Claiborne Pell

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Claiborne Pell
Claiborne Pell.jpg
United States Senator
from Rhode Island
In office
January 3, 1961 – January 3, 1997
Preceded by Theodore Francis Green
Succeeded by Jack Reed
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
In office
January 3, 1987 – January 3, 1995
Preceded by Richard Lugar
Succeeded by Jesse Helms
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
In office
January 3, 1978 – January 3, 1981
Preceded by Howard Cannon
Succeeded by Charles Mathias
Personal details
Born Claiborne de Borda Pell
November 22, 1918
New York City
Died January 1, 2009(2009-01-01) (aged 90)
Newport, Rhode Island
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Nuala O'Donnell
Children Christopher Pell, Dallas Pell Yates, Julia Pell (deceased), Herbert Pell III (deceased)
Alma mater Princeton University (A.B.), Columbia University (M.A.)
Profession U.S. Senator, diplomat, U.S. Coast Guard officer
Religion Episcopalian
Military service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve
Years of service 1941-45 (active)
1945-78 (reserve)
Rank lieutenant (active)
captain (reserve)
Battles/wars World War II

Claiborne de Borda Pell (November 22, 1918 – January 1, 2009) was a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, serving six terms from 1961 to 1997, and was best known as the sponsor of the Pell Grant, which provides financial aid funding to American college students. A member of the Democratic Party, he was Rhode Island's longest serving senator.

Early years

Claiborne Pell was born on November 22, 1918 in New York City,[1] the son of Matilda Bigelow and diplomat and congressman Herbert Pell. He attended St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island[2] and received an A.B. in history from Princeton University in 1940.[3] While at Princeton, he was a member of Colonial Club and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, and played on the rugby team.[4]

After graduating, Pell worked as an oil field roustabout in Oklahoma.[5] He then served as private secretary for his father, who was United States Ambassador to Portugal. At the start of World War II he was with his father, who was then United States Ambassador to Hungary. Claiborne Pell drove trucks carrying emergency supplies to prisoners of war in Germany, and was detained several times by the Nazi government.[6]

Service in the U.S. Coast Guard

Pell enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard as a seaman second class on August 12, 1941, four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Pell served as a ship's cook, was promoted to seaman first class on October 31, and then was commissioned as an ensign on December 17, 1941.[7] During the war, Pell's ships served as North Atlantic convoy escorts, and also in amphibious warfare during the allied invasion of Sicily and the allied invasion of the Italian mainland.[8]

Pell was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on October 1, 1942, and then to lieutenant in May 1943. Due to his fluency in Italian, Pell was assigned as a civil affairs officer in Sicily where he became ill from drinking unpasteurized milk. He was sent home in the summer of 1944 for recuperation, but returned to active service later in the war. Pell was discharged from active duty on September 5, 1945.[9]

After the end of World War II, he remained in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. He retired from that service in 1978 with the rank of captain.[10]

Foreign service officer

From 1945 to 1952, he served in the United States Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Washington, D.C. He was fluent in French, Italian, and Portuguese.[11]

In 1946 Pell received an M.A. in international relations from Columbia University.[12]

UN Charter-drafting conference

Pell was a participant in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations Charter.[13]


In 1954 Pell was appointed vice president and member of the board of directors of the International Fiscal Corporation. He also served as a vice president and director of the North American Newspaper Alliance.[14] In addition, he was a director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga Association, and General Rochambeau Commission of Rhode Island.[15] He also served as a fundraiser and consultant for the Democratic National Committee.[16]

Pell also served as Vice President of the International Rescue Committee. Stationed in Austria, he was responsible for assisting refugees from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to leave the country and resettle.[17]

During Pell's diplomatic career and other international activities in the 1940s and 1950s, he was arrested and jailed at least six times, including detentions by both fascist and communist governments.[18]

Political career

In 1960, Pell won the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Theodore Francis Green, defeating former Governor Dennis J. Roberts and former Governor and U.S. Senator J. Howard McGrath in the Democratic primary,[19] and former Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Raoul Archambault in the general election.[20]

Despite being called the least electable man in America by John F. Kennedy for his many odd habits and beliefs,[21] Pell proved a durable politician. He won reelection five times, including victories over Ruth M. Briggs (1966), John Chafee (1972), James G. Reynolds (1978), Barbara Leonard (1984), and Claudine Schneider (1990).

Often considered by his opponents to be soft or easygoing, Pell demonstrated his effectiveness as a campaigner.[6] During his first race, when he was accused of carpetbagging, Pell ran newspaper ads featuring a photo of his grand-uncle Duncan Pell, who had served as Lieutenant Governor in the 1860s, thus demonstrating Pell's ties to the state.[6]

In his first campaign, Pell also used his foreign experience to great advantage, impressing ethnic audiences in person and on the radio by campaigning in their native languages.[22]


Pell was known for out of the ordinary beliefs and behaviors, including wearing threadbare suits, using public transportation and purchasing low-end used automobiles despite his wealth, and interest in the paranormal.[23] He also wore his father's belt as a memento, despite the fact that Herbert Pell was stouter than the rail-thin Claiborne Pell, requiring Claiborne Pell to wrap the belt around his waist twice to make it fit.[24]

Arrest allegation

In 'The Washington Pay-Off; An Insider's View of Corruption in Government' (Copyright 1972; Lyle Stuart, Inc.), author and former lobbyist Robert N. Winter-Berger wrote about Senator Pell's alleged arrest during a raid on a New York gay bar in the early 1960s. Pell denied the allegation, and there are no police records, witness statements or other sources to corroborate Winter-Berger. In addition, despite legal advice to sue, Pell opted not to file suit, deciding that it would draw undue publicity to the allegations.[25][26][27]

Pell education grants

Pell was largely responsible for the creation of "Basic Educational Opportunity Grants" in 1973, renamed Pell Grants in 1980, to provide financial aid funds to U.S. college students. Pell Grants initially provided for grants for prisoners but Congress later removed that provision even though no one outside of prison was ever denied a grant because of those given to prisoners. For many years there was more money available than was applied for.[28]

He was the main sponsor of the bill that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities,[29] and was active as an advocate for mass transportation initiatives and domestic legislation facilitating and conforming to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.[30]

Later Senate career

Pell's former campaign manager and close friend Raymond Nels Nelson, an openly gay man, was brutally murdered in Washington D.C in 1981 in a still unsolved murder.[31] Pell spoke eloquently of his former aide on the Senate floor a day after his murder.

He served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1995.[32] In 1990 he was re-elected to his sixth and last term in the Senate when he defeated Republican Congresswoman Claudine Schneider.

In 1993, during the bitter confirmation battle over Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian, as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Pell stated that his daughter was a lesbian, and that he hoped that it would not be a barrier to federal employment for her; Achtenberg became the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.[33]

Pell declined to seek re-election in 1996 and retired on January 3, 1997. Pell served in the Senate for thirty-six continuous years, making him the longest serving Senator in the history of Rhode Island.[34] He was succeeded by Jack Reed.[35]

In retirement Pell lived in Newport and was a communicant of St. Columba's Church in Middletown. He occasionally attended public functions of organizations he was affiliated with.

Published works

Senator Pell authored two books, Megalopolis Unbound: The Supercity and the Transportation of Tomorrow (1966), and A Challenge of the Seven Seas (1966), (co-author).

Death, funeral and burial

In his later years, Pell suffered from Parkinson's disease.[36]

Pell died on January 1, 2009. His funeral was held at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island.[37]

At his funeral, one grandson recalled that his grandfather "jogged in actual business suits that had been reluctantly retired" and "drove a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, which was outfitted with tattered red upholstery, a roof held together with duct tape...when it finally fell apart, he replaced it with a Dodge Spirit, which he had purchased used from Thrifty Rental Cars."

His grandson continued, "When I was about twelve, my father owned an eight foot orange Zodiac, with flaky wooden floorboards and a six horsepower engine. My father would let me take it out on my own... On several occasions my grandfather would volunteer to join me. He would arrive at the dock, sit down on the wooden floorboards, wearing, of course, a full suit. Together we'd knife thru the moored boats and wave at passing boaters. Inevitably someone would recognize him, usually it would be a guy standing about ten feet above us in a sixty-foot SeaRay or a large sailboat, pointing and remarking, "Hey, it's Senator Pell down there. How you doing, Senator?" Grandpa would smile, wave back, happy as a clam in the smallest boat in the harbor, dressed as a gentleman, spending time with his family."[38]

In addition to members of his family, Pell was eulogized by former President Bill Clinton, Senator Edward Kennedy and then Vice-President elect Joseph Biden.[39] He was buried at St. Columba's Episcopal Church (Berkeley Memorial Cemetery) in Middletown, Rhode Island near the graves of his son Herbert and his daughter Julia, who had predeceased him.[40]

Upon his death, the New York Times called Pell "the most formidable politician in Rhode Island history."[41]

Awards and honors

Senator Pell received more than 40 honorary degrees, including recognition from Johnson & Wales University, the University of Vermont and the University of Massachusetts.[42]

In 1987 Pell was among those selected for the United Nations Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour, in the first year that award was established.[43]

In 1988, Pell received the Foreign Language Advocacy Award from the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in recognition of his work in establishing the NEA, the NEH, and the Pell Grant Program.[44]

On October 14, 1994, Pell was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton.[45]

Rhode Island's Newport Bridge was renamed the "Claiborne Pell Bridge"[46] and the Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy was established at Salve Regina University.[47]

Pell was a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.[48] He also received the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown of Italy.[49]

His awards for service in the Coast Guard during the Second World War included the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and the World War Two Victory Medal.[50]

Interest in the paranormal

According to Uri Geller, Pell in the late 1980s took an active interest into Geller's claims of remote viewing. On Geller's personal website he states that he was called by Pell and asked to describe a drawing at which Pell was looking at that moment. When Geller answered "a dagger with an ivory handle", Pell replied that he had gotten it correct and he was now convinced that Geller was genuine. Geller reports that Pell was one of the most "forward-looking" and "open-minded people" he had ever met who was very interested in using psychic powers for peaceful means.[51]

In a 2009 interview, skeptic James Randi discussed his experience with Senator Pell, who had asked him to try to duplicate one of Geller's remote-viewing feats. Randi recounts that the drawing he was supposed to reproduce was inadvertently exposed to his view, and that upon seeing that the two drawings matched, the Senator exclaimed, "I know a trick when I see one and that was not a trick... you have the power!"[52][53]


He was the great-great-grandson of John Francis Hamtramck Claiborne, great-great-grandnephew of George Mifflin Dallas and great-great-great-grandnephew of William Charles Cole Claiborne and Nathaniel Herbert Claiborne. He was also a direct descendant of mathematician John Pell. Pell was one of the heirs to what started out as the Lorillard tobacco fortune, although the family has been out of the Lorillard firm for generations.[54]

Pell married the former Nuala O'Donnell, great-granddaughter of George Huntington Hartford, owner of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company and granddaughter of Edward V. Hartford, who perfected the automobile shock absorber, and, as such, was one of the heirs to several fortunes.[55] Nuala Pell died the morning of April 13, 2014 at Newport Hospital.[56]

They had four children: Herbert Claiborne Pell III ("Bertie"), Christopher Thomas Hartford Pell ("Toby"), N. Dallas, and Julia Lorillard Wampage Pell.[57][58]

On January 19, 2013 Michelle Kwan married Herbert Claiborne Pell IV, known as Clay Pell, the grandson of Senator Pell and a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard.[59] Clay Pell ran an unsuccessful bid for the 2014 Democratic party nomination for Rhode Island Governor, losing to Gina Raimondo.[60]


Pell was a member of the Rhode Island Society of the Cincinnati. Pell was also an honorary life member of the Rhode Island Society of Colonial Wars as well as a member of Spouting Rock Beach Association (Bailey's Beach) and the Newport Reading Room.[61]


  1. William H. Honan, New York Times, Claiborne Pell, Ex-Senator, Dies at 90, January 1, 2009
  2. J. Y. Smith, Washington Post, Former R.I. Senator Claiborne Pell, 90; Sponsored Grant Program, January 2, 2009
  3. United Federation of Postal Clerks, Union Postal Clerk and the Postal Transport Journal, Volumes 60-62, 1964, page 23
  4. Princeton Alumni Association, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 74, (March 19, 1974), page 44
  5. G. Wayne Miller, An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell, 2011, page 66
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Mulligan, John E. "Claiborne Pell dies". Providence Journal. Archived from the original on April 23, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. New York Times, New Face in Politics; Claiborne deBorda Pell, September 30, 1960
  8. Ken Franckling, United Press International, Sen. Caliborne Pell -- You Let the Other Man Have Your Way, Albany (Georgia) Herald, July 22, 1981
  9. G. Wayne Miller, An Uncommon Man, page 80
  10. Celeste Katz, Providence Journal, Coast Guard Presence in Newport Grows, July 19, 1996
  11. Providence Journal, Pell to Return to Czechoslovakia, Was There for Communist Takeover, November 29, 1989
  12. M. Charles Bakst, Providence Journal, Claiborne Pell: A Unique Legacy, December 8, 1996
  13. Warren Christopher, In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era, 1998, page 15
  14. Princeton Alumni Association, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 55, April 15, 1955, page 24
  15. Newport Daily News, Pell Named Director, May 15, 1954
  16. Joseph M. Siracusa, The Kennedy Years, 2004, page 376
  17. University of Rhode Island, Register to the Senatorial Papers of Claiborne Pell: Biography, 2000
  18. University of Rhode Island, Senator Claiborne deBorda Pell (1918-2009), 2009
  19. New York Times, Newcomer Wins Senate Primary; Pell Defeats Two Former Rhode Island Governors Seeking Green's Seat, September 28, 1960
  20. Hendersonville (North Carolina), Times-News, Democrats' Clutch on Congress Holds, November 4, 1960
  21. Scott MacKay, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Life and Times of an Uncommon Man: Sen. Claiborne Pell, October 20, 2011
  22. Richard F. Fenno, Jr., Senators on the Campaign Trail: The Politics of Representation, 1998, page 243
  23. Scott McKay, Providence Journal, Pell Seeks Sixth Term; Cites Jobs, Peace Issues, June 26, 1990
  24. Mark Patinkin, Providence Journal, For Claiborne Pell, The Doing Was Enough, October 8, 1996
  25. John D. Lofton, Jr., Lewiston Daily Sun, May Call Winter-Berger in Ford Hearing, October 29, 1973
  26. Arnold A. Hutschnecker, The Drive for Power, 1974, page 25
  27. Robert Trowbridge Hartmann, Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years, 1980, page 57
  28. Maura J. Casey, New York Times, Senator Claiborne Pell’s Vision, January 5, 2009
  29. Frank Baker, Associated Press, Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island's Quirky Senator, to Retire, Meriden Record-Journal, September 6, 1995
  30. Providence Journal, Law of the Sea, August 30, 1994
  31. Boston Globe, Former Aide to Pell Killed in Washington, June 2, 1981
  32. CNN, Ex-Sen. Claiborne Pell, proponent of student grants, dies, January 1, 2009
  33. Associated Press, Achtenberg Confirmed for HUD Post: Conservative Fight Against Gay S.F. Supervisor Fails, May 25, 1993
  34. WCVB-TV, Edward M. Kennedy's Tribute to Former Sen. Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  35. Bryant University, RI Senator Jack Reed Addresses Class of 2010, May, 2010
  36. Associated Press, Sen. Claiborne Pell Says He Has Parkinson's Disease, April 10, 1995
  37. C-Span Video Library, Funeral Service for Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  38. WPRI-TV, Pell's Grandson Delivers Eulogy, Nicholas Lorillard Pell, January 5, 2009
  39. Foon Rhee, Boston Globe, Clinton, Kennedy Honor Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  40. Bob Breidenbach, Providence Journal, Photo, Video: Scenes From Services for Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  41. Honan, William (1 January 2009). "Claiborne Pell, Ex-Senator, Dies at 90". New York Times. Retrieved 13 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. Providence Journal, Universities in New England Set Honorary Degrees for Pell, DiPrete, May 24, 1988
  43. Providence Journal, Pell to Receive Award at Coastal Conference, October 9, 1987
  44. "The James W. Dodge Foreign Language Advocate Award". Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Retrieved August 28, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  45. New York Times, 17 Are Honored In Arts Fields, October 14, 1994
  46. Brian C. Jones, Providence Journal, A Rhode Island Original: His Name May be on Bridge, But Pell Still Pays Toll, July 23, 1995
  47. Jerry O'Brien, Providence Journal, Salve to Buy Mansion for New Pell Center, December 5, 1996
  48. United States Coast Guard, Coast Guard History, Frequently Asked Questions: Claiborne Pell, accessed September 5, 2013
  49. Bill Wells, Coast Guard Warriors - Part of The Mix: Coast Guard Medal Awardees of World War II, 1998
  50. United States Coast Guard, Coast Guard History, Frequently Asked Questions: Claiborne Pell. Review of awards displayed on uniform, September 5, 2013
  51. Washington Times, Paranormals on the Potomac, October 24, 1990
  52. C. Eugene Emery, Jr., Providence Journal, Pell Explores Twilight Zone of Psychic Powers, July 17, 1988
  53. Susan Gerbic, James Randi discusses Senator Claiborne Pell's interest in Uri Geller on YouTube, uploaded March 16, 2009
  54. G. Wayne Miller, Providence Journal, 'A Remarkable Life' - Nuala and Claiborne Pell Reflect on Six Extraordinary Decades Together, April 10, 2005
  55. Eric Pace, New York Times, Josephine Hartford Bryce, 88, Philanthropist and Sportswoman, June 10, 1992
  56. "Nuala Pell dies at 89; she left 'an indelible mark'". Retrieved 27 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  57. Faye Zuckerman, Providence Journal, Pell Family Wedding a Mix of Two Cultures, September 2, 2003
  58. Jody McPhillips and Elizabeth Abbott, Providence Journal, Pell Kicks Off Senate Campaign, June 25, 1990
  59. Associated Press, Michelle Kwan Marries Clay Pell: Olympic Medalist Gets Married In RI, Huffington Post, January 20, 2013
  60. "Clay Pell". Retrieved 27 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  61. Providence Journal, Claiborne Pell Remembered as "the right kind of aristocrat", January 6, 2009

External links