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Son of a Famous Man

June 12, 2012
JUNE 20, 2012 7:20AM

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This is the very short version of my memoir Escaping the Giant, minus the fun stuff (sex, drugs and rock and roll), for those of you who have understandably gotten tired of waiting for publication. Reduction 1:45. Still working on the twitter version.

In early 1964 Jackie Kennedy asked my father William Manchester to write an official account of her husband’s assassination. In the next two years he conducted over 1000 interviews, then wrote 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. The result was The Death of a President.

When he done Jackie had a change of heart and decided she didn’t want the book published. She enlisted her brother-in-law Bobby and his aides, some of the most powerful men in Washington, to suppress its publication. My father was an unknown writer at the time, a mild-mannered, even shy person. They underestimated him, ignoring the fact that he had survived combat as a Marine on Okinawa. And that he was a man who once he decided to do something, did it, no matter the obstacles.

For nine months in 1966 he battled the Kennedys.  The fight was front page news and all over the three TV networks. He won the battle. The book was published and was a bestseller. And he was internationally famous.

I was fifteen when it happened. When I came home from boarding school that Thanksgiving our house was surrounded by TV trucks. My mother asked me to answer the door, and as reporters peppered me with questions, I smiled, feeling the glow of the international spotlight. Flush with hormones, in the spring of my life,  I felt this must be a good thing for me. I didn’t understand that the light I stood in was only a reflection from its target, my father. Ever after my mother, sisters and I would be in its shadow. All of us – including him – would suffer far more than we would benefit from his fame.

Starting in my 20s  people often asked me, “What’s it like being the son of a famous man?” I answered, “I never think about it.”  I was telling the truth. It was too big for me to grasp. I couldn’t think, but I could feel. Once that initial glow wore off, being the son of a famous man scared me badly.

I wouldn’t understand why until I was much older.

No one gets to be famous by sitting on their butt or being a wallflower. Long before 1966 my father was an indefatigable worker. He was fiercely ambitious. And  he had the killer instinct.

From the time he was young he taught me, by example, that to be a man you must beat all of the other men. You must always win. You must beat all of the other men, including your son. He was five inches taller than me. He bragged of becoming an Eagle Scout, saying how difficult it was. I failed to achieve Tenderfoot. I played him in ping pong countless times, and he never let me once win.

I took his lesson to heart. It left me with the insolvable riddle of my life –I must beat all the other men. But I can never beat my father.

Before my father became famous, I suppose I imagined I had some chance. Afterwards I knew it was hopeless. He once said to me, “To make it you need talent, drive, and luck.” I used this statement as a measuring stick as I pursued a career in music. At the beginning of each day I asked myself if I had the talent, then worked as hard as I could to prove that I had the drive. But I knew I’d never have the kind of luck my father did in taking on the Kennedys. Later I’d know I didn’t have his killer instinct, either.

Before his fame the fact that I would always lose against my father was my secret. Now the whole world knew. Whenever people found out who my father was, they would say, “Oh,” and this dreamy look would come into their eyes as their attention drifted from me to my father. “What a great writer! I love his books.” No one ever said it, and I’ll never know who thought it, or who didn’t. But what I heard was: You’re not as interesting as your father. You’re not the man he is. And why shouldn’t I think that? He’d made it clear. From my perspective the world would forever measure me as a man against my father, and I would always come up short.

In 1967 I found my own kind of luck. The counterculture circus came to town, making its glorious noise, and I joined right up. I exchanged my acoustic guitar for an electric, and became one of the noisemakers. I enjoyed the sex and drugs part, too – at least some of the time. But I was in it for the long haul, for deeper reasons.

When I sang the counterculture anthem, “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love one another right now” I meant every word.

I imagined a world where co-operation trumped competition. Where relationships were about love, not power. Where every human being deserved dignity, no matter how lowly in the eyes of society. Where the goal in working was to “do you own thing” –find your passion and pursue it to the ends of the earth.

I’d stumbled on the solution to my riddle. There was no solution by my father’s rules, which said that the measure of a man is to be found in the prizes of the world. But by changing the rules, I could succeed. After I joined the counterculture I found friends who valued me for who I was, not what I’d done. I eventually found a partner who did the same, who taught me that most valuable lesson –that relationships are either about love or power. When I had two sons, after an initial struggle with my father’s demons, I resolved that their success – however they defined that –was all that mattered to me.

After I graduated college my father told me, “The record of the sons of famous men is not encouraging.”  I pictured myself living on the street in a cardboard box, drinking cheap wine or strung out  on heroin. Or insane.  Dying an early, ugly death. I was determined not to go that way.

He said,  “I’m wealthy, but I’m not going to support you. If I do, you’ll be weak and never make anything of yourself.”

My passion was music. I chased it following my own rule: that what was pleasing to my ear would always take precedence over the demands of the market.  In the decade that I struggled to establish my musical career, asI shivered in apartments without central heat, or no heat at al, drove around in rattletrap cars and wore my clothes until they fell into tatters, I sometimes railed to myself against his attitude of not supporting me. Later I was grateful that he hadn’t. I had made my own way. And by my rules. I succeeded in supporting my family, writing music that pleased my inner ear.

By the standards of the world, on the other hand, I was a failure. I wasn’t seen on TV. I didn’t win prizes. As a creator of instrumental background music for radio, TV and later the internet, I was utterly anonymous.

I liked it that way.

I hadn’t always been anonymous. Up until the late-70s my performing career looked promising. In 1978 I played guitar for Livingston Taylor, opening for Linda Rondstadt and Fleetwood Mac, at the very top of the rock and roll game. But I suffered crippling stagefright. At the end of those tours, having proved I could do it, I quit performing for good.

I’ve never really understood what drove me from the stage, but I know it has to do with my father. I was either afraid to really run in the big time race, afraid that I’d lose. Or I was afraid I might win. I was starting to know the toll my father’s celebrity was taking on him and our family.

As Christian a nation as America is, I sometimes think the more persuasive faith is the one millions of Americans follow as they worship their idols from the pew of their living room couch: the Cult of Celebrity. Their hope is in ascending to that heaven in Hollywood, to become Gods and Goddesses themselves. Or at least to get on TV. And then they’ll be happy.

It’s a cruel religion. It says that the world is divided into Somebodys and Nobodies. Winners and losers. And the vast majority of the faithful are bound to lose.

I’ve tried my best to stay away from that church. Except I was born into the faith.

I was at a party a few years ago and met a fellow who asked what I did. I explained how I made a living writing background music, and he said, “Oh, thanks. I always wondered what happened to losers in the music business.” He was rude, but succeeded in illuminating my ever present fear: You’re not your father!  I felt myself shrink, this little thing gleaming briefly in the great glow of the big thing. An afterthought.

In all the years that I hid away in my recording studio, my father’s riddle lay buried in me, intact. I didn’t know it, but some part of me was still playing the game by his rules. As I reached forty and approached the age when my father became famous, I started finally thinking about that thing I’d never thought about. The effect of my father’s fame on me.  I became convinced that I must catch up with him. I uprooted my family and moved close to New York to make a last desperate attempt to catch up with him.

It looked promising. I made an album that I was proud of. But then things went wrong, and it was never released. Actually, now I know that things were bound to go wrong. I never had the most essential key to success that my father did – the killer instinct. I’ve been a literal pacifist since the mid-sixties. I can never fight wholeheartedly, because as that kid who could never beat his dad, I always feel for the underdog. So when I’m in the ring, I pull my punches.

In my father’s last weeks, when I knew he was about to die, I considered broached the topic we’d never discussed -effect of his fame on me. I couldn’t do it. He was suffering too much.

Then within days of his dying I gave up composing to write. Though he’d never said it in so many words, he’d made it clear to me that in that game, I not only couldn’t beat him, but shouldn’t even think of playing.

Yet here I was at age 53, not only writing, but determined to make a career of it. Was this some desperate act of self-destruction? For what was the worst version of the unfavorable comparison I always feared with my father? You can’t write like him. And here I was, inviting it.

Except. Except I know daily the joy of doing it. It’s the same I felt writing music. It’s the same he felt, doing the thing he most loved in this life. Do your own thing. Follow your bliss.

My first seven years writing, I wrote about my father, our troubled relationship, the tumultuous late 60s when, to his chagrin, I followed a path apparently so different than his.

So different, yet so much the same. I’ve come full circle. In trying to solve that impossible riddle I found the path of faithfully following my muse. And it finally led me to become a writer, like my father.

(This was a response to a father’s day call out from The Good Men Project.)

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Comments

Insightful piece here. I think we all carry around our demons, but it’s good when we finally understand them. I’m glad you found your way to writing and look forward to reading your memoir.
It’s unfortunate that one’s own sense of what constitutes personal success or a life well lived can get so informed by the standards of one’s family, whether explicitly or self-imposed. Just judging by the bits and pieces I’ve picked up here Luminous, you’ve led a fine life and seem to be a fine person. You’re one whose posts I always look forward to and your explanation of the virtues of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was illumin(ous)ating of what goes into making a song successful.

That said, there’s a lot of what you’ve written here that generally goes with the territory of having a famous parent. At critical point in life when we’re all trying to create, explore and define our own identities, it must be very difficult doing so without doing so in reaction to the famous parent’s standards. Thanks for such an insightful article.

This really resonates with me, Luminous. My brother and I also lived in the shadow of our celebrity father’s success. Dad is an actor, who started getting lots of TV and some film gigs in his 40s. Like you, people who found out who my Dad was and what TV shows they’d seen him on would suddenly light up and find me more interesting. I totally get where you’re coming from and am glad you had the courage to pursue writing in spite of that inner voice (Dad & Company) telling you you’d never measure up.
I understand this completely. My father is not famous, but well known in his field (something I’m not interested in) but that popularity shaped the dynamics of our family life and still does. My brother, who is in the same field, always has to line up behind him. Very insightful and delightful piece. Thanks for sharing. Glad you are writing. RRRRR
John, a excellent and honest post. All Good Men do what they do the best they know how.
Absolutely tremendous and full of nuanced reason. Add my name to those who look forward to the full memoir.
Read your Dad’s book when it came out. Don’t understand the Kennedy antipathy, but there you go.

Like you, I opted out of my father’s chosen field of endeavour (the family business he founded), leaving it to my younger brother instead. He’s done marvellously well — he has the killer instinct.

My own field was different, if no less gruelling. I take satisfaction knowing neither of them could do what I did.

I look forward to your book too, John. It’s often the case that we come full circle and close the gap on our journey to find the missing pieces and make peace with what has felt like ghosts that haunted us all the while.
R♥
I would love to see this when it is finished and published.
………(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
☼•*¨`*•.¸.(ˆ◡ˆ).¸.•*
…………… *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Thanx & Smiles (ツ) & ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥ ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥ (ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★(ˆ◡ˆ) ♥⋯ ❤ ⋯ ★
lacking the killer instinct is a critical defect for those of is seeking the sort of success society bestows.

i am glad you found your own measure of success, and held onto your pacifism.

the dude at the party is an utter moron, and i wish you threw your drink at him.

Better brace yourself, bubba. This book is gonna make you as famous as your father, or more so. The story arc here alone could do it, but with your writing skill… BOOM! Move over, Santini.
Fascinating and resonant. My mom was locally well-known and revered, and I often heard, “If you’re even half the woman your mom is….” And she was borderline personality, and rather cruel to me. Also, from the other side, I have a famous son who right now is editor of Forbes. That is a different thing. I am so proud. but I also realize I can never attain what he already has. I tend to live vicariously through him and his glamorous exploits.
“the killer instinct”

I will never have “it” yet most of my family does and they have a lot of money. They laugh at what I do but I don’t care John. I have heard the word ‘ loser’ many times and condemn the person or persons that said it as they have no idea..We do AND DID what we do best and should be proud of it. That is all I have to say. The demons can be there but it is up to us to kick them to the curb or at least make them stand off to the side.

You did well John and do not let anyone tell you otherwise. You did it yourself…

HUGGGGGGGGGG

This was very nicely written. It’s obvious that you have your own writing talent, and can stand on your own. I’d love to read your memoir.
what the living heck is this?
you are joshing us ..you aint the great man’s daughter or are u?
goddamn, lady, it is like 100 degrees here and i am on the verge
of heat stroke. don’t silly me…
?
once upon a time, my father, pretty big in this town,
ironically named MANCHESTER, ct,
a history teacher
with mr. manchester on his bookshelf, taught me this nonsense
too:

I imagined a world where co-operation trumped competition. Where relationships were about love, not power. Where every human being deserved dignity, no matter how lowly in the eyes of society.

i am rather stymied.
i dunno what to think. is it the heat.?

John, an interesting and insightful work. I am wishing you the best with your book. I am more on all of us being the father of ourselves, knowing that this is hard, but each of us walks his/her own way. Beautiful writing, cause more to the thinkings, gave feelings too, and to me this is the essence of writing.

Kalimera.

I was a LM fan before I knew you were WM’s kid; I think it was the same post that Abrawang cited. I’ll never be the drunk my father was though, Lord knows, I’ve tried.
“Hot fire begets cold ash” Chinua Achebe

You have made the impossible happen:You have broken the spell.

Matt’s advise is invaluable.

My respect:You have paid a high prize but it was worth it.

~Rated~ in anticipation

This is very touching, and further proof that you more than hold your own candle, and it is a bright one. No one in my family has a killer instinct…but something like a unique perseverance (and a bit of karma) has served me well. Maybe it’s “our” turn 🙂
This was some piece of writing I’m sure he would be proud of. You really opened my eyes on a few things I didn’t know. I may get with you later, but thank you. Great Post!
I just keep thinking — I wish your dad could read this.
Just because you are late to the dance doesn’t mean you can’t dance to the beat. What a triumph-in-progress… And remember; they say dysfunction is the hallmark of many successful writers’ childhoods…Fame may be just around the corner. Boogie down!
So different, yet so much the same. I’ve come full circle. In trying to solve that impossible riddle I found the path of faithfully following my muse. And it finally led me to become a writer, like my father.

Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game – “and it finally let me to become” who you truly are. A nice thing to have in common with one’s father.

r

LM – sorry I missed this post and comments while away on work, and now especially after I just blogged based on the early chapters in one of WM’s books! I look forward to more of your writing.
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