Trading Gossip for Gunfire, Columnist James Brady Writes a Powerful Korean War Memoir

updated 10/01/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1990 01:00AM

Journalist James Brady is interviewing TV talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford at La Cote Basque, one of Manhattan's better restaurants. Brady samples the wine, recommends the fish and devotes most of his attention to the saucisson chaud. He does not write down a single note.

"Not necessary," he confides to a third diner who is with them. "I have a steel-trap mind. Besides, I only need three sound bites for my column."

Kathie Lee tells Brady that she considers "God a gentleman," and Brady says, "That's one." She mentions that she refuses to cut her nails to improve her golf game. "Two," says Brady between bites of hot sausage. Finally, she scoffs at reports that her husband, Frank, still a rugged athlete 26 years after retiring from football, has had cosmetic surgery. He had some fat removed from his eyelids so that it would be easier to insert his contact lenses, she says, clearing up the record. "Three."

The next day, Brady admits to his other luncheon partner that when he finally began jotting some notes for his column in Parade magazine, sound bite No. 2 eluded him. And could the spectator recall No. 3? The steel-trap mind of James Brady is not always fully engaged these days. At least not on the wisps of celebrity revelations. At 62, the man who once put celebrity gossip and gabble into the pages of Women's Wear Daily, the National Star and the New York Post and wrote a book (Superchic) about the elliptical world of fame and fashion, has momentarily turned away from the fluff that has made him famous.

It is almost four decades since Brady was a Marine lieutenant in Korea serving under Capt. John Chafee (now Rhode Island's junior Senator), but those far-off battles of his youth are the subject of his newest book, The Coldest War. The memoir, published in June, has gone into its second printing, has drawn good reviews and has been praised by combat veterans.

The Middle East dominates the news these days, and for many Korea has all but slipped from memory. For Brady, however, it remains "the most pivotal event of my life." He was 23 then, but "we were young boys, really," he says. "When we came out of the shelters and from under the helmets, when we bathed and combed our hair, we looked like babies."

Still, Brady has no trouble remembering—often in riveting detail—the shock of sudden death and common heroism, as well as the mundane facts of everyday life.

"Water was always short," he writes. "We melted snow in canteen cups over Coleman stoves.... Leftover coffee, just an ounce or two in the bottom of a cup, did for shaving. I was lucky, with a barely noticeable beard.... We never washed."

The book not only limns some hidden corners of combat, it also illuminates a side of Brady that few have seen. Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Brady got his early moral schooling from his Catholic mother, Marguerite, now 96, and his education from the Jesuits who taught him about literature, philosophy—and discipline. "I was taught to say 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' before I ever joined the service," he says. His brother, Thomas, 56, eventually became a priest (and is now chaplain of the New York City Fire Department). His late father, James, a freight solicitor in the shipping industry, was all charm, and his mother was all business. When they split up, says Brady, "I was 9, and that was the worst thing that happened to me."

While attending Manhattan College, where he was an English major, Brady joined the Marine Reserve "in order to avoid the draft." Returning from Korea in 1952, he landed a job in New York City as a Macy's copywriter but soon hired on with Fairchild Publications, and in 1956 transferred to Washington, D.C., where he began covering Capitol Hill. He moved to London as a bureau chief, then to Paris where he learned his fashion lessons trailing couturiers like Coco Chanel.

For a time in the '60s and '70s, Brady seemed destined to climb the management ladder: He became publisher and editorial director of Women's Wear Daily, publisher and editor of Harper's Bazaar and editor of Rupert Murdoch's National Star. But notoriously stubborn, he couldn't avoid the feuds and squabbles that went with ambition and seven years ago stopped going to an office and began writing full-time.

Now Brady does a weekly potpourri of news and opinion for Advertising Age, a celebrity column for Parade and a column for Crain's New York Business, and has written five novels. Although his marriage to Florence Kelly Brady, a woman he married in 1958, fell apart gradually over the years (she now lives in Manhattan), it has been "a perfect life," he says contentedly.

Brady keeps a bare bachelor's apartment on Manhattan's East Side, but it is his Dutch Colonial house with its rough, unpolished decor in Long Island's well-heeled Hamptons that he considers home. He shares quarters there with daughters Fiona, 29, and Susan, 28, who are both in publishing, writing and editing. His Marine officer's hat is hung on the living room wall, occupying a spot higher and more prominent than the awards for his writing, editing or publishing pursuits. "It was a worthwhile war," says Brady, who has been an active advocate for a Korean soldiers' memorial in Washington. "We held the line."

For a long time, says Brady, he had tried to write about Korea as fiction, but it wouldn't work. "The truth is often eloquent," Brady says with a shrug. It is often more lasting as well.

Late in the book Brady recalls the summer he returned from the war and was notified by the Marine Corps that his foot-locker was waiting for him at Grand Central Terminal: "It was stored in the depot's cellar, down there where they held freight and kept lost luggage and such.... There, along with the lost baggage and my footlocker, were the coffins from Korea, stacked and tidy, each with its American flag neatly lashed on."

With memories like that, perhaps it's no wonder that mere celebrity sound bites sometimes float away these days.

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