by John Manchester
Most Fridays in the fall of 1963 my father was working at American Education Publications, publishers of “My Weekly Reader.” I was in my eighth grade class.
But that Friday, November 22nd, my father picked me up early from school in his green Austin-Healey Sprite. My father loved that car. He’d grin and say, “Let’s go for a spin,” crank the top down and we’d go flying out over the hills of Middletown, Connecticut. The Sprite gave him license to become a different person from the tightly wound writer who worked all day as an editor, then wrote late into every night. He was always writing. Even at dinner you could see the phrases playing on his lips, almost hear the whirr of his brain.
The air rushing past loosened his tongue, and he told me stories. were another form of writing – its purest. He told those stories well. He’d aspired to acting before writing, and it showed in the dramatic pauses he inserted to set up the sotto voce hiss of a villain, or a single word sentence for effect, so clear you could hear the period. My memory of those tales is sweet and warm, although they were anything but. His stories were inevitably dark, from the bizarre to outright screaming horror.
We headed to my soccer game, the only sports event of mine he ever attended. Which was fine by me – I was as hopeless at team sports as he’d been as a kid. He was clumsy as an adult, and never overcame the shame of being the last to be chosen when he was young. That Friday I was strangely hopeful what had been missing all along in my game was my dad’s presence. That wasn’t the case. With him there I was bad as ever.
And then the world stopped. Someone stalked onto the field and announced, “The president has been shot.
The world started again. Now I made no pretence of trying to connect with the ball, because I was blinded by tears. How could we still be playing this foolish game.
Finally, the game ended. My father didn’t say anything about our loss, or about the news. He just got in his car with a strangely apologetic expression, gave a little wave and drove off without me. I rode home sardined into the back of some mom’s station wagon, an extra passenger. In that era before seatbelts, we usually took that opportunity to horse around. Not today. We didn’t make a sound, didn’t move. There was just that voice on the radio, and the faintest candle of hope. Sometime during that ride the voice snuffed it out:
“President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 p.m. Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas.”
The car dropped me at a friend’s, where I stayed for the next four days. I didn’t see my father again until I got home. We never discussed it, but I can only think it was because he couldn’t bear for me to see him do what his father had forbade him to do: cry.
That March, Jackie Kennedy asked him to write the definitive account of her husband’s murder. He’d met John Kennedy on the Boston Common shortly after World War Two, and counted him as a friend.
In the fall of 1964 my mother and sisters and I followed my father down to Washington where he was busy interviewing 1000 people for his book. We lived in a fine Victorian House a few blocks from the Washington Cathedral. My father was pleased as punch that the great journalist Walter Lipmann lived at the end of our block, and Kennedy friend and humorist Art Buchwald lived around the corner. We watched LBJ’s inauguration that January from the window of my dad’s office in the National Archives.
Johnson was the only person with whom my father never got an interview, though not for lack of trying. He told me how he’d go to the White House at dawn and camp out until dusk waiting to nail the president. When they finally met there was still no interview – only the offer of a “bourbon and branch water and the dirtiest joke I’ve ever heard.” (He never told me what it was.)
That spring my father took me to meet Bobby Kennedy, then a New York senator. The senator spent 10 long minutes with a pimply kid who didn’t know the first thing about politics or history. He recounted his recent climbing of Mount Kennedy in Alaska. I was surprised that he was so short. He was the first of a few important men I’ve met who had that knack of locking eyes with you and making you feel like you’re just as important as they were.
My father had an inhuman capacity for work. A colleague from back in the 1950’s accurately tagged him: “Bill Manchester is a writing machine.” By fall of 1965 he’d completed his 1000 interviews and returned to Middletown Connecticut to write about the assassination. When he later wrote that he was working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, he was not exaggerating.
The work was emotionally grueling. He watched the Zapruder film of the assassination 75 times.
I was away from home for the first time that fall at boarding school, but returned Thanksgiving. I stood numb in the front hall as men in white coats wrestled my father down the stairs and out into a waiting ambulance. He spent three weeks in Elmcrest Hospital across the river. “Resting” my mother told me.
In the spring of 1966 my father finished writing his account of the assassination, put well over a thousand manuscript pages in a large suitcase, hauled it to New York and delivered it to Bobby Kennedy’s people. He was also happiest writing, and immersed himself in the project the Kennedy book had interrupted – his account of the German munitions dynasty.
He was unaware that his writing was about to be interrupted, and that life as he’d known it up to then was about to be over.
Neither Bobby nor Jackie Kennedy read the manuscript, instead handing it to various minions. The initial reports they gave my father were positive, but soon he began hearing complaints that the book was unflattering to President Johnson. Johnson feared – with good reason – that Bobby would challenge him for the nomination in 1968, and Bobby’s people were all hungry for jobs in a new Kennedy administration. It would not do to anger the President.
And so my father was dragged into presidential politics. Bobby’s people started picking at the manuscript, and it went on for months. My father would make the requested changes, but there were always more.
By the end of July my dad thought he was finally in the clear: He had a telegram from Bobby, which he saw as a green light for publication.
And he was suddenly, unexpectedly rich.
Most of the proceeds from The Death of a President would eventually go towards the creation of the Kennedy Library (over a million 1967 dollars.) All that he retained aside from the advance that he’d long since depleted was the magazine rights. But, T they became the subject of a bidding war. Look won for the then record amount of $665,000.
My father took the family up to Belgrade Lakes in Maine for a very well-earned month long vacation. I always looked forward to our vacations, because they were a time when he finally set down his pen, relaxed and spent time with me.
It was not to be.
The phone was already ringing in a the tiny cabin next to the water when we arrived.
The call was from Homer Bigart at the Times. Jackie viewed the Look magazine sale differently than my father. It was the beginning of a very public battle over the publication of the book.
I’d walk past and hear him his voice raised in anger and incredulity. I barely saw him, so I had only the faintest idea of what this battle entailed. But I could feel something huge going on.
I only remember seeing him once that August. He emerged from that cabin, pale, blinking in the sun. He was grinning. “I just spoke to Henry Luce, who was on his boat. He said, ‘What will it be, Manchester?’ I said two words, FUCK YOU, and hung up on him!”
I was shocked. Like every other boy at my school fuck was a mainstay of my vocabulary. But I’d never heard him say it.
I said, “Who’s Henry Luce?”
My father, exasperated – as if I should know this- said, “The publisher of Life magazine. The most feared man in my business. He’s the William Randolph Hearst of our time.”
What my father told me couldn’t have been true exactly. First, Look won the magazine rights before we got to Maine, so any phone call would have taken place back in Middletown. Second, it was Life’s managing editor, George P. Hunt, not Henry Luce, who was on a boat at the time, and who was representing Life in its bid, and was therefore the man to whom my father would have delivered his answer. But Hunt didn’t have a phone on his boat – that fact was the very reason Life had dropped out of the bidding with Look. During the crucial hours of the auction Hunt had been at sea, incommunicado.
Perhaps he moved around the details for effect, maybe I misremember. At the time I honestly had no idea what he was trying to tell me. Now I do. He was saying that he was now playing with the big boys. Playing, and winning.
Jackie Kennedy, like Bobby, didn’t read the manuscript. Instead she assigned the job to her secretary, who joined Bobby’s people in demanding changes from my father.
It was a David and Goliath story – my father and his agent against some of the most powerful men, and the most admired woman, in the world.
My father flew from Maine to Hyannis, and had a bizarre meeting with Jackie. He saw Bobby in Washington. They continued to demand changes to the book. They escalated. Bobby decided the book should not be published at all. The lawyers stepped in.
Jackie sued my father to stop publication.
They gravelly misjudged their opponent. My father was the most stubborn man I have ever known. He’d been given extraordinary access, done what he considered an extraordinary job, at great cost to himself. And he owed publication of this work to History.
They duked it out on the front page of the New York Times, on Network TV. My father escaped to London on the Queen Mary. The night before he sailed he heard the former Attorney General of the United States pounding on the door, demanding admission.
They followed him the England. My father got a bad case of the flu. He told his agent, Don Congdon, “I have reached the point where, if the integrity of my manuscript is violated, I have no wish to go on living. It sounds vainglorious, I know, but I am ready to die for this book.”
That fall my father was becoming world famous. I was in my second year at boarding school. My father told me he was afraid I’d get kidnapped, like the Lindberg baby. I laughed. I was sure kidnappers had nothing on the resident bullies.
The one perk of my dad’s fame was that I now longer had to correct people when they called me “Mansfield.” Mike Mansfield was the majority leader of the Senate, but he wasn’t on the front page of the Times every day.
My father returned from England and the circus came to Middletown, Connecticut.
Our gray colonial house had a bright red door. Growing up my father bragged, “It’s the only one in town.” It made me feel like we must be somehow special.
Apparently I was right.
I came home for Christmas to find the house surrounded by TV trucks, reporters crawling in the bushes. My father was literally hiding in his study in the back of the house above the kitchen. My mother hated his fame from day one. When the knocks on the door came she said to me, “It’s good you came home. You answer it.”
I was happy to. I stood there grinning, babbling, pleased to have somebody’s attention. But all they wanted to know was, “Where’s your father?”
The day after Christmas his flu turned to pneumonia and he went into intensive care at Middlesex hospital. The TV trucks followed him. One Kennedy person said, “Christ, I thought we’d killed him.”
On January 16th, 1967, my father and Jackie signed a document releasing the book for publication. The Death of a President became an instant bestseller. All of his books that followed were bestsellers.
His fame was a mixed blessing. It allowed him to pursue his passion – writing – fulltime. But he was intensely shy, and though he enjoyed praise, he also squirmed in the spotlight.
One of the great ironies of my father and I is that in 1968 we were together on the campus of Wesleyan University. He was a distinguished scholar in the office the university had given him high in the columned Olin Library overlooking the campus.
I was a freshman living in a small, cinderblock room.
But the contrast between our stations only begins there. Wesleyan was at the forefront of the liberation movements of the 60s. My father embraced the first wave, Civil Rights, taking me to hear Martin Luther King preach at Wesleyan just a month before Kennedy’s assassination. But as women and gays started clamoring for rights and as the anti-war demonstrations became louder and more frequent, this ex-Marine dug in his heels and said – enough. He clung to Victorian values, and retreated into writing history.
My first class was English 101.
The professor introduced himself, and said, “We will start with a book by a great American author…” His words brushed against my face, slightly annoying, like sand on a beach breeze. “…a great American author, William Manchester, a man whom I am privileged to call a friend. ‘THE DEATH OF A PRESIDENT.’ I sat up straight in my chair, my heart racing.
The professor continued, “Bill’s a personal hero of mine, and I am pleased to have his son in our class!” He pointed at me. I blushed and slunk behind my desk. I didn’t hear another word he said, and when the bell rang I fled and never came back.
People occasionally asked me, “”What’s it like having a famous father?”
And I’d answer quite truthfully – “I never think about it.” The effect that his fame might have on me was too enormous. It was years before I finally faced it.
At the end of that semester I crept to the office of that English Professor. We were both frankly in a bind. If I flunked English I was likely to end up in Vietnam. The professor had another problem. How was he going to explain to his good buddy Bill Manchester that he’d failed his son in English, of all subjects?
His proposed solution was that I read that damned book and write a long paper of it. With only hours left in the semester I read the book in one shot – all 750 pages, wrote the paper, and escaped by the skin of my teeth. What started as an onerous task ended with my honest conclusion that it was a great book.
In the months after my mother died in 1998, a picture of Jackie Kennedy appeared on the antique cabinet behind my father’s place at the head of the dining room table in his house in Middletown.
I never gave it more than a cursory glance until after his death in 2004. Now I did. She appears statuesque, like some ideal of feminine beauty, more lovely than any flesh and blood woman could be in any real moment. Her luminous eyes stare out at someone other than me, no mere man, but some Prince. Her image is as otherworldly, as idealized as some portrait from the height of French Romantic painting.
Why she should have been banished from our house while my mother lived was no mystery: my mother hated her. And not without reason. It wasn’t just that during the mad fall of the Controversy he’d slipped on occasion and addressed my mother as Jackie.
My mother saw Jackie as a rival for my father’s affection.
In flesh and blood, he stayed married to my mother for all her life, through thick and paper thin. But he spent much of his time in a parallel world of mythology – where the heroes and devils of his books fought their great wars, where people appeared as archetypes, where sons still wear crew cuts and daughter dutifully marry. In that world Jackie Kennedy was the epitome of womanhood, and the unrequited love of his life. How could my mother ever compete with that?
After he met Jackie at the beginning of their ill-fated project, he wrote, “ She’s incredible. She’s all woman. You’ve got to spend time with her, to see her in the full spectrum. When she looks at you with those big eyes…’” It’s clear he was smitten.
Later as feminism took strong root at Wesleyan, my old school father clung even tighter to his notions of how women should be. And Jackie came to represent all that he believed was being lost. He wrote.
“If she met your plane at the Hyannis airport, she automatically handed you the keys to her convertible. Men drive, women are driven: that was the logic of things to her, and it is impossible the think of her burning a bra or denouncing romantic love as counterrevolutionary.”
My father’s unusual capacity for loyalty is no better seen than in his actions of early 1968. It was barely a year after he and Bobby Kennedy butted heads. Bobby and Jackie had by all accounts “treated him shabbily,” as one player in the Controversy put it.
Yet here he was campaigning for Bobby for president, writing op-eds, speaking at a rally at Madison Square Garden.
In the terrible days after Bobby’s assassination, Jackie wrote him letter to thank him. He attached a copy to the back side of that picture of her. It’s inscribed:
“For Bill – with my best wishes always – Jacqueline Kennedy,” in her fine finishing school hand, and reads in part:
“I thank you with all my deepest heart – for President Kennedy – For Bobby
- For me – For everyone who will ever know or hear of what you did —-
because they will be made better by it – far into hundreds of years from now.
And you must always know – in these last months of such pain and toil for him – you gave him something so fine – You gave him
just what he was pleading for others – a wiping off of the blackboard of the past – a faith in now – and a generosity of such
magnitude and sacrifice -
Thank you dear Bill – with all my heart – those two pathetic inadequate words – but I mean them so much – with my deepest
gratitude – and always, affectionately
Reading the letter I felt myself temporarily under her famous spell, understood how he could have fallen for her. He hadn’t just cooked up her myth by himself. She’d colluded.
The picture at the head of his table confirmed that though once banished, he’d been invited back, would always have a place at the table of Camelot.
When she refers to “what you did” lasting into the future she doesn’t mean supporting Bobby – though that’s the ostensible purpose of the letter, but the writing of The Death of a President.
Ironically, thanks to the terms of the settlement she signed with my father in 1967, the book was long out of print I am pleased that The Death of a President is finally available in a new paperback edition, and as an e-book, which I’m hoping will attract younger readers.
My father gave his all in the writing of The Death of a President, investing part of himself that he and my family never completely retrieved. That’s what lends the book such passion, and what makes it indispensable to understanding the wound that dark day in Dallas wrought on America.
My father William Manchester’s account of JFK’s assassination, The Death of a President, is finally back in print after many years. Jill Abramson of the Times wrote an interesting overview of all the books on the subject, concluding with this about my father’s: “The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.
It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book.”
No one writing about the assassination has had as many sources as my father – including extensive interviews with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy. And no book captures the dark emotions still surrounding that time.
If you read it, or re-read it, you may want to give it a review, at Amazon or Goodreads.
A few days ago I got an email confirming that something I suggested to someone a few months ago had resulted in a cool thing. Nothing scandalous, but it made a fun story.
Something. Someone. Thing. Nothing. No, this is not an exercise in bad (i.e., purposely vague) writing. Please read on.
So I thought -why not blog about it? I asked the source of the email and they said, “No! Under no circumstances! You can’t write about it!” As I value my relationship with this person, I agreed. So I can’t tell you who or what or when or anything.
“You can’t write.” Not the first time I’ve heard that.
Right about now if you, the reader, are anything like me, or anything like anybody else, you’re getting irritated. Tell me! Come on, just a hint. Promise, I won’t tell anyone. (Sure you won’t.) But my word is good. I ain’t tellin.
Here’s the thing. You’re not the only one feeling frustrated here. There’s nothing quite like being a writer and stumbling on a good story, only to have someone tell you you can’t tell it. It’s almost physically painful.
You Can’t Write About Me is the title of my first novel. It begins with a guy who’s writing a memoir and calls up an old girlfriend. She’s happy to hear from him until she finds out what he’s doing. She commands, “You can’t write about me,” and hangs up.
He sits there skewered on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Yeah, when they were together it was her life, and she deserves her privacy. But that time was also a piece of his life, and he deserves to write about it. Being a fictional writer, with no lawyers or burly husbands or actual propriety to worry about, he writes about her. Then he writes about other people who don’t want him to. Before you know it he’s wishing he hadn’t. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say he has more than his guilt and a pissed off ex after him.)
Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker once wrote, “Writers are vampires.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss’s book about Jeffery MacDonald, the “green beret killer,” how the writer had befriended the killer, then betrayed him by writing a scathing (and bestselling) expose of him.
We’re all vampires, all of us writers. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit to honing my long incisors before venturing out in public. Never know when you’ll get hungry.
Nobody’s safe. An old, old friend got in touch after 40 years. It was great to talk to him. It was great seeing the PBS piece he sent celebrating a long illustrious career fighting injustice. But by the time I was done watching I’d ripped off his beard, hair and high school sport and grafted them onto a character in my latest book.
Nobody who eats in the same restaurant with me is safe. Don’t talk too loud or I’ll mine you for dialog. And don’t even think of fighting. I love that stuff! Your hipster fedora, your girlfriend’s vocal creak, the exact microbrew you’re right now quaffing are all slotted away awaiting reincarnation in a scene I’ll write.
I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.
I found that telling my truth in a memoir was much harder than I thought it would be. There were living people whose secrets I could not betray. And there were things even the dead did not want revealed. Hardest was finding a way to craft my truth into words that someone would want to read. My biggest problem was that I was too close to the material. I couldn’t achieve the essential quality of narrative distance. And without it I couldn’t tell what was good story, and what was just stuff that carried a potent emotion charge for me, but would just bore a reader. After seven drafts, and seven years –like something in a fairy tale – I let it rest.
And started writing fiction. I didn’t do it because I’d always dreamed of being a novelist. On the contrary, I consider novelists an impoverished, whiny, catty, miserable lot, somewhere in the nether ranks of society between musicians and psychokillers.
It was not ambition that brought me to fiction, but the solution to the problem of “You can’t write about me.” No, I can’t write about you, but I can write about my fictional character Ray, and everyone he knows.
Writing fiction also solved the thorny problem of getting the right narrative distance. I was surprised to discover that my made up stories (which the reader might suspect had quite a bit of real life woven in) were actually truer than my memoir. Yes, the “facts” were made up. But the emotional truth was there. Working at the canvas of a novel I found it easy to step back, see what my brushstrokes had evoked, see the whole, because it was not my life. Not my life, but my truth.
So I’m very sorry, for you, and for me, that I can’t tell you this neat story I heard this week. But if you hang around my work, I will tell it in one form or another. I promise.
My father’s last book is about to be published:
FINAL BOOK OF CHURCHILL TRILOGY COMING THIS FALL
By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer – 4 days ago NEW YORK (AP) —
The third and final volume of the late William Manchester’s beloved series on Winston Churchill is coming out this fall, nearly 25 years since the previous book. In November, Little, Brown and Company will publish “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965.” The new work was started by Manchester and completed by Paul Reid, a former writer for Cox Newspapers. Manchester, who began the Churchill series in the 1980s, was in poor health during his latter years and asked Reid to take over the project. Little, Brown spokeswoman Nicole Dewey said Sunday that the first two biographies had sold hundreds of thousands of copies and that the publisher still receives frequent inquiries about the third book. Manchester died in 2004 at age 82. Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Coincident with this news I have just launched a new website: http://johnkmanchester.com/
It’s devoted to my father’s work and my own, including fragments of one tie that still binds us, 8 years after his death: my memoir, Escaping the Giant. It contains rare family photos, samples of my music, my father’s biliography and links, plus a hand picked page of 60s Counterculture resources.
Please stop by, comment if you want, and if you like the site, like it on Facebook! (Even though I think Facebook is the work of the devil.)
NOTE: Due to time constraints, in the future I will only be posting here on the topic of production music. I will still blog on all kinds of subjects, at: http://open.salon.com/blog/luminousmuse
In fact, I’ve been doing so for the last few months. So if you’ve been following me here, that’s now my place, along with johnkmanchester.com.
Thanks for reading here!
In researching his alternate history of JFK’s assassination, 11/22/63, Stephen King did his homework – reading “a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am.” In researching his non-fiction work on the same subject, Death of a President, my father conducted over 1000 interviews, many made possible by Jackie Kennedy’s approval of the project. The only person who refused to talk to him was Oswald’s widow, Marina. My father told me that she sued him for 10 million dollars – a lot of scratch back in the 60s.
My father and King came to the same conclusion: that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed Kennedy in Dallas. It’s an unpopular conclusion. A majority of Americans believe otherwise. My father sympathized with people’s need to pin this monumental historic event on something greater than a lone and little man. King mentions my father saying this, but I think it’s best in his own words:
Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning. To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an esthetic principle here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime — the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state — you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals.
But if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.
A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever that there was one. (New York Times, February 5, 1992)
So where do I stand on the assassination? Truth is, I’ve never paid it much attention. Perhaps that’s because it’s too painful. It’s an event that came close to tearing my family apart. I haven’t studied the volumes of evidence, and supposed evidence supporting one theory or another. So I don’t have much grounds for an informed opinion.
And in venturing one, I’m sticking my neck out. For all the reasonable people who believe in conspiracy theories – and with that many believers, there must be some – there is a wide fringe that is less than reasonable. Their very obsession with the subject suggests that it might be a lot more about them personally than whatever happened in Dallas so long ago. Some of them are plain nuts, and hounded my father to the day he died.
So I should just leave it there. And yet… There are a couple of things that cause me to tend to agree with my dad and Stephen King.
Back in the seventies I went to a party of fellow Wesleyan Alums at an apartment in Cambridge. It was the home of the AIB –Assassination Inquiry Bureau. A center for the kind of fevered discussion I witnessed that evening – Did you hear the latest on Jack Ruby? The Grassy Knoll? The missing bullet? Those little green men?
An acquaintance came up to me and said, “So, is it true, what Paul Krassner wrote?” Krassner had written a satirical (?) piece in his magazine, The Realist, about the parts my father supposedly left out of his account of the assassination. They include a scene of Lyndon Johnson on the plane back to Washington from Texas copulating with the wound in JFK’s neck.
I said, ‘No!” frankly, a little pissed off – on behalf of my dad. He never understood counterculture humor (not sure I understood this bit of it either) and had been very upset by Krassner’s piece.
Now the guy from Wesleyan gave me a long look. “Tell me the truth. Was your father in on it too?” Of the conspiracy. Which part? The CIA, Castro, the green men? The assumption being that he’d been bought off to whitewash the truth.
I mumbled something, then left the party. I thought of all the acid those guys at the AIB had imbibed back at Wesleyan – hey, I ran with the same crowd, took some of the same acid. It’s a drug which certainly lends itself to conspiracy theories. I thought about them sitting in that apartment, dreaming up stuff. I wondered if they’d even been to Dallas.
I was certain they hadn’t conducted 1000 interviews, some of them with people who would speak to no one else about the assassination. They hadn’t worked 15 hours a day for 2 ½ years studying that dark day in Texas.
I knew my father well enough to know that his honor would have made it impossible for him to be bought off as part of any conspiracy. Given the choice on this between trusting him and a bunch of acidheads, I’m going with him and Stephen King.
I was reading Stephen King’s latest – 11/2/63, an alternate history of JFK’s assassination – when I ran into my father. I was using the Kindle app on my iPad, so I can’t say which page it was on, only that it was location 1071, 8% through the book. My father would have been horrified that the book didn’t have page numbers, horrified by the whole concept of eBooks. He was lucky not to live to see them.
I have recounted in a previous post – Brain in a Jar– how when I was young my father loved to tell me gruesome tales, and how they combined with my seeing a real brain in a jar to produce the worst nightmare of my young life.
That dream should have put me off dark stories. It didn’t. Maybe I developed a fondness for them because they took up much of the rare time I got to spend with my busy father, who in the years before his fame worked by day and wrote by night. Or maybe I was just born with a taste for the macabre. At some point my appetite grew beyond my father’s stories. I found myself devouring Poe and the midnight side of Ray Bradbury.
Just as I reached adolescence my father became too busy to tell me stories. He was busy – 15 hours a days, 7 days a week – telling the very real dark story that King’s fictional work is based on– the assassination of Kennedy. He started by conducting 1000 interviews. By fall of 1965 he was writing, and reached a roadblock when it came to describing the moment the side of Kennedy’s head was blown off. It was particularly tough because he’d called Kennedy a friend.
By spooky coincidence, during those same weeks that he struggled I was meeting one of the hardest challenges of my young life – battling a psychopathic roommate at the boarding school my parents had shuffled me off to. Months after I escaped him I was still haunted by the memory of that terrible experience. My parents were too embroiled in my father’s epic battle with Jackie Kennedy to hear about my trouble. So I turned to the thing I’d learned at my father’s knee – storytelling. I wove my own dark story from my trails, and told my friends. They found it entertaining, and I found myself unburdened of some of the weight of an unpleasant memory.
In college someone turned me on to H. P. Lovecraft. Crappy and impenetrable as I find this overly-adjectived author today, discovering him felt like finding a long lost friend – those stories of my dad.
Out of college, on the road with my band, I picked up Ed Sanders’ The Family – the story of Charlie Manson and his skeleton crew. But other than that I forgot about dark tales.
It wasn’t until my mid twenties that the strange seed my father had planted fully bloomed –like that plant Aubrey, in The Little Shop of Horrors -into a literary obsession.
My obsession started on a dark and, yes, stormy night. I was driving home to my crummy apartment in Allston from a recording session I was producing at a studio far out in the sticks. My car broke down on a back road. For the sake of this story I’d like to report that I was picked up by a tall, dark stranger, who grinned at me, revealing feline incisors and a tongue thick with the blood of his previous victim.
But no, it was just my boss who picked me up – a short, eccentric fellow I knew all too well. He was kind enough to drop me at the train station in white bread Lincoln, about as unlikely a venue for a creepy tale as one can imagine.
Yet as I entered the train station I did experience a fright. My train was on the platform. I ran out only to watch it leave without me. I fretted -when was the next one? It was getting late.
Not for an hour and a half. Shit. I was hungry and tired. No longer afraid, but annoyed. And soon bored. I spied a rack of paperbacks. I spun it around. Nothing here for me.
Wait. A teenaged girl, standing, drenched in blood. Might be my kind of book. Carrie, by some guy I’d never heard of -Stephen King.
I stood at the rack, and started reading to see if it was worth the couple of bucks they were charging. By the time the next train came I was still reading, and almost missed it. I ran over, paid for the book, hopped on the train and finished reading before I got home.
It was King’s first book. I liked his second, Salem’s Lot, too. I proceeded to read every subsequent book of his, plus just about anything else I could get my hands on involving vampires, evil forces, ancient curses, you name it. Many of the books were terrible.
King was more or less reliable. He was (and still is) terribly prolific, and uneven. But for every turkey like Cujo (which King himself admits he wrote in a chemically-induced haze) there were always at least a couple of fine tales like The Stand and The Shining.
Back to my father. He was a very difficult man to buy presents for at Christmas. Writing consumed about 95% of his time and energy. He had all the pens and typewriter ribbons he needed.
When he wasn’t writing he was reading. He liked stuff by guys like John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, and John LeCarre. I was always afraid to get him one of those, in case he already had the latest. I hate getting presents I already have, and assumed he felt the same way.
Socks, sweaters…one Christmas I had a new idea. What about those stories he’d once told me? I gave him King’s Misery. When I called him later he said, “I liked that book. He tells a good story.” Real praise coming from my father.
It became a yearly ritual. And the prolific King was obliging. We hit a snag the Christmas after my mother died, when I unthinkingly bought my father Bag of Bones, the tale of a man who’s recently lost his wife. My father scolded me, though only halfheartedly – his marriage had been no picnic, unless you’re talking about that one at Hanging Rock…
My father didn’t just like King’s writing. He identified with him, too. They both came from blue-collar families, both sold a lot of books while suffering the scorn of academic elites. The New York Review of Books trashed my father’s work, and he never made it into the New Yorker, except for a truly horrifying picture of him in old age that Richard Avedon took. King has come up in the world, not only making the New Yorker, but having the New York Times list 11/22/63 as one of the ten notable books of 2011.
They both loved the Red Sox, though my father would die the spring before their long awaited World Series triumph in 2004. King would go on to write a book about it.
King and my father had one other thing in common. They agreed on who killed John Kennedy.
I’ll leave that story for Part 2.