Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt
The lawsuit was ultimately settled out of court, and The Death of a President was published in 1967 with minor changes. It earned glowing reviews and enjoyed huge commercial success. But because of the Kennedys’ original agreement with Harper & Row, the family controls the fate of the book. They have allowed it to go out of print, and aspiring readers of one of the finest works on JFK’s assassination must now troll the Internet for used copies.
The episode with Manchester was the beginning of a pattern for Jackie. Her operating principle: If you cooperate with a writer, you have the right to control him. And if you can’t control him, don’t cooperate with him. Writers who violated Jackie’s rules paid a price.
In 1975 Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee authored Conversations with Kennedy, a book that most readers found deeply flattering to the late president. Before the book was finished, Bradlee, once a friend and confidant of both Jack and Jackie, sent the manuscript to Jackie, but she didn’t like it; it was too much about Bradlee, she told him, not enough about her husband. She also disapproved of his inclusion of JFK’s cursing. (“He used ‘prick’ and ‘fuck’ and ‘nuts’ and ‘bastard’ and ‘son of a bitch’ with an ease and comfort that belied his upbringing,” the editor wrote of the president.) Bradlee had no interest in making changes. After all, JFK had agreed that Bradlee could publish their talks five years after Kennedy left the White House.
“I saw Jackie twice after that conversation,” Bradlee wrote in his 1995 autobiography, A Good Life. Bumping into her in 1976 as he was entering a party and she was leaving, Bradlee stuck out his hand and said hello. “She sailed by us without a word.” Later, when Bradlee was vacationing in St. Maarten, Jackie and her children were, coincidentally, staying in the very next cabana. “For a week,” Bradlee wrote, “we seemed to be staring at each other on the beach, but never ran into each other until one night, when we almost collided as we left our cabana to go up to the restaurant for dinner. From 12 inches away, she looked straight ahead, without a word, and I never saw her again.”
The one Kennedy scion who lived long enough to actually have the means to control the depiction of his own legacy would probably have disapproved of such behavior. When former New York Times reporter Adam Clymer was researching his book Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography in the mid-’90s, “Kennedy was very helpful,” Clymer recalls. “I forget how many interviews we did — something like 18.” And Teddy, unlike Jackie, never asked for editorial control.
Not that Ted Kennedy cooperated with every book — he didn’t — but if there are examples of him trying to block the publication of a book — and so many have been written about the Kennedys, one can’t rule it out — I couldn’t find them. One possible reason for his more fatalistic sensibility, says an author who has written about the Kennedys but wishes to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing future access, might be that historians could not shatter Ted Kennedy’s mythology; with Chappaquiddick, he’d done so himself. “Part of Teddy’s maturity was that he didn’t want to be mythic,” this writer says. “He really understood his own humanity and his own fallibility…unlike the other Kennedys, who I don’t think had as much self-awareness, maybe because they didn’t live long enough.”