FIFTY YEAR AGO TODAY
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.