Pell biography launched

PROVIDENCE, RI – It's been in book stores for a few weeks but Sunday marked the official launch of "An Uncommon Man," the authorized biography of the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell. Pell, who died in 2009 at the age of 90, was Rhode Island's longest serving senator. He was elected with President John F. Kennedy in 1960 and served until 1997. Longtime chief of staff Tom Hughes says Pell talked about writing an autobiography but never got around to it.

"He, like me, was one of those people who always thought writing a book was daunting, particularly about him. We talked to a number of people over the years who would have helped him with it but it just never happened."

Providence Journal scribe G. Wayne Miller has filled the void with his new book, "An Uncommon Man." The cover photo shows why the title was picked. It depicts the late Senator jogging in shorts and a double breasted suit jacket, an incongruous sight familiar to Washingtonians and his neighbors in Newport. Miller says the publisher, University Press of New England, chose the picture.

"It captured the essence of the man. If you look at the top part of what he's wearing he has a suit jacket on and he looks distinguished like a U.S. Senator. And then you look below that and you see jogging shorts and jogging shoes and it's like what? How do these two parts go together? So it captured the quirkiness and a degree of the authority."

The book chronicles the life of a man who was born into one of America's oldest and wealthiest families yet was beloved by the most ordinary Rhode Islanders. Miller says he was deeply influenced by his father, Herbert Pell, an ambassador and one term congressman.

"I think his father really saw in Claiborne some of the promise that he, himself - Herbert - had not realized. And he took an inordinate care in his child, writing constant letters. And that was a great asset to me. These people wrote letters endlessly and this, of course, was before email."

Miller says it was Claiborne Pell's love of his father that propelled the his interest in the paranormal.

"It had been reported several times, actually, that he was interested in the paranormal and the afterlife but what I found out was what was motivating that was an attempt by Claiborne Pell to communicate with his father who had died at that point."

Pell's widow, Nuala Pell, is still reading the book but calls it "absolutely wonderful."

"Some things I might have changed but I do think he captured it," she said.

The senator's grandson, Coast Guard Lt. Herbert Claiborne Pell, agrees.

"It really gets to Grandpa's polite way of dealing with people and his respect and his commitment to dealing with all kinds of people regardless of people getting angry and frustrated," said the younger Pell, adding "it's really just an example to me, personally."

Retired Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst says he enjoyed the insight the book gives into the Pell family.

"There's a richness of detail there that you seldom see in a biography. It just goes to show you that as much as you think you know about these politicians who come across our television screen or you hear on the radio there's a lot you don't know about them."

Author G. Wayne Miller says if there's one thought he'd like the reader to take away with it is this:

"That Claiborne Pell was one of the most fascinating people you would ever meet. He was complex intellectually. He was very different and yet very much a man of the person. He was a distinctive character; one of the few American originals certainly that I have written about."

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