Claiborne Pell: United States Senator from Rhode Island (1918 - 2009) | Biography
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Claiborne Pell
United States Senator from Rhode Island

Claiborne Pell

Claiborne Pell
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro United States Senator from Rhode Island
A.K.A. Claiborne de Borda Pell
Was Military officer Soldier Politician Diplomat Officer
From United States of America
Field Military Politics
Gender male
Birth 22 November 1918, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Death 1 January 2009, Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island, U.S.A. (aged 90 years)
Politics Democratic Party
The details (from wikipedia)


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, 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.

During 1927 Pell's parents divorced and his mother was remarried to Commander Hugo W. Koehler of the United States Navy. Koehler served as a military attache to Russia and was rumored to be the illegitimate son of Archduke Rudolph, the crown prince of Austria-Hungary, although no confirming evidence has been found for this theory.

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

Post-college life

After graduating, Pell worked as an oil field roustabout in Oklahoma. 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.

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. 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.

Pell was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) on October 1, 1942, and then to lieutenant during 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 during 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.

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

Personal life and family

Pell married Nuala O'Donnell in December 1944. Together, they had four children: Herbert Claiborne Pell III, Christopher Thomas Hartford Pell, Nuala Dallas Pell, and Julia Lorillard Wampage Pell. Herbert (September 11, 1945 - September 24, 1999) and Julia (May 9, 1953– April 13, 2006) predeceased their parents, Julia Pell was an advocate for the rights of same-sex couples and president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.

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.

During 1945, Pell was a participant with the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco that drafted the United Nations Charter.

During 1946 he completed graduate studies in International Relations at Columbia University receiving a Master of Arts degree.

Post-diplomatic career

During 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. He was also a director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga Association, and General Rochambeau Commission of Rhode Island. He also served as a fundraiser and consultant for the Democratic National Committee. He 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.

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

Political career

During 1960, Pell won the job 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, and former Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Raoul Archambault in the general election.

Despite being called the least electable man in America by John F. Kennedy because of his many odd habits and beliefs, 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 too easygoing, Pell demonstrated his effectiveness as a campaigner. During his first campaign, when he was accused of carpetbagging, Pell published newspaper advertisements featuring a photograph of his grand-uncle Duncan Pell, who had served as Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island during the 1860s, thus demonstrating Pell's association with the state. When Briggs called him a "creampuff" during their 1966 campaign, Pell turned that to his advantage and mocked Briggs by obtaining an endorsement from a local baker's union.

During his first campaign, Pell also used his foreign experience to great advantage, impressing some largely immigrant audiences in person and on the radio by campaigning in their native languages.

Personality and beliefs

Pell was known for unordinary beliefs and behaviors, including wearing badly worn suits, using public transportation and purchasing cheap used automobiles despite his wealth, and an interest with the paranormal. 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.

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 homosexual tavern during the early 1960s. Pell denied the allegation, and there are not any police records, witness statements or other sources to corroborate Winter-Berger. Additionally, despite legal advice to sue, Pell opted not to sue, deciding that it would draw undue publicity to the allegations.

Pell education grants

Pell was largely responsible for the creation of "Basic Educational Opportunity Grants" during 1973, renamed Pell Grants during 1980, to provide financial aid funds to U.S. college students. Pell Grants initially provided for grants for prisoners but Congress later eliminated that provision. For some years there was more money available than was applied for.

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

Later Senate career

Pell served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987 to 1995. During 1990 he was re-elected to his sixth and last term of the Senate.

During 1996, his last year with the Senate, Pell voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex marriage.

Pell refused to seek re-election during 1996 and retired on January 3, 1997. Pell served with the Senate for thirty-six continuous years, making him the longest serving U.S. Senator in the history of Rhode Island. He was succeeded by Jack Reed.


After 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.

Claiborne Pell died on January 1, 2009. His funeral was performed at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island. 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. 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.

Soon after his death, the newspaper The New York Times termed Pell "the most formidable politician in Rhode Island history."

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 college degrees, including recognition from Johnson & Wales University, the University of Vermont and the University of Massachusetts.

During 1987 Pell was among those selected for the United Nations Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour, during the first year that award was established.

During 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.

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

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

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

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.


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.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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