August 31, 2009


A Clash of Camelots: Within months of J.F.K.’s death, the president’s widow asked William Manchester to write the authorized account of the assassination. He felt he couldn’t refuse her. Two years later, nearly broken by the task, Manchester found himself fighting a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy over the finished book. The author chronicles the toll Manchester’s 1967 best-seller, The Death of a President, exacted—physically, emotionally, and financially—before it all but disappeared. (Sam Kashner, October 2009, Vanity Fair)

It has never gone away, the nightmare of November 22, 1963. Each time one revisits the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, “one hopes for once the story will be different—the car swerves, the bullets miss, and the splendid progress continues. But each time, like a recurrent nightmare, the handsome head is shattered,” as Gore Vidal wrote in his World Journal Tribune review of William Manchester’s highly detailed, passionate, and greatly beleaguered account, The Death of a President.

Of all the books written about the Kennedy assassination—by some counts more than 2,000—the one book commissioned by the Kennedys themselves and meant to stand the test of time has virtually disappeared. The fight over Manchester’s book—published on April 7, 1967, by Harper & Row after more than a year of bitter, relentless, headline-making controversy over the manuscript—nearly destroyed its author and pitted him against two of the most popular and charismatic people in the nation: the slain president’s beautiful grieving widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy. And the struggle would bring to both Jackie and Bobby a public-relations nightmare. [...]

Beset by writers clamoring for interviews, Jacqueline decided to designate one to produce the official story of the assassination. In part, she wanted to stop Jim Bishop, a syndicated columnist living in Florida, who was already preparing a book. He was the author of The Day Lincoln Was Shot and a just-finished book, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, but according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and special assistant to Kennedy, the First Lady considered Bishop a “hack” who asked too many personal questions. She preferred that no book be written, but as that was impossible, she went in search of an author. [...]

By the second anniversary of the assassination, Manchester began to crack. “I had no appetite—for food, for beauty, for life. I slept fitfully; when I did drift off, I dreamt of Dallas. I was gripping my Esterbrook [fountain pen] so hard that my thumb began to bleed under the nail. It became infected … marring the manuscript pages with blood.” He stopped driving because he didn’t trust his reflexes. Finally, on November 22, 1965, he found himself writing the sentence “Oswald, surrounded by over 70 policemen, was murdered in the basement of the Dallas jail,” when his hand stopped moving. He couldn’t go on. “This is Camus,” he would eventually write. “This is the theatre of the absurd.”

Four days later, he was admitted to a Portland, Connecticut, hospital, suffering from nervous exhaustion, which gave rise to rampant rumors in Washington—that he had fallen into catatonic schizophrenia, that he had fallen in love with Jacqueline Kennedy, that he had fallen completely apart. Manchester’s doctor even received an anonymous phone call saying that he had died in Mexico City. Hearing the rumor, Robert Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler exclaimed, “We’ve killed him!” But after 12 days, Manchester asked for his typewriter and his files to be brought to him, and he finished the book in the hospital, where he remained for eight more weeks.

The final manuscript, which Manchester had titled The Death of Lancer (Kennedy’s Secret Service code name), was l,201 pages—380,000 words. He wrote to Bobby Kennedy upon its completion, “When I awoke this morning I felt as though I had emerged from a long, dark tunnel.” He made four copies and packed them into a suitcase, which weighed 77 pounds, and on March25, 1966, he boarded a Trailways bus for New York and hand-delivered the first copy to Evan Thomas at Harper & Row. He dropped another copy off with Don Congdon, and then, with Thomas at his side, the remaining copies were delivered to Robert Kennedy’s Manhattan office. Angie Novello, Robert’s secretary, and Pam Turnure, Jacqueline’s private secretary, brought Manchester to the Kennedy suite at the Carlyle, No. 18E, where they toasted the completion of the book.

It was finally a glorious spring for William Manchester. The reactions of his first readers were ecstatic. Back home in Connecticut, he got a phone call from Evan Thomas: “This is the finest book I’ve read in 20 years here,” his editor told him. “I couldn’t stop crying, but I couldn’t stop reading.” Cass Canfield wrote to Manchester, “A work of unusual distinction and great power. It will be in demand long after you and I have disappeared from the scene.” Schlesinger wrote in a six-page memorandum, which he sent to Robert Kennedy, Evan Thomas, and Manchester, “I think that this is a remarkable and potentially a great book. The research, the feeling, the narrative power, the evocation of personality and atmosphere, much of the writing—all are superb.”

That was the good news. The bad news, as his editor informed him, was that neither Jacqueline nor Robert would read the manuscript. It would only open up painful memories, Robert had explained, so he delegated his and his sister-in-law’s right of approval to two trusted Kennedy aides, Ed Guthman and John Seigenthaler. Richard Goodwin, the poetry-loving speechwriter and adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, would also weigh in.

Manchester thought he was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but it turned out it was the light of an oncoming train.

Guthman, Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, had left the Justice Department and was now national editor at the Los Angeles Times. Seigenthaler, “the blond, tough editor of The Tennessean,” was Robert Kennedy’s closest friend. And Dick Goodwin, the rumpled, summa cum laude graduate of Tufts and Harvard Law School, had worked in the Justice Department as an investigator into the television quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. After the president’s death, Goodwin continued as a speechwriter for President Johnson, but Senator Kennedy also came to rely upon him. Coincidentally, Goodwin and Manchester were neighbors at the time in Middletown, as Goodwin had accepted a two-year fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan.

Thomas worked with Guthman and Seigenthaler, who provided him with long memos about their concerns. Their main objection, which Thomas shared, was Manchester’s unflattering depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson, Thomas felt, was portrayed as a rawboned boor, too eager to take over on Air Force One the day of the assassination. If Bobby sought the nomination from his party in the 1968 election, the book’s less than flattering portrayal of Johnson would look opportunistic. On May 16, 1966, after reading the manuscript for a third time, Thomas wrote to the two Kennedy friends that he didn’t want Robert Kennedy to be hurt by association with Manchester’s book, which he found, “in part, gratuitously and tastelessly insulting to Johnson.” He suggested that Manchester had become “so deeply involved in this tragic narrative that he could not resist turning it into a magic fairy tale”—Jack the Lancer, “all pure Camelot,” versus “the Texans in their polka dot dresses and bow ties.”

Most troubling to the early readers was “the deer-hunting incident”—a scene described by Jacqueline that opened the original manuscript. On a visit to the Johnson ranch, along the Pedernales River, eight days after the election, Johnson took the president-elect deer-hunting, initiating him into the blood sport. “At 6 a.m. they turned out by the ranch house, Johnson in weather beaten cowboy clothes, Kennedy in a checked sports jacket and slacks. They left in Johnson’s white Cadillac, zooming and jouncing across the fields, and Kennedy was forced to shoot his deer.… To Kennedy,” Manchester wrote, “shooting tame game was not sport, and he had tried to bow out gracefully.” The scene underscored the implication that Texas and its culture of violence were factors in the assassination. Manchester, when asked to delete the scene, refused to do so, but he did plow it further back into the narrative, which diminished its power. Still, the implication remained that “a Texas murder had made a Texan President,” in the words of Jay Epstein, who would later write Inquest, about the Kennedy assassination.

Dick Goodwin joined the jury, poring over the manuscript, which he praised as “a masterful achievement.” He advocated only three changes: to begin with, a new title. It was Goodwin who suggested the elegant The Death of a President. He also suggested excising a quote by Mrs. Kennedy and shortening the ending of the book by five pages, all of which Manchester agreed to do. Gerald Posner's Case Closed:

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2009 6:26 AM
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