Love the Kennedys and Nobody Gets Hurt

John’s sister, Caroline Kennedy, has taken a different tack: publicly promoting the kinder, gentler, arguably more feminine side of her family’s history, while privately waging campaigns to block history that conflicts with the image she’s pushing. With Hyperion Books, a division of Disney/ABC, she has authored or sanctioned the publication of half a dozen Kennedy-related books: A Family Christmas, in 2007; Profiles in Courage for Our Time, in 2002; The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in 2001; and so on. All of them have made the Times bestseller list — the book of Jackie O’s favorite poetry sold about 500,000 copies in its first year — but their success is more a testament to the enduring power of the family brand than to the quality of the books, which is slender. In January 2009 the Times called Caroline “a publishing industry phenomenon” who put out books that “tapped into the public’s admiration for, and curiosity about, her famous family.”

Caroline has recently been on a nationwide tour promoting She Walks in Beauty, a collection of poems that correspond to milestones in women’s lives. There are probably about two women in this country with a publisher who’d send them around to promote a book of poems, and neither of them are poets. But when it’s on her terms, Caroline Kennedy sells.

Plus, Hyperion is something of a Kennedy family press. Bobby Kennedy Jr.  has coauthored a number of children’s books for the house, called Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s American Heroes. He was also the author of a 2005 book called Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy. Maria Shriver writes for Hyperion, too, including 2008’s We Empower: Inspirational Wisdom from Inspirational Women. Even Shriver’s daughter, Katherine Schwarzenegger, has gotten into the family business with Hyperion: Last September the 20-year-old college student published a self-esteem manual for girls, Rock What You’ve Got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who’s Been There and Back.

But while Caroline Kennedy has cultivated an image of her family as poetry-loving patriots nestling in highbrow domesticity, she has also earned a reputation in the publishing world for striking out against books that show a less warm and fuzzy side of the Kennedys — as I would find out.

SALON WRITER CRAIG OFFMAN’S
distorted presentation of my book proposal made some of my former colleagues at George anxious and angry. They felt I was seeking to exploit my relationship with John. It was certainly a legitimate concern: Whether it was ethical to write the book was something that I myself had seriously debated. Now Offman’s reporting was casting my decision in the worst possible light. Even so, I was taken aback by how quickly the conversation deteriorated.

The weeks ahead brought a barrage of criticism and caricature, almost all of it anonymous. I spoke in a “stiff-jawed Groton drawl,” a New York Observer writer declared, referring to the boarding school I attended. (I had a speech impediment as a child; subsequent therapy shaped my vocalization.) An MSNBC.com gossip columnist had me writing the book because I was unemployed and broke; she never bothered to ask me if that was true, probably because she knew it wasn’t. Some stories claimed that I had fired George staffers for speaking to the press (not true). There were also suggestions that I was a latent homosexual who’d always lusted after John (also false). One anonymous ex-colleague compared me to the psychotic, sexually depraved “talented Mr. Ripley” of Patricia Highsmith’s novel.

Whatever the motives of my critics, their techniques were blunt: full-tilt attempts to discredit my book via character assassination. I had certainly expected disagreement. But I was naively unprepared for such ugliness.

  • Dave

    Excellent piece, Richard.

    I am proud to say that I was a George subscriber since day one. I thought the magazine you and John created was fresh, exciting, and way ahead of its time.

    I miss George and wish we had a magazine like that today. Often wonder what kind of coverage George would have given our post-9/11 world.

    Hope you are well. Thanks for this article and keep up the good work!

  • Joyce

    I WAS 16 YRS OLD DURING THE BAY OF PIGS. AT THE TIME, I THOUGHT JFK WAS ODIOUS>. TODAY, I WOULD HAVE VOTED FOR HIM. I FOUND THE MINI-SERIES TO HAVE OFFERED A COMPLES AND SYMPATHETIC PORTRAYAL OF ALL THE MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY, SEPECIALLY JOE, ROSE, AND ETHEL. I FELL IN LOVE , ALL OVER AGAIN, WITH JACKIE. AND I THINK KINNEAR CAPTURED EXACTLY THE ESSENCE OF JFK, THOUGHTFUL ENERGETIC, A CREDIT TO HIS COUNTRY. THEY WERE BOTH SO FULL OF HOPE AND PROMISE AS I ARRIVED IN DALLAS. OUR WORLD CHANGED IN 2 SHORT HRS. I BELIEVE THIS FILM WOULD BE OUTSTANDING FOR YOUNG PEOPLE TO SEE SO THEY COULD SEE WHAT A PRESIDENT OF PRINCIPLE IS REALLY LIKE. WE HAVE NOT HAD ONE IN A LONG TIME!!

  • Robbins

    Why would anybody expect anything else from this bunch?….here in flyover country,we don’t see Nazi Joe’s brood as ‘royalty’…we see them as ‘Anerica’s Mick dog$h!t’..and they have acted accordingly for the last half century or so

  • JeffW

    I thought the series was excellent,a good historical peek into the Kennedys.

  • Judy

    Run the series!! Thanks for a great artical! I will never understand the “powerful and infulencueal” people in charge think Americans can’t handle the truth! Big deal Jackie smoked! Or JFK ran around, and had a potty mouth….So What! He’s still bigger than life and we still love them! They were our First Family and nothing can change that.