ray worked as a newspaperman. There were stories about him all the time, and The Journal was dogged in its coverage of this man's dark empire. I'm sure that there's much more than has ever emerged to Ray's death, and, like most of his friends, I'm inclined to think the pressures against solving the case were greater than the pressures for solving it. Policemen are like reporters in that their bosses do not always give them the time or resources to do the job. The will to solve such a case must flow down from the top.—Del Marbrook

 
At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Marbrook,

Since Mr. Higgins is no longer with us, tackling a decades old 'Who-Done-It-And-Why' sounds like the launch pad for a young and ambitious writer (or perhaps the swan song for a multi-dimensional, multi-talented veteran, already possessing a hefty tome).

Any ideas on what happened or the where and why of such pressures?

Respectfully,

A fellow bibliophile

 
At 6:58 PM, Blogger Del & Marilyn said...

Dear Bibliophile, perhaps as a result of our exchange the right writer will come along. The press at the time didn't pursue the story the way a later press corps would pursue the Chandra Levy story. I haven't the heart to do it, nor am I qualified. Ray's death was and is just too upsetting to me. But I found it curious, disturbing really, that he should have been written out of Senator Pell's history. After all, all the nwspapers that prepared their own obituaries had Ray's story in their archives. I can't, as a journalist, under any circumstances rationalize this omission.—DM

 
At 8:39 AM, Anonymous Penelope said...

Dear Mr. Marbrook,
Thank you for having the heart to write these words. You would not know me, but I would be in pictures taken at Ray’s memorial service in Rhode Island. Your story brings an old sorrow to the surface and a renewed determination to gather the pulled threads and weave each strand of this ‘inconvenient truth’ back into the fabric of history. My rage and grief over the injustices and abuses that surround this man behind that man abound. I was young and naïve when I overheard my long gone grandfather in the next room express, only months after Ray’s passing, “Is anyone talking about what REALLY happened to Ray?” I would do anything to resurrect my grandfather along with his brain bytes. But patience is a bitter cup that only the strong can drink, and these pulled threads can be traced one by one back to their cropped roots. Mr. Marbrook, please, you are in a position to grandly contribute by gathering spools and delivering them back to the angels of judgment.

With great compassion and sadness,
Penelope

 
At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Marbrook,

I hope that you will respond to Penelope’s impassioned plea.

Can one assume that you found (as a friend, not as a journalist), even more disturbing than the expunction of Mr. Nelson’s story from the Senator’s history, was that his killer, or killers, got away with murder and justice was never served?

Interesting, your comparison to Chandra Levy’s case, which brought down a political career. Could Mr. Nelson’s murder, had it been pursued with integrity, done the same? If so, one can fully rationalize the omission; one could suspect that Mr. Nelson’s activities while alive, along with his unfortunate demise, may have pointed to some, shall we say, unfortunate events in the history of the esteemed Senator.

When those attending a seemingly high profile case are encouraged to stand down and not pursue a solution, that encouragement must come from somewhere further above the police department’s chain of command. (And, one must also assume that those with the keenest interest in finding the killer of a loved one is the family of the deceased, and, therefore, that family must also be handled and managed.)

Finally, my condolences; how sad, and distressing, the impact on you by the murder of such a close friend and former mentor. How did you, then, cope with such a shocking loss, and how do you, now, with the lack of closure?

With kindest regards,

An interested reader

 
At 12:24 PM, Blogger Del & Marilyn said...

Dear Interested Reader,
At a time when we are losing an engaged and courageous press piece by piece every day, I suppose it isn't surprising that The Providence Journal, Ray's old newspaper, The New York Times and The Washington Post should have expunged Ray from Senator Pell's story. But by doing so they have contributed to an ongoing wrong.

Do I think that finding Ray's killer(s) would have embarrassed people in high places? One can hardly refrain from such a thought. It's an obvious suspicion. Do I think the District of Columbia police succumbed to political pressure? Who can say? But the police obviously failed at their job, and are still failing, since murder cases always remain open. So it begs the further question of whether this failure is to this day sustained and encouraged by interests outside the police department.

As for the impact on me—I can't speak for Ray's kin and his many friends—it felt like an ambush, and still does. He had been poorly rewarded for his idealism, hard work and loyalty, and now this squalid failure to bring his killer(s) to justice renews the ambush every day of our lives.

Thanks for writing. I'm moved and reassured to think others care so much.—DM

 
At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Penelope said...

"After the service Senator Pell and I embraced and he asked me what he should have done. It was characteristic of him. He too was a humble man, however high his origins. I told him the simple truth, I don't know."

With all due respect Mr. Marbrook, doesn't this implicate Pell? These are the kinds of things that are uttered in the wake of a suicide not a random murder. And your answer to him, leads me to wonder how much you already knew and/or suspected. Why are you fanning the flames if you have no intention of taking this any further? What are your motives in stirring the pot regarding such a highly sensitive event in a family's history? Are you posing as an inncocent for the innocent or for the guilty?

I really wish you had chosen not to answer my post with silence. It has chilled me to the bone.

 
At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Del,

I hope that my letter following will share the unusual calligraphy that appears in others on this page.

I’ve been made aware of these recent blogs and sites about my father and notice you seem to be at the helm. I still have a copy of your beautiful eulogy that included your ‘Shaggy Dog’ story about your first encounter with my father, delivered at his funeral, along with your letters.

I can’t speak for all of my family, but I think it’s safe to say that the killing of a family member shatters the lives of those left behind in ways that can never, ever, be mended. Our lives were broken. As, it appears, were the lives of others greatly impacted, as beautifully articulated, yet ignored by you, by Penelope. (Penelope, I regret that I wasn't in Rhode Island for the memorial because I would have loved to meet you.)

About the investigation, or lack thereof. The integrity of evidence was compromised when Senate staff was allowed to go in and remove papers before sealing both the crime scene and his office. The police never asked to interview those of us who were with my father the night before his murder. The main suspect was allowed to disappear, after an inconclusive polygraph, and then again a year later, when he made threatening midnight calls to my mother and was, the next morning, arrested for assault. He disappeared not once, but twice. I could go on with this list, but the point is that the police never conducted an ambitious or thorough investigation.

About possible ‘embarrassment’ to people in higher places, had his killer(s) been brought to justice; as you know, my father visited many dark corners while he was alive, both before and after arriving in Washington and, as you pointed out in your eloquent testimonial, people tended to confide in him. You wrote elsewhere:

“Ray Nelson was the sort of human being people needed to talk to. When they saw him on the street or at some public gathering they felt a compulsion to tell him things. His presence cheered people up. There was so much dynamism in his persona that people crowded around him to share it, the way people draw close to a fire. They knew he was a reporter, but somehow it felt to them like depositing money in a Swiss bank to give him information. I always thought that nobody was ever sorry to see Ray coming along, except perhaps someone we had just roasted. That’s quite a phenomenon. Usually you’re careful about what you tell reporters, because you know where it may end up. But Ray somehow rewarded people for telling him things. They felt as if they had gotten something off their minds. They felt lighter, unburdened.”

You also wrote: “He loved people. He loved them unabashedly, even when they were scoundrels and crooks, perhaps especially when they were scoundrels and crooks.”

I think it’s safe to say that he knew a lot about people from all walks of life (including those ‘scoundrels and crooks’) and probably much of what he knew, or could know, and could, or threatened to reveal, made him a potentially great liability. Didn’t it strike you as just a little bit odd, the murder weapon published in the newspaper as a typewriter? Was that, in fact, a message to those who might talk, or write?

My family was ‘managed’ after the crime. I remember one night, early on, being very upset and expressing frustration about the lack of progress, when my father’s friend and fellow Senate staff member suddenly appeared and assured me that the police were doing everything possible to solve the case. Perhaps he was afraid I’d call the press? But most significantly, we were handled by one wearing the cloak of an old family friend, but who, in reality, was a manipulative and lascivious predator, and encouraged my brother, who was then actively pushing the police for answers, to leave the area and who then, after he was gone, shamelessly pursued me as his sexual conquest. As a seasoned newspaper man, and a strong and vocal proponent of women, I imagine you must have encountered this type of person, and would condemn his exploitation of a grieving family.

As you pointed out, an unsolved murder case remains open forever. My father was killed in 1981, well before the crack cocaine epidemic and the resulting spike in crime and homicide that devastated the District of Columbia in the mid 1980’s. When recently asked about this high profile investigation of 1981,the cold case detective in charge of my father’s case called it ‘faulty police work.’ The detective also hinted that the evidence file might be missing. He did, however, highly promote a series of TV productions to feature my father’s case and, I’m told, you were contacted by the free-lance producer. Did you know that she recently quit the production out of anger and frustration with the lack of cooperation from the detective? She made numerous attempts to interview him, at a place and time of his choosing, but he was never available. As she pointed out, without police cooperation, there’s no film, just as, without evidence, there’s no case.

Lastly, I join with Penelope, in her plea. With the dialogue opened here, by you, please go a few steps beyond your somewhat vague insinuations and venture into more concrete, and thereby, more courageous opinions about what happened 28 years ago and of why justice was never served on behalf of your old, loyal, and idealistic friend. Surely, you have some suspicions to share?

Sincerely,

R. Rae Nelson

P.S.There may be light at the end of the myopic tunnel. A couple of months ago, the detective told me that ‘Cold Case Playing Cards’ will soon be the only playing cards available at D.C. jail, and my father’s case will be among them. Considering the decades that have elapsed, I hope the text is in large print, for the convenience of those incarcerated in the geriatric ward.

 
At 6:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Silence speaks volumes.

 
At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dad, For God's sake answer these people, especially Rae. The request for what you might know is a fair one. There had to be a reason you abandoned all of us shortly after Ray's death. The timing of your estrangements would naturally lead one back at your door for answers. As you say, Ray was a friend, enough of one that you made him my Godfather, and the children of both families grew up together. Yet, when you were the only male figure left for answers to our past, this is when you choose to 'disconnect' from the children?

As Penelope so eloquently requested, as her grandfather did, "Is anyone talking about what Really happened to Ray?" Please if you have answers, leads or even thoughts, this is the time to share. Again I plead, if not for me, please for Ray's children.

Your eldest daughter.

 
At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Penelope said...

Her wings have stroked the darkest cloud, born of a storm at sea ... adrift and forgotten she rode the currents of air as the lesser of two terrors, letting fall an ivory feather into the thrashing waves before the wind broke her bones. More precious than a pearl is this wee shaft in my palm, a testimony that there was as I had known all along, once a feather and once a bird.

 
At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous Penelope said...

Her wings have stroked the darkest cloud, born of a storm at sea ... adrift and forgotten she rode the currents of air as the lesser of two terrors, letting fall an ivory feather into the thrashing waves before the wind broke her bones. More precious than a pearl is this wee shaft in my palm, a testimony that there was as I had known all along, once a feather and once a bird.

 
At 10:05 AM, Anonymous warwick man said...

This is extremely fascinating and has led to much internet research on my part. I hope that all of you will continue to "gather spools and deliver them back to the angels of judgement".

Mr Marbrook, thank you for bringing to light the real stories behind our respected Senators.

 
At 9:49 PM, Anonymous warwick man said...

Mr. Marbrook: I went to your link provided here, to see you were thankfully alive and apparently well. I have awaited your enlightment on the subject here and felt for sure, you would answer your daughter at least.

Could it be you are in danger? Do you need help? I certainly don't know the people you do, but am connected enough here in Rhode Island to get a safety wheel started. Very often when investigating truths, we put ourselves in danger, let us know whether this has happened yet again!

Wishes of wellness and safety to you and yours.

 
At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I can be so bold to ask, did the author of my father's tributes also add his page to Wikipedia? I ask this, because, much as I adored my father (I remember, as a child, trying to keep up with him as he strode down the hallowed halls of The Senate, or the below-ground passageway that housed the trolley for ferrying staff between the Senates and the House, and greeted everyone, always stopping to chat with the barber and the shoes shiner), he was far from an ‘excellent’ father, and all was not well in the lovely house on Carnaby Street in Bethesda.

I confess that I’ve regarded my father’s life, death, and the actions of those close to him during the aftermath of his death, as that of a high drama almost worthy of Shakespeare. Now, mythology in the personage of Penelope has added her voice, along with (back to The Bard), Cordelia and the even the Earl of Warwick.

And the ghost of the murdered still noisily wanders the halls echoing the outrage of a soul not at peace with his killers and his betrayers.

If what I write is hyperbole (as well as difficult to read, due to this mysterious calligraphy), so be it. But the author of this tribute remains strangely silent. Why is this? Ray, deeply flawed as he was, never abandoned, as did Lear with Cordelia, or Richard, with Lady Anne. Though always late and impossibly preoccupied, he eventually returned his calls, especially to his friends and his children.

R. Rae Nelson

 
At 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I can be so bold to ask, did the author of my father's tributes also add his page to Wikipedia? I ask this, because, much as I adored my father (I remember, as a child, trying to keep up with him as he strode down the hallowed halls of The Senate, or the below-ground passageway that housed the trolley for ferrying staff between the Senates and the House, and greeted everyone, always stopping to chat with the barber and the shoes shiner), he was far from an ‘excellent’ father, and all was not well in that lovely house on Carnaby Street in Bethesda.

I confess that I’ve regarded my father’s life, death, and the actions of those close to him during the aftermath of his murder, as that of a high drama almost worthy of Shakespeare.
Now, mythology in the personage of Penelope has added her voice, along with (back to The Bard), Cordelia, and the even the Earl of Warwick.

And the ghost of the murdered still noisily wanders the halls echoing the outrage of a soul not at peace with his killers and his betrayers.

If what I write is hyperbole (as well as difficult to read, due to this mysterious calligraphy), so be it. But the author of this tribute remains coldly and strangely silent. Why is this? Ray, deeply flawed as he was, never abandoned, as did Lear with Cordelia, or Richard, with Lady Anne. Though always late and impossibly preoccupied, he eventually returned his calls, especially to his friends and his children.

R. Rae Nelson

 
At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like Penelope's hauntingly beautiful poem, this was posted twice. I'm not sure why.

(Perhaps to be be sure of being heard, after getting no response?)

R.R.N.

 
At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dad, what a disappointment!!! Like Warwick Man, went to your site and saw, all was well. Sorry Rae, it's been like this for years, and I'm sorry also to the others here! Maybe if I hadn't joined in, he would have helped with the mission.

I apologize!!

Del Marbrook's oldest daughter

 
At 10:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How very sad that such a revealing and spectacular story, told by a self proclaimed good reporter, has been ignored because of a few well placed questions.

Even sadder, children are crying out and not being answered. Hopes of a mystery solved; responded to by coldness, with overtures of no sympathy at all.

Such as our world has become, I fear.

 

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