An Interview with Laurence Leamer, author of The Kennedy Men and The Kennedy Women
This is your second book chronicling the Kennedy family, the
first being the bestselling The Kennedy Women. What do you think it is
that draws you, and for that matter, the entire country, to the story of the
I don't think what draws me to this subject is much different than what draws most people. It's one of the most dramatic, emotionally powerful stories in American life. It's a story of a great family at a time when we struggle over the meaning of family. It's not mere happenstance that The Godfather saga arrived at the same time as an immense, renewed fascination with the story of the Kennedys. Beyond that, I like to write books that I would read, and I would read The Kennedy Men. I want to learn something from a book, and I want to write a book that people will feel has taught them valuable things.
In all of your extensive research on the Kennedy family, were there any particular facts that you discovered that came as a complete surprise?
There are so many things, but there is one overwhelming fact when you look at the same themes going on generation after generation: marry carefully, very carefully. Blood matters immensely. For instance, when Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel, it was these two volatile mixtures coming together. If "Kennedy" and "Skakel" were chemicals in a scientific lab, the researchers would have been warned to mix them only under extraordinary circumstances.
This is certainly one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Kennedy family ever published, filled with insider information from family members, friends, and other sources, including letters and tapes. Could you tell us how you gained access to such a wide array of sources from a family that traditionally does not speak to reporters, and then perhaps tell us about some of the specific sources?
What I would tell young writers is that your reputation is your gold. What I do and say here is what I am. This is the kind of book I've written before. I have a reputation as an honorable person, and I'm not going to lose that reputation doing this book. I also make it clear that I am going to take their remarks seriously and do my best not to distort what they believe. It's not much of a secret, but it works. You just have to be patient. I think most of the Kennedys would say that I am trying very hard to write honest books about them, even if they think that my focus in places may be off, or if I miss something, or if they are angry about something revealed that they thought should have stayed secret.
As for sources outside the immediate family, I have been incredibly fortunate in the people who have talked to me and helped me with information. It's almost a miracle to me that after all the times that people have been abused and misquoted that they still overwhelmingly are willing to talk. People took great risks talking to me. I'm not talking about physical risks. I don't mean they were going to lose jobs. I mean they were laying out their truths for me, and I could take whatever part of that I wanted and discard the rest. I can't tell you how important it is to me that I not betray any of these people, or have any of them say I promised something and did not deliver. Actually the most important new material came from a man to whom I promised nothing. Robert White is a prominent collector to whom Evelyn Lincoln, President Kennedy's secretary, left most of her papers, including the secret archive she kept for a dozen years. White could have given these papers to anyone - actually he could have sold them - but he said that he respected my work and he wanted me to have them. He asked for nothing. He didn't even insist on an acknowledgment in the book.
I did make some promises. I promised Guinilla Von Post, if she would let me have the letters Senator John F. Kennedy gave her, that I would see to it that the story of their love affair became part of the Kennedy history and that from now on any reputable historian would have to mention her name. I promised Janet Fontaine that I would write of her decade-long affair with Joseph P. Kennedy with dignity. I promised Kennedy's young Radcliffe college mistress that I would protect her privacy. I had all kinds of people who helped me on this book, but nothing to me was so extraordinary as the help given by Professor Barton Bernstein of Stanford University.
I read a devastating and brilliant review of a Kennedy book that Professor Bernstein wrote a few years ago. I thought if there's anyone I would like to have read the manuscript it would be him. I called him up and after some chitchat offered him an honorarium if he would be willing to read The Kennedy Men. He said that he wouldn't accept any payment, but he would be delighted to read it. He spent four days going over the White House material in the most meticulous way. He didn't find any serious errors, but he has a deep, penetrating mind and the book is better thanks to his immense generosity.
Perhaps one of the most startling facts revealed in your book is just how sick John F. Kennedy was for nearly all of his life. With a terrible back, deadly allergies, and a rare disease known as Addison's disease, this man should have been almost bed-ridden. Yet he managed to convince the American public that he was a healthy, vital, young man. What do you think this says about the psyche of John F. Kennedy, and of the Kennedy family in general?
The point is that they weren't this incredibly healthy, vital family that has become a part of our collective memory. Most of them had serious health problems, but none of them like Jack. I don't know what it is that drives people to succeed, but it isn't a life of ease. Jack Kennedy had a life of physical ease, but he struggled against illness most of his life. It is astounding.
Obviously, we live in a much different time than when the Kennedy's were at the peak of their power. Where today the media is anxious to break any story detailing the sordid exploits of any politician, over forty years ago they would help cover up the various scandals of the Kennedy family, including relationships with organized crime and all of The Kennedy Men's extremely active extramarital sexual lives. Would you care to comment on the change in the media's attitude towards politicians?
No people in the world have ever had the freedom that we have as Americans, and most of us don't even realize it. During the three decades that I have been writing, that liberty has dramatically expanded, and we know things about our leaders that were once known only to an elite few. I think it's healthy and good. In the end we'll redefine what human greatness is all about, and we'll realize that human greatness walks past us every day, if only we could recognize it.
This book caused me to re-evaluate any preconceptions that I might have had about The Kennedy Men. Yet, you manage to strip away the gloss that has been building up over the Kennedy family for nearly a century and present it in a completely unbiased way, hiding nothing, including the almost Machiavellian struggle of the Kennedys to attain and keep power. Do you think that this book might change the way that Americans view the Kennedy family?
I hope so. I have tried so very hard to present them and their lives in all their fullness, neither pandering to fantasies of what might have been, nor savaging them, kicking at their legacy to prove my superiority.
One of the strengths of your book is its compelling narrative style; it reads as much like a novel as a history book. Could you tell us some of your own literary influences (in either fiction or non-fiction) and what you are reading now?
I studied history as an undergraduate and in some of my three years of graduate school too, but I was never comfortable with pallid academic history that had a musty smell to it, and the taste only of other books and other historians. And for the life of me I did not understand how historians wrote books without interviewing people who were still alive and who knew their subject. I didn't want that kind of life. I got into journalism in the late sixties, a time when much of the most exciting writing was taking place in magazines. People waited anxiously for their copy of Harper's or Esquire. It was the beginning of the expansion of liberty that I've been talking about. Where once young writers went to John Dos Passos or John Steinbeck to learn what their time was all about, we went to Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. I wanted, oh how I wanted, to join these writers in breaking through the barricades. I had a fascinating journey. I worked in a coal mine in West Virginia and wrote about that. I covered the war in Bangladesh. I did all kinds of things though I was at the end of this age. There's no magazine in America left that has that excitement of my early years in journalism. Article after article is written in this arrogant, dismissively ironic style that conveys primarily the writer's superiority to his subject. There's still great writing, great ideas, only you have to seek it out now, and they pop up unexpectedly even sometimes in the daily newspaper. That period of superb magazine journalism is gone, but I think many writers have used this expanded liberty to full advantage. In The Kennedy Men, I have purposefully gone beyond the way most academic historians would write about this material. I wrote it as if it was all happening again, and it terribly mattered. I was angry at Joseph P. Kennedy's anti-Semitism, deeply admiring of Joseph Kennedy, Jr.'s, heroism in World War II. I can't tell you how upset I was when I discovered that President Kennedy had ordered up napalm on a mission flown by American CIA pilots at the Bay of Pigs that killed up to 1,800 Cubans.
The novel I've read recently that impressed me the most was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. It's a great political novel and deserves to be on the same shelf with Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men and E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel. I've also just read the first volume of Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler. What struck me the most was realizing that in Germany, the center was gone; the shrill voices of the far left and the far right had taken over. Even if Hitler had lost, some other dark authoritarian solution would have arisen. Right now I'm in that small exclusive group reading David McCullough's John Adams. It's a wonderful book, but it would be wrong to look back at the founding fathers and think there was greatness then that is missing now. There was some of it in John F. Kennedy, and he was a man of such intellectual honesty that he would have understood his shortcomings as much as anyone. And it's in us too, and in our children and grandchildren.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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