Oral History Interview with
US Congressman, Fifth District of Missouri, 1949-1983.
October 21, 1988 and April 20, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened June, 1990
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Oral History Interview with
October 21, 1988
Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: I'm going to begin Mr. Bolling by asking you where and when you were born, and what your parents' names were.
BOLLING: I was born in New York City, on the l7th of May l9l6. My mother was Florence Easton Bolling; my father was Richard Walker Bolling.
JOHNSON: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
BOLLING: I had one brother, John. He died young; I can't give his exact age, but he was in his thirties. He was seven years younger than I.
JOHNSON: How long did you live in New York City?
BOLLING: My father was the chief surgeon of a great New York hospital, St. Lukes, and he died in his forties. I hated
New York and I talked my mother into going back to one of the places that we visited regularly, his home, or his birthplace, Huntsville, Alabama. She herself was from Wisconsin. We had had a circle, when my father was alive, of going to Huntsville some, to LaCrosse, Wisconsin some, spending some time in Long Island, and spending some time in New York. I hated New York. I loved Long Island, but I hated New York, so I talked my mother--and this was a very bad thing to have done I'm afraid--I talked my mother into moving back to Huntsville. So I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, having lived in New York until I was l3 or l4.
JOHNSON: So your education did start in New York City.
BOLLING: That's correct.
JOHNSON: One of the public schools?
BOLLING: No, I did not go to school until I was about l0 or 11, and then I went to a private school, Allan Stevenson.
JOHNSON: You're getting educated at home, by your parents?
BOLLING: By my mother, who was quite a remarkable person. It would be a long story about my mother, but I won't tell it, unless you ask much later on. My mother was educated
at Vassar, and a leader of virtually everything at Vassar; she was an intellectual, a friend of [Justice Louis] Brandeis as a young woman. She was of that quality. She was very opinionated, a rationalist if there ever was one. She, and the books that were available, educated me. The story that I've always heard is that I was frail, and I spent an awful lot of time at home because of that, and I did an incredible amount of reading. I read, I think you could say, practically everything that would be in an upper income family, from English literature of the l9th century.
I had a grandmother who was a Francophile, who saw to it that I had plenty of French books. My mother knew and maintained her knowledge of at least three and perhaps four languages: English being one, along with German and French. In her widowhood she never remarried; she learned all the rest of the Romance languages, and one or two other languages, just on her own. So I was dealing with--I guess with any prejudice that I would have, I would be accurate in this one to say--a superior intellect and a superior intellectual.
JOHNSON: A prodigy.
BOLLING: She missed New York, and occupied her time as a widow
in Huntsville, Alabama, by taking over the Board chairmanship of the little hospital where you went to die, and turning it into a tri-county hospital--and so on, and so on.
JOHNSON: Is it correct to say that your father was of an aristocratic southern background?
BOLLING: Well, it was as close as you could get to a political, aristocratic background.
JOHNSON: Is it true that you are a distant cousin of Edith Bolling Wilson?
BOLLING: That's right. I visited her and there's a funny story about that. But my great-great something or other was called Charles William Walker. He presided over the Constitutional Convention of Alabama, and he was the first Senator of Alabama. I don't know much else about him. One of my role models was my great uncle who lived across the street in Huntsville. He lived on what you would call "snob hill," McClung Hill, a very conservative area, but my mother was not a conservative.
He was a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals judge, and a monumental person in a variety of ways. I don't have much idea or a notion of his politics, and I don't really
remember exactly when he died, but we had enough contact so I remember him as a person that I admired a great deal. Later on, I had the interesting experience of talking about him, at least somewhat, to a man who had become more than an acquaintance, and less than a close friend, Justice [Hugo] Black. I had figured out finally that my great uncle had to be a political person.
JOHNSON: What was his name?
BOLLING: His name was Richard Wilde Walker, obviously my grandmother's brother. Black and I had sort of a casual conversation about him, during which he grinned a lot, so obviously I was hitting the right notes. But I always had a consciousness of this, and I was influenced not only by the old boy, but by the consciousness of having come from such a background.
More interesting perhaps, or just as interesting, and I have not looked any of this up--I never was very interested in it except that it gave me a certain kind of feel--the Bollings came from Virginia and some Bollings were involved with people like Thomas Jefferson. Now that might turn out to be a myth. One of the things that I think was a myth was that we were in some way related to people who had been involved with Pocahontas; that was a
big myth, that the Bollings were involved with that. Inevitably, you had a strong feeling of country, of being a part of the country. My reaction to it was always sort of negative; that it didn't do a hell of a lot of good to have ancestors like that, but what mattered was what you did yourself.
JOHNSON: Was that an idea that just came to you from your reading, or where did you get that impression that regardless of having an elitist-type background, that you still had to do it on your own?
BOLLING: I don't know where I got it; I suspect I got it from my mother. My mother always claimed to be apolitical, but she was intensely political. And I think she was probably something very close to a LaFollette progressive, although we never had a discussion on politics as such.
JOHNSON: On your father's side, were there veterans of the Confederate Army, or the Confederacy?
BOLLING: Oh, yes, my grandfather was supposed to have died as the result of being in some Federal prison. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. I know I had a disagreeable, charming grandmother on that side. I got to know her; but she was the kind of person who, when my
father died, would send a telegram to my mother, asking "would the check continue"--that kind of thing. She was a southern belle of less than great quality. But then I had an equally remarkable, compared to the judge, maybe more remarkable grandfather on my mother's side, who I knew quite well.
JOHNSON: What was his name?
BOLLING: His last name was Easton; Frederick, I think he was called, but I never called him anything but "grandfather." I guess my grandmother called him Fred; I think that's right. They weren't an old aristocratic family; he was a second generation of a family that was extraordinarily rich. They were the rich people of LaCrosse, and there was a funny ending to that. In the Depression they went broke. This is a very complicated story--you could write a novel about it--fascinating, complicated, and true. I knew quite a lot about this myself. But anyway my grandfather had been chairman of the school board in LaCrosse, Wisconsin for years and years, and had been very influential in the quality of the schools. He didn't go broke, but the trust that he was the beneficiary of went broke because my grandmother didn't handle it very well. That's being nice about it. When he went broke, they
wanted to keep him involved, so they shifted him. He needed a job, although he was in his 60s. They kept him, really not as the chairman of the board because he was an employee, but they put him in charge of all of the facilities. He never had had an actual job in his life; he was an inventor, and he invented a number of things. I'm told--I never checked it out--that if he had kept the invention in his own hands, he would have gotten rid on it. It was some pumps that were exceptionally complicated. So I had an extraordinary background.
JOHNSON: Yes, both North and South.
BOLLING: My mother being most extraordinary. I then went on to Phillips-Exeter and was a disaster. I didn't like it, and I didn't like being away from the place in Long Island. I had--let's say--four, five, or six bad years.
JOHNSON: Was that when you were living in New York City that they sent you to Exeter?
BOLLING: I started from there. I didn't do a bit of good at Exeter, and I'm not particularly interested in even worrying about it, because I decided a long time ago that there wasn't any point in my going to a psychiatrist unless I was going to spend a lot of time. And no matter
how screwed up I was, it worked, so I wasn't going to mess with it. But in any event, I had a bad time, and I went to a little place called Sewanee, University of the South, Tennessee. I went there and you could say that I was a good football bum, and chased girls and didn't do much of anything. I got a bad injury; the injury was bad enough so that I was immobilized for four months, and I got back to the books. Then I started to be an intellectual.
JOHNSON: A fateful injury.
BOLLING: I started to be an intellectual again, because that's essentially what I was at l3, with mother. I started back, and I had a couple of jobs that were in the teaching field.
JOHNSON: You did get good grades there?
BOLLING: No, I didn't get good grades until my last year. When I got to my last year, when I had that bum leg and couldn't get around, I had much more...
JOHNSON: No longer the playboy in other