Claiborne Pell

Claiborne Pell
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 4, including Julia Pell
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 the sponsor of the Pell Grant, which provides financial aid funding to American college students. A member of the Democratic Party, he served in the U.S. Senate longer than anyone else from Rhode Island.

Early life and education

Claiborne Pell was born on November 22, 1918 in New York City,[1] the son of Matilda Bigelow and diplomat and congressman Herbert Pell.

Pell's family members included John Francis Hamtramck Claiborne, George Mifflin Dallas, William Charles Cole Claiborne, and Nathaniel Herbert Claiborne. He was a direct descendant of mathematician John Pell.[2]

He attended St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island[3] and received an A.B. in history from Princeton University in 1940.[4] While at Princeton, he was a member of Colonial Club and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, and played on the rugby team.[5]

Post-college life

After graduating, Pell worked as an oil field roustabout in Oklahoma.[6] 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.[7]

Uniformed service

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

Personal life and family

Pell married Nuala O'Donnell in December 1944.[12][13] [14] Together, they had four children: Herbert Claiborne Pell III, Christopher Thomas Hartford Pell, Nuala Dallas Pell, and Julia Lorillard Wampage Pell.[15][16]

Diplomatic work, further education

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.[17]

In 1945, Pell was a participant in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations Charter.[18]

In 1946 he completed graduate studies in International Relations at Columbia University receiving a Master of Arts degree.[19]

Post-diplomatic career

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.[20] In addition, he was a director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga Association, and General Rochambeau Commission of Rhode Island.[21] He also served as a fundraiser and consultant for the Democratic National Committee.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24]

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,[25] and former Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Raoul Archambault in the general election.[26]

Despite being called the least electable man in America by John F. Kennedy because of his many odd habits and beliefs,[27] 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.[7] 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.[7] When Briggs called him a "creampuff" during their 1966 campaign, Pell turned that it to his advantage and mocked Briggs by obtaining an endorsement from a local baker's union.[28]

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.[29]

Personality and beliefs

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 an interest in the paranormal.[30] 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.[31]

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.[32][33][34]

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.[35]

He was the main sponsor of the bill that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities,[36] 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.[37]

Later Senate career

He served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1995.[38] In 1990 he was re-elected to his sixth and last term in the Senate when he defeated Republican Congresswoman Claudine Schneider.

In 1996, his last year in the Senate, Pell voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex marriage.[39]

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 U.S. Senator in the history of Rhode Island.[40] He was succeeded by Jack Reed.[41]


Following retirement, Pell lived in Newport and was a communicant of St. Columba's Church in Middletown. He occasionally attended public functions of organizations with which he was affiliated. Toward to end of his life, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.[42]

Claiborne Pell died on January 1, 2009. His funeral was held at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island.[43] In addition to members of his family, Pell was eulogized by former President Bill Clinton, Senator Edward Kennedy and then Vice-President elect Joe Biden.[44] 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.[45]

Upon his death, the New York Times called Pell "the most formidable politician in Rhode Island history."[46]

Authorship, recognition, organizations

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).

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.[47]

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.[48]

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.[49]

On October 14, 1994, Pell was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton.[50]

Rhode Island's Newport Bridge was renamed the "Claiborne Pell Bridge"[51] and the Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy was established at Salve Regina University.[52]

Pell was a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.[53] He also received the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown of Italy.[54]

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.[55]


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.[56]


  1. William H. Honan, New York Times, Claiborne Pell, Ex-Senator, Dies at 90, January 1, 2009
  2. G. Wayne Miller, Providence Journal, 'A Remarkable Life' - Nuala and Claiborne Pell Reflect on Six Extraordinary Decades Together, April 10, 2005
  3. J. Y. Smith, Washington Post, Former R.I. Senator Claiborne Pell, 90; Sponsored Grant Program, January 2, 2009
  4. United Federation of Postal Clerks, Union Postal Clerk and the Postal Transport Journal, Volumes 60-62, 1964, page 23
  5. Princeton Alumni Association, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 74, (March 19, 1974), page 44
  6. G. Wayne Miller, An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell, 2011, page 66
  7. 1 2 3 Mulligan, John E. "Claiborne Pell dies". Providence Journal. Archived from the original on April 23, 2011.
  8. New York Times, New Face in Politics; Claiborne deBorda Pell, September 30, 1960
  9. Ken Franckling, United Press International, Sen. Caliborne Pell -- You Let the Other Man Have Your Way, Albany (Georgia) Herald, July 22, 1981
  10. G. Wayne Miller, An Uncommon Man, page 80
  11. Celeste Katz, Providence Journal, Coast Guard Presence in Newport Grows, July 19, 1996
  12. Scott MacKay (April 13, 2014). "Nuala Pell, Spouse And Political Partner Of Sen. Claiborne Pell, Dies". Retrieved July 2, 2016.
  13. Eric Pace, New York Times, Josephine Hartford Bryce, 88, Philanthropist and Sportswoman, June 10, 1992
  14. "Nuala Pell dies at 89; she left 'an indelible mark'". Retrieved 27 October 2014.
  15. Faye Zuckerman, Providence Journal, Pell Family Wedding a Mix of Two Cultures, September 2, 2003
  16. Jody McPhillips and Elizabeth Abbott, Providence Journal, Pell Kicks Off Senate Campaign, June 25, 1990
  17. Providence Journal, Pell to Return to Czechoslovakia, Was There for Communist Takeover, November 29, 1989
  18. Warren Christopher, In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era, 1998, page 15
  19. M. Charles Bakst, Providence Journal, Claiborne Pell: A Unique Legacy, December 8, 1996
  20. Princeton Alumni Association, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 55, April 15, 1955, page 24
  21. Newport Daily News, Pell Named Director, May 15, 1954
  22. Joseph M. Siracusa, The Kennedy Years, 2004, page 376
  23. University of Rhode Island, Register to the Senatorial Papers of Claiborne Pell: Biography, 2000
  24. University of Rhode Island, Senator Claiborne deBorda Pell (1918-2009), 2009
  25. New York Times, Newcomer Wins Senate Primary; Pell Defeats Two Former Rhode Island Governors Seeking Green's Seat, September 28, 1960
  26. Hendersonville (North Carolina), Times-News, Democrats' Clutch on Congress Holds, November 4, 1960
  27. Scott MacKay, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Life and Times of an Uncommon Man: Sen. Claiborne Pell, October 20, 2011
  28. Honan, William H. (January 1, 2009). "Claiborne Pell, Ex-Senator, Dies at 90". New York Times. New York, NY.
  29. Richard F. Fenno, Jr., Senators on the Campaign Trail: The Politics of Representation, 1998, page 243
  30. Scott McKay, Providence Journal, Pell Seeks Sixth Term; Cites Jobs, Peace Issues, June 26, 1990
  31. Mark Patinkin, Providence Journal, For Claiborne Pell, The Doing Was Enough, October 8, 1996
  32. John D. Lofton, Jr., Lewiston Daily Sun, May Call Winter-Berger in Ford Hearing, October 29, 1973
  33. Arnold A. Hutschnecker, The Drive for Power, 1974, page 25
  34. Robert Trowbridge Hartmann, Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years, 1980, page 57
  35. Maura J. Casey, New York Times, Senator Claiborne Pell’s Vision, January 5, 2009
  36. Frank Baker, Associated Press, Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island's Quirky Senator, to Retire, Meriden Record-Journal, September 6, 1995
  37. Providence Journal, Law of the Sea, August 30, 1994
  38. CNN, Ex-Sen. Claiborne Pell, proponent of student grants, dies, January 1, 2009
  39. WCVB-TV, Edward M. Kennedy's Tribute to Former Sen. Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  40. Bryant University, RI Senator Jack Reed Addresses Class of 2010, May, 2010
  41. Associated Press, Sen. Claiborne Pell Says He Has Parkinson's Disease, April 10, 1995
  42. C-Span Video Library, Funeral Service for Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  43. Foon Rhee, Boston Globe, Clinton, Kennedy Honor Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  44. Bob Breidenbach, Providence Journal, Photo, Video: Scenes From Services for Claiborne Pell, January 5, 2009
  45. Honan, William (1 January 2009). "Claiborne Pell, Ex-Senator, Dies at 90". New York Times. Retrieved 13 October 2014.
  46. Providence Journal, Universities in New England Set Honorary Degrees for Pell, DiPrete, May 24, 1988
  47. Providence Journal, Pell to Receive Award at Coastal Conference, October 9, 1987
  48. "The James W. Dodge Foreign Language Advocate Award". Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Archived from the original on August 21, 2014. Retrieved August 28, 2014.
  49. New York Times, 17 Are Honored In Arts Fields, October 14, 1994
  50. Brian C. Jones, Providence Journal, A Rhode Island Original: His Name May be on Bridge, But Pell Still Pays Toll, July 23, 1995
  51. Jerry O'Brien, Providence Journal, Salve to Buy Mansion for New Pell Center, December 5, 1996
  52. United States Coast Guard, Coast Guard History, Frequently Asked Questions: Claiborne Pell, accessed September 5, 2013
  53. Bill Wells, Coast Guard Warriors - Part of The Mix: Coast Guard Medal Awardees of World War II, 1998
  54. United States Coast Guard, Coast Guard History, Frequently Asked Questions: Claiborne Pell. Review of awards displayed on uniform, September 5, 2013
  55. Providence Journal, Claiborne Pell Remembered as "the right kind of aristocrat", January 6, 2009

External links

United States Senate
Preceded by
Theodore F. Green
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Rhode Island
Served alongside: John O. Pastore, John Chafee
Succeeded by
Jack Reed
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