Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
Crichton never called me, and I hadn’t spoken to her for a decade until I phoned her for this article. After the deal went public, Crichton told me recently, she received a phone call from Esther Newberg about the confidentiality agreement I’d signed. Other phone calls from well-placed New Yorkers followed. “It was clear that these were people who had a close relationship with the Kennedys,” she said. “Nobody said to me, ‘This [Kennedy] told me to call’…it’s just that there are people in New York who have relationships and friendships with the Kennedys and everybody knows that, and they were the ones who were calling.”
The callers’ greatest lever was the confidentiality agreement. “Nobody said directly, ‘If you publish this a lawsuit will be brought,’” Crichton recalled. “But…it felt to me that the threat was real.”
In any case, Crichton said, “You can kill a book without bringing a lawsuit,” and over a period of weeks she had come to the conclusion that American Son had taken too many hits to be publishable. “It became clear that you had a lot of people who were going to rough you up,” she said, “and they were going to have a signed paper to use against you. It just looked too messy.”
In the weeks following Crichton’s decision to abandon the book, my agent reached out to publishers who had previously expressed interest in American Son. The unanimous response: No thanks. My book had been discredited before it had even been written.
So over the course of an anxious, unpaid year, I did the only thing I could. Even without a publisher or an advance, I wrote American Son.
I completed a manuscript in mid-2001. In the interim, George had folded, which eased concerns about a confidentiality-agreement lawsuit. In time, Henry Holt and Company publisher John Sterling offered $300,000 for the book, less than half of what I’d been offered by Little, Brown. That hurt — by this point, I really was unemployed and broke, having gone two years without a salary. But at least my book would finally see the light of day.
Published in May 2002, American Son wasn’t exactly a critical success. The reviews seemed colored by the debate over my character. When I went on Today, Katie Couric’s interview was so hostile one media critic wrote that she talked to me as if I were “a Hamas lieutenant.” Caroline Kennedy had been a guest on the show the day before. So maybe I shouldn’t have been startled when Couric prefaced a question to me by saying, “We spoke with your former coworker actually yesterday, Gary Ginsberg….” How had she gotten that number?
Still, American Son sold well. It spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and was the subject of a People cover story.
I hadn’t read that People article since its publication until I did so for this story, and was surprised to find the only supportive quote coming from a Kennedy intimate: “John now belongs to history, and I hope that the many people who were close to him will put their recollections on paper.”
The source of that endorsement? Historian Steven Gillon.