Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Many Faces of Joseph P. Kennedy II


So here we are, wading through the last few days of 2012.  Christmas is behind us; most of us have survived the Holiday Goose.  Will we be so lucky with the fiscal cliff?

My last blog, in which I questioned the apparent determination of David Nasaw, in his current biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, to maintain that Joe was innocent of any involvement with bootlegging or any of the nastier underworld honchos of his time, has stirred up quite a lot of comment.  Perhaps the shrewdest arrived from Steve Sewall, who cited Nasaw's "categorical denial of Joe K's bootlegging" recently on Chicago Public Television, following which "Nasaw boasts that he was virtually commissioned by the Kennedys to write about Joe: after being 'approached by Jean Kennedy Smith' he had lunch six months later with Senator Kennedy."

The truth is, too many contemporary biographies amount to carefully confected public-relations puff jobs, produced largely to project the image that the supporters or the friends or the heirs of the subject would prefer.  One principle I have always held to in my work is never to permit the people I am writing about to see the result until after the book or magazine piece is out.  I tell my subjects that it is really in their best interest not to go over the manuscript prior to publication -- whatever I say is certain to offend somebody in their world, and, having reviewed the material, they too will be tarred with resentment.  I also tell them that I have enough editors already.  Mostly they attempt to live with this, although they always maintain -- Ted Kennedy was no exception -- that they only hope to pick up on any mistakes before the book goes to press.  I always say no, and usually they can live with the result.
The one -- to me -- regrettable exception was Paul Mellon.  Over several years, during which I saw or heard from Mellon every week, we developed a genuine friendship.  Paul was a very graceful and utterly honest individual -- he gave his huge fortune away, mostly through enormous philanthropic endeavors like the East Building of the National Gallery.  He had his human susceptibilities, and -- in keeping with my responsibilities -- I touched on those, observing at one point in The Mellon Family that, like J.P. Morgan, Paul remained devoted to Old Masters and Old Mistresses.  I also took a selective blowtorch to his parents' sticky divorce and some of the deserving Pittsburg relatives.

When the book came out Paul was evidently furious, and vented in an interview in the the Pittsburgh newspapers.  I had abused the extraordinary access he had granted me.  I did not respond.  Then, years later, Paul himself wrote an autobiography, Reflections in a Silver Spoon.  It was a solid book, characteristically adroit, which dealt with many of the same details that upset him when I opened them up. Then he wrote me a letter, admitting that pretty much everything I had dealt with needed to be included, and apologizing for his tantrum at the time.  Still -- foolishly -- miffed, I never wrote him back.

A few years ago Yale gave a banquet in celebration of Paul Mellon's centenary -- he had died eight years earlier.  I was invited.  There were many speeches, but I suspect that of the perhaps one hundred celebrants at that dinner, the shrewd and generous-spirited Englishman who helped Paul assemble his wonderful collection of English art for Yale, John Baskett, and I were the only guests who actually knew the man.  Paul had built a museum for this outstanding collection in New Haven and donated the paintings and drawings and sculptures to the University.

My point here is that the treatment of any important historical subject that is likely to endure is one that is not compromised by prior commitment, implicit or explicit, to the subject of the work.  The heirs are not interested in a vivid depiction of their ancestor -- the last thing they want, as the poet says, is the truth with the bark off.  I would be more than curious about whether Jean Kennedy Smith demanded and got the opportunity to go over and "correct" Nasaw's manuscript before it was published.  Did money change hands?  Apart from the sanitized remains of Joe Kennedy's selected papers in the Kennedy Library, what sources did Nasaw trust?  In Bobby and J. Edgar I worked the entire waterfront, careful to validate whatever I found and key the reader to the authenticity of every source in close to seventy pages, thousands of careful, tightly packed notes.

I haven't gotten to Nasaw's biography yet.  When I do, you will hear.

Warmest wishes for the New Year,

Burton Hersh 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments here