fight club

(4 august 2008)


Just how awesome are literary throw-downs? That is the question. Because, really, literary throw-downs are effing unbelievably awesome.

Maybe simply because the centuries have afforded us so very few. We’re more accustomed to catty quill fights—Marlowe versus Shakespeare. Rimbaud versus Verlaine. Capote versus Vidal. Swell in their own right, yes, but bona fide, fisticuffs-and-all frays are few and far between. And infinitely awesomer.

On March 26, 1964, when Robert Kennedy’s office announced that the Kennedy family had anointed William Manchester to write the authorized account of the death of J.F.K., the Senator probably didn’t realize he was stepping into the ring for one of the greatest literary smack-downs of all time. It was an honest mistake. Hear the name Bobby Kennedy and bibliobrawler probably isn’t the first word that jumps to mind.

A former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, William Manchester seemed convivial enough and his greatest selling point was that he had written Portrait of a President, an idolatrous account of John Kennedy’s early presidency. The Kennedys always appreciated people who knew how to play the game, and back then Manchester had acted the dutiful courtier— submitting all proofs to the President’s press secretary and awaiting approval from the President himself before proceeding with publication.

Later, Manchester would consider his prior docility with the Kennedy administration the motivating factor in his appointment as authorized family scribe: “I think [Mrs. Kennedy] picked me because she thought I would be manageable.” He would be anything but.

Smart people sometimes do exceedingly stupid things. That is the only explanation for why the family would embark upon the literary equivalent of an autopsy to begin with, much less do so wielding little more than a flimsy contract whose most concrete sentiment was that the book could be released immediately or maybe later or maybe not at all. Such ambiguity guaranteed misunderstandings in the absence of stellar communication, and everyone was simply too busy and too emotional to be fully engaged.

They were going to a street-fight cloaked in gold lame. Manchester was sporting steel-toed boots.

Ultimately, the Kennedys and the author held fundamentally different views of what the book should be. Manchester wanted to make “a genuine contribution to history” and, presumably, some small donation to his bank account. Jacqueline Kennedy wanted a historical record— in no way sensational, in no way exploitative— as she later told Manchester, to be “bound in black and put away on dark library shelves.” It was, after all, the story of her husband’s death. Not exactly something she wanted on coffee tables all over the world.

William Manchester had once declared John Kennedy “the personification of most American’s daydreams,” and in revisiting the President’s murder, he was reliving a national nightmare day after day. After what Manchester later characterized as “three years of agony,” he completed the 380,000-word manuscript, writing Robert Kennedy: “I felt as though I had emerged from a long dark tunnel.”

All the interviews the author conducted were emotionally disturbing, but none more so than those with Mrs. Kennedy. Fueled by daiquiris and cigarettes, the pair talked late into the night.

At the time, historian and Kennedy family friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was collecting oral histories for the Kennedy Library. Rather than subject Jacqueline to such an emotionally harrowing experience twice, Manchester conducted both the interview for the library and for the book simultaneously. Jacqueline believed the tapes would not be made public during her lifetime. Schlesinger told her to be as forthcoming as possible because she “was making a deposition for the historian of the twenty-first century.” In response, she was shockingly candid. Manchester himself admitted: “She had withheld nothing . . .”

Once the book was completed, it proved impossible for the family to read. Robert Kennedy tried on several occasions but barely finished the first few pages. His wife, Ethel, reportedly read portions at some point. Jacqueline sat on the sidelines, awaiting the go-ahead, assuring Manchester that she would eventually read it, “After R.F.K. and Evan Thomas have gone over this manuscript [. . . ] whenever they think I should.”

Thus, the task was delegated to assorted Kennedy minions. Evan Thomas (Manchester’s publisher), John Sigenthaler, (Robert Kennedy’s former administrative assistant) and Ed Guthman (editor of the Los Angeles Times), were summoned and given the mammoth job of taming the beast.

And tt was quickly apparent to all that there was much to be tamed. Sigenthaler and Guthman immediately pressed for 111 editorial changes and the removal of several viciously anti-Lyndon Johnson passages.

The primary criticism was that, in his fawning reverence and dewy prose, Manchester’s Kennedys were cardboard, albeit glittering, characters. Jacqueline is cold, detached and, after her husband’s death, almost macabre in her role as a master of funereal etiquette, while Kennedy— with his sore back and staid majesty— seems to have a foot in the grave the minute he first strides into the Texas sun.

Ironically, the venom that colors the portrait of Lyndon Johnson renders him the liveliest character of the lot. The Vice President, though villainized, is the one you remember. This was not how it was supposed to be.

In reality, no book could have measured up to the Kennedy camp’s expectations. It was far too early for any account of the President’s death, much less a sprawling historical narrative. As Time later noted, “What nobody seemed to take into account is that the assassination is still so fresh in people’s memories and has left so many exposed nerve ends that any painstakingly detailed, step-by-step retelling is premature at this point.”

To the Kennedy readers, Manchester’s effort to capture the whole “tragic sweep of that entire weekend” hit all of these nerves, most directly by obscuring the man himself. John Kennedy, though the impetus for the book, was not its focus and that was unacceptable.

Guthman, Thomas, and Sigenthaler all agreed there were serious problems with the manuscript, but they withheld the full extent of their misgivings for fear of the psychologically devastating impact upon the author.

According to Sigenthaler, Thomas suggested that Manchester had become increasingly unstable: “[Thomas] would say, ‘There’s no question but that he’s seen that [Zapruder] film seventy-five to a hundred times and if you’d seen the President’s brains fly that many times then something would happen to you, too.”

Even if Manchester weren’t mentally disturbed at this point, the Kennedy aides began handling him as though he were. Rather than speaking with him directly, they pussyfooted around, employing intermediaries, in essence turning the project into an elaborate game of “Telephone,” which only added further confusion to the cacophony.

The reviewers were pissed, but they had not dismissed the idea that the book could be published by year’s end. They thought that through extensive revisions Manchester’s manuscript could be brought back in line with their vision of what it should be.

The announcement that Jim Bishop’s The Day Kennedy Died would be published in the fall of that year left everyone quaking in their boots and lent the project a renewed sense of urgency. Manchester, who had been living off a small advance from Harper & Row, was understandably eager for events to move quickly. He had been told to expect a telegram from Robert Kennedy that would allow the publication process to go forward. Under the impression that a telegram of approval was forthcoming, Manchester began taking bids for magazine serialization.

Senator Kennedy knew serialization was Manchester’s only source of profit and had indicated to others that he would stay out of the negotiations. He simply stated a preference for Look over Life, which had recently published several articles critical of him, and left it at that.

There was a lingering fear that the project would be tainted by the slime of opportunism. To that end, the Kennedys had made it clear from the first that all profits from the book were to go to the Kennedy Library. There was to be no hint of exploitation here.

In a letter written to the Senator, Manchester reiterated this, crowing that he would have full editorial control over the serialization regardless of which magazine won the rights: “I’m holding the line on control of text and layouts, and, in fact, there have been no recent protests about that. I can guarantee you that it will be handled with not the faintest tinge of sensationalism. I can guarantee it because I’m the man who will be making the decisions.” He didn’t comprehend that with the magazines entrance, he would ultimately forfeit everything.

As bidding heated up, Manchester cooled his heels awaiting the telegram from Robert Kennedy. None came. Which didn’t matter much since no one really knew what the telegram would mean.

After a series of conversations on July 14th, the significance of the forthcoming note was only further muddied. According to Sigenthaler, Thomas had suggested the Kennedys send a reassuring telegram to the worried author. Thomas himself said he thought the telegram would say the book would be published that year rather than 1968. In contrast, Manchester emerged with the belief that the telegram would indicate a blanket endorsement of the book. Three men, three different stories. Still no telegram.

On July 27th, Manchester panicked, calling the home of Robert Kennedy’s secretary and begging for the letter he had been promised. Angie Novello summarized their conversation in a detailed memorandum to the Senator, noting that Manchester hadn’t “slept in 3 nights worrying about that letter.” Later that day, Robert Kennedy wired Manchester:

While I have not read William Manchester’s account of the death of President Kennedy, I know of the President’s respect for Mr. Manchester as an historian and a reporter. I understand others have plans to publish books regarding the events of November 22, 1963. As this is going to be the subject matter of a book and since Mr. Manchester in his research had access to more information and sources than any other writer, members of the Kennedy family will place no obstacle in the way of publication of his work.

This was what Manchester had been waiting for. Approval. The following day, he sold the American rights of The Death of a President to Look magazine for $665,000—at that time, the highest price ever paid for serialization. Instantly, the “no commercial exploitation” myth that had sanctified the project was besmirched.

In defense of the hasty contract, Manchester later explained to an interviewer: “When I saw ‘members of the Kennedy family will place no obstacle in the way’ of publication of the book, I thought it was all over.” It had only just begun.

It had always been Manchester’s belief that R.F.K. was acting as his sister-in-law’s representative. When the author approached Jacqueline Kennedy’s secretary, Pamela Turnure, with a copy of the manuscript, Turnure brusquely told him to “work through Bob, who is representing [her].” From then on, Manchester assumed R.F.K.’s approval was Jacqueline’s. Little did he know.

In late July of 1967, Jacqueline, who had not yet seen Manchester’s manuscript, returned from a Hawaiian vacation to find an effusive letter from the elated author in which he touted an “approved manuscript.” She had approved nothing.

At a cocktail party on July 31st, when Robert Kennedy informed her of the serialization and how much Look had paid for the rights, the shit hit the fan.

Faced with the imminent publication of a “highly personal account, an emotional retelling of the assassination,” Jacqueline, working through Turnure, supplied Manchester with a memorandum of passages to be revised. The list included at least 25 areas that would require substantial revision and also recommended that the book needed a new, less emotional tone— all fundamental textual problems that would require a ton of time to fix.

There was a sense that the situation was controllable so long as it revolved primarily around financial matters. To this end, Harper & Row hatched an elaborate plan in which Manchester would grandiosely divert a portion of the Look profit to the Kennedy Library and would be reimbursed on the sly by the publishing house so that there would not be publicly scene as having profited from the project.

On August 12th, during a tense flight from New York to Washington, Evan Thomas rehearsed his author on a speech to the Senator. Things quickly fell apart when, upon entering Robert Kennedy’s hotel room, Manchester, ever the poppycock, deadpanned, “I guess we should be facing each other with dueling pistols and swords.” With that, the meeting was effectively over.

The press would only further complicate matters. In early August, Evan Thomas alerted Robert Kennedy that Homer Bigart of the New York Times was poking around in the book and serialization deal. They knew it would just be a matter of time before the rest of the press came knocking.

On August 10th, Robert Kennedy cabled Thomas: “Under the present circumstances, with the situation as difficult as it is, I feel the book on President Kennedy’s death should neither be published nor serialized. I would appreciate it if you would inform Bill Manchester.”

In sending the telegram, Kennedy took a major political risk. He was censoring the author he had appointed himself, a situation that looked not only foolish but faintly unconstitutional. But his motivation was clear– Jacqueline Kennedy was raising hell…

© faith e.

(citations available upon request)

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