Within months of J.F.K.'s death, the president's widow asked William
Manchester to write the authorized account of the assassination. He
felt he couldn't refuse her. Two years later, nearly broken by the
task, Manchester found himself fighting a bitter, headline-making
battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy over the finished book. The
author chronicles the toll Manchester's 1967 best-seller, The Death
of a President, exactedphysically, emotionally, and
financiallybefore it all but disappeared.
By Sam Kashner
I thought that it would be bound in black and put away on dark
library shelves. Jacqueline Kennedy
It has never gone away, the nightmare of November 22, 1963. Each time
one revisits the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th
president of the United States, "one hopes for once the story will be
differentthe car swerves, the bullets miss, and the splendid
progress continues. But each time, like a recurrent nightmare, the
handsome head is shattered," as Gore Vidal wrote in his World Journal
Tribune review of William Manchester's highly detailed, passionate,
and greatly beleaguered account, The Death of a President.
Of all the books written about the Kennedy assassinationby some
counts more than 2,000the one book commissioned by the Kennedys
themselves and meant to stand the test of time has virtually
disappeared. The fight over Manchester's bookpublished on April 7,
1967, by Harper & Row after more than a year of bitter, relentless,
headline-making controversy over the manuscriptnearly destroyed its
author and pitted him against two of the most popular and charismatic
people in the nation: the slain president's beautiful grieving widow,
Jacqueline Kennedy, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy. And the
struggle would bring to both Jackie and Bobby a public-relations nightmare.
A day after the president's body was flown to Washington, his casket
lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, before final interment in
Arlington National Cemetery. Kennedy's family had wanted the
president to be buried in Brookline, Massachusetts, next to his
father and to his son Patrick, who had died two days after he was
born. But Jacqueline realized that her husband belonged to the
American people, and so she insisted on a burial at Arlington.
For two days before the burial, the line of citizens waiting to file
by the catafalque reached five miles, snaking through the chill,
solemn streets of the capital. For the procession from the Rotunda to
St. Matthew's Cathedral, where the funeral Mass was held, Mrs.
Kennedy didn't want to ride in one of the government's black
Cadillacs, so she walked, leading a delegation from 92 nations.
Charles de Gaulle, who towered over the other heads of state as they
followed the horse-drawn caisson down Constitution Avenue, later
reflected that President Kennedy's widow "gave the world an example
of how to behave." Manchester later noted that, in the hours after
the tragedy, "Jacqueline Kennedy was virtually the government of this
country and held it together." After the assassination, she had stood
beside Lyndon B. Johnson in her blood-splattered Chanel suit as he
was sworn into office. Now, at the president's funeral, in her black
widow's garb, she symbolized the nation's grief. For five years in a
row, a Gallup poll named her "the most admired woman in the world."
Following the ordeal of the funeral, Jacqueline resolved to leave the
White House as quickly as possible. Before departing, she had a
plaque inscribed with the words "In this room lived John Fitzgerald
Kennedy, with his wife Jacqueline, during the two years, ten months,
and two days he was president of the United States" and placed it in
the Lincoln bedroom. (The Nixons would later have the plaque
removed.) Eleven days after the funeral, Jacqueline sought refuge at
her temporary home at 3038 N Street, in Georgetown.
Beset by writers clamoring for interviews, Jacqueline decided to
designate one to produce the official story of the assassination. In
part, she wanted to stop Jim Bishop, a syndicated columnist living in
Florida, who was already preparing a book. He was the author of The
Day Lincoln Was Shot and a just-finished book, A Day in the Life of
President Kennedy, but according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the
Pulitzer Prizewinning historian and special assistant to Kennedy,
the First Lady considered Bishop a "hack" who asked too many personal
questions. She preferred that no book be written, but as that was
impossible, she went in search of an author.
William Manchester was not her first choice. Theodore H. White, a
family favorite (The Making of the President 1960), and Walter Lord
(A Night to Remember) turned her down. Then Pierre Salinger, the
Kennedys' press secretary, suggested Manchester, a onetime foreign
correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and the author of novels and
nonfiction books on H.L. Mencken, the Rockefellers, and President Kennedy.
Most important, he had worshipped John F. Kennedy. His 1962 Portrait
of a President was so respectful it was described as "adoring."
Kennedy, not surprisingly, liked Portrait, and Jacqueline had read
Manchester's profile of the president that had appeared in Holiday
magazine in 1962. His prose had an emotionally rich, poetic quality
that impressed her.
J.F.K. had in fact sat for interviews with Manchester, a not
unpleasant experience. "I'd see Jack at the end of his last
appointment for the day," Manchester told the journalist Seymour
Hersh. "We'd have a daiquiri and sit on the Truman balcony. He'd
smoke a cigar and I'd have a Heineken."
Manchester, an ex-Marine, was square-jawed, dark-haired, solidly
built. When he first met the president he was 39, Kennedy 44. Both
men had been born in Massachusetts, but Manchester's ancestors, who
had settled in Attleboro, had arrived long before the Kennedys. The
two men may have bonded over their similar W.W. II experiences. (Both
had received Purple Hearts, Manchester fighting on Okinawa, J.F.K.
commanding PT 109 in the South Pacific's Solomon Islands.) Manchester
later wrote that the president "was brighter than I was, braver,
better-read, handsomer, wittier, and more incisive. The only thing I
could do better was write."
In 1964, Manchester was living in a white 18th-century frame house on
High Street in Middletown, Connecticut, with his wife, Judy, and
their three children. He was working part-time as a managing editor
for American Education Publications and, on a Wesleyan fellowship,
was writing a history of the Krupp manufacturing family. On February
5, he was sitting in his office on the second floor of Wesleyan's
Olin Library when he received an early-morning telephone call from
Salinger. He initially thought it was his friend JerryJ.D. Salinger,
author of The Catcher in the Ryeso he was caught off guard when
Kennedy's press secretary made the offer for him to write the
authorized account of the assassination. At first reluctant to take
on such a burden, Manchester turned to his secretary and asked, "How
can I say no to Mrs. Kennedy?"
"You can't," she replied.
He resigned his post at Wesleyan the same day. Suddenly Manchester
found himself "jobless, a middle-aged, highly educated vagrant."
There was never any question that the proposed book would be
published by Harper & Row, which had brought out John F. Kennedy's
Profiles in Courage and Robert Kennedy's 1960 investigation into
union corruption, The Enemy Within. They had both been edited by Evan
Welling Thomas III, who had come up with the title for the former
book. In his 22 years at Harper & Brothers, later Harper & Row,
Thomas had published many prominent politicians and statesmenmostly
Democratsand John Cheever was among his handful of fiction writers.
Tall, slim, aristocratic, Thomas came by his interest in politics
honestly as the son of Norman Thomas, the famous American socialist
and perennial presidential candidate. There were other Kennedy
connections at Harper & Row as well. Cass Canfield, the president of
Harper and chairman of the Executive Committee, was a product of
Groton, Harvard, and Oxford. Canfield's son had been briefly married
to Jacqueline's sister, Lee Bouvier, before her marriage to Prince
Radziwill. "Cass was, I guess, Jackie's friend. He was sort of a
high-society type," recalls Thomas's son, Evan Thomas, now Newsweek's
editor-at-large and the author of a well-regarded biography of Robert
Kennedy. "I remember my father once saying that Cass was born with a
silver spoon in his mouth and enjoyed the taste of it. The family
legend is that Profiles in Courage came to Harper through Cass."
But it was Thomas who went to see John F. Kennedy in the hospital,
where he was recovering from major back surgery, to persuade him to
write Profiles in Courage, which would win the 1957 Pulitzer Prize.
Thomas was impressed by Kennedy's physical courage and charisma. "In
the hospital when I saw him, he was lying on his back, writing on a
board. It was impossible not to be charmed by him." He was charmed,
too, by Robert Kennedy when he worked on The Enemy Within. "Daddy
started dealing with Bobby," the younger Thomas recalls. "He liked
Bobbyhe admired his toughness."
That admiration, however, would be tested by the competitive Kennedy
clan, who placed a high value on vigor. "My father had multiple
sclerosis," Thomas explains. "He'd gotten M.S. in 1950, but it was in
remission mostly. But he had trouble walking, and one story I
remember about Bobby is that he would test my father, make him go on
a long walk: typical Kennedy. It seems cruel when you think about it,
making a guy with M.S. go for a walk, but that's a little bit the way
the Kennedys wereall of life is a test, and you're always proving
your manhood. I don't think he meant it to be cruel. I remember my
father sort of shaking his head, going, 'Bobby, come on.'"
On February 26, 1964, Manchester flew to Washington to meet with
Robert Kennedy, restlessly serving out his term as attorney general,
in his impressive, dark-wood-paneled office in the Justice
Department. Manchester was shocked by Robert's appearance. "Much of
the time he seemed to be in a trance, staring off into space, his
face a study in grief," he later wrote in Controversy, his collected
essays. Also present in the attorney general's office were Evan
Thomas and Manchester's longtime literary agent, Don Congdon. Edwin
O. Guthman, Robert Kennedy's press secretary, drifted in and out of
the meeting. Just before entering Kennedy's office, Manchester
whispered to Congdon, "Don't say a word. I'm not doing this for money."
Thomas told the attorney general that no one wanted to "commercialize
the assassination," and he proposed that Harper & Row limit its
profit to $35,000 and provide Manchester with an advance of $40,000.
The author's additional royalties would go to the John F. Kennedy
Library. "To guarantee my independence, I would accept no money from
the Kennedys," Manchester insisted.
Robert Kennedy had a memo drawn up with 11 points, outlining the
roles that Manchester and the Kennedys would play in the
commissioning and writing of the book. It stipulated that Harper &
Row be the publisher and that the book not be published until five
years after the assassination, on November 22, 1968, "unless Mrs.
Kennedy designates a prior date." Most important was item No. 3: "The
completed manuscript shall be reviewed by Mrs. John F. Kennedy and
Robert F. Kennedy, and the final text shall not be published unless
and until approved by them." (On this typewritten memo, R.F.K. had
scratched out by hand "the final text shall be approved" and wrote
instead, "the final text shall not be published unless and until
approved" by them.)
"Let Them See What They've Done"
One week after the assassination, the newly sworn-in president,
Lyndon B. Johnson, convened a blue-ribbon panel, to be headed by
Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, to investigate the events of
November 22. The seven-man panel of "the President's Commission on
the Assassination of President Kennedy" included two United States
senators, two influential congressmen (including one future
president, Gerald Ford), and Allen W. Dulles, former director of the
Central Intelligence Agency.
Manchester, who always maintained that his goals were different from
the Warren Commission's, later wrote in his introduction to The Death
of a President, "The Commission was conducting a criminal probe. I
was exploring the full sweep of events during what were, in some
respects, the most extraordinary hours in the history of our
country." Rather than being seen as a competitor to Johnson's
appointed panel, Manchester was given access to all the "testimony,
documents, exhibits and depositions" compiled by the Warren
Commission. And he would have one crucial source that the commission
did not: Jacqueline Kennedy.
On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a
black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown
home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president's widow for
their first official meeting. "Mr. Manchester," she said in her soft,
whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her "camellia beauty" and
thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. "My first
impressionand it never changedwas that I was in the presence of a
very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history
when we needed to be united in our sadness," he later wrote, and
Jacqueline Kennedy had "provided us with an unforgettable performance
as the nation's First Lady."
Jacqueline's tenure as First Lady had transformed Washington's social
scene. With her style, her youth and beauty, her intelligence (she
had been a student at the Sorbonne), she was one of the president's
most formidable assets. Norman Mailer described her as "the most
beautiful woman to ever occupy the White House." She spoke French to
de Gaulle during Kennedy's triumphant visit to Paris ("I am the man
who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it,"
he famously remarked); when she was in Vienna for the president's
summit with Khrushchev, thousands of Viennese shouted "Jak-hee" in
the streets until she was led to the window; in London, a cartoon in
the Evening Standard depicted her as the Statue of Liberty.
Manchester would meet with her for two five-hour interviews. Arthur
Schlesinger had already begun interviewing her for an oral history of
the Kennedy administration, to be housed at the John F. Kennedy
Library; now Manchester would take over. "One reason we all talked to
Manchester was the reason we decided to have the book written in the
first place," Robert Kennedy said at the time. "We just didn't want
to have to go over it again and again and again."
That burden would fall on Manchester.
Supported by the modest advance$36,000 after his agent's commission,
paid in three installmentsManchester left his family in Middletown
and rented the cheapest suitable rooms he could find in Washington,
at 1800 Fourth Street SW, for $150 a month. To save on taxi fare, he
walked everywhere. "Throughout that first sweltering spring and
summer, I must have averaged at least 10 miles a day," he recalled.
"On a typical morning, I would strike out from the national archives
for the White House, double back the length of Pennsylvania Avenue to
the Hill, and redouble my tracks again, and spring on to the State
Departmenttotal: 62 blocks."
He walked the 30 or so blocks to N Street from downtown Washington to
interview Mrs. Kennedy. He hiked five miles in 94-degree heat, and
once showed up at the White House drenched with sweat and spent five
minutes drip-drying in front of an air conditioner. He worked from
six a.m. to midnight, walking home across the Mall against the lights
burning atop the Capitol Building, where a civil-rights filibuster
led by Strom Thurmond was in progress. "It was excellent training,"
he later wrote, "for the days ahead when I would roam the five-mile
motorcade route in Dallas, searching for eye witnesses."
By the end of August, Manchester had lost 20 pounds, and his clothes
hung on him like a scarecrow's. On one of his visits to Bobby and
Ethel Kennedy's home, Hickory Hill, in McLean, Virginia, Ethel
suggested that he get a better tailor.
Also to economize, Manchester did most of the grunt work himself. "I
typed my own correspondence, sharpened my own pencils, transcribed my
own shorthand, and indexed my own notes." He did all this in a
"shabby basement roomB-11of the National Archives, just down the
hall from the snack bar and the men's room." He would later be moved
to an empty fourth-floor office next to Evelyn Lincoln, who had been
Kennedy's personal secretary for 10 years, and he would eventually
relocate his family to a gray frame house in Washington's Cleveland Park.
"We moved there in September of 1964. I was there for a year of
school, at Sidwell Friends," William Manchester's only son, John,
explains. A musician, composer, and founder of a music-library
business, John first met with Vanity Fair in Middletown, in his
father's former office in the Olin Library, a room now devoted to
archiving trunks of his father's manuscripts that have finally been
returned from the Kennedy Library.
One reason Manchester felt he had to work so fast and so hard was
that Jim Bishop was forging ahead with his book about the
assassination. Bishop continued to ask the former First Lady for
interviews, even after she left Georgetown, in 1964, to take up
residence in New York in a 15-room apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue,
which she purchased for $200,000. She finally wrote letters to Bishop
in an attempt to stop him in his tracks: "All sorts of different and
never ending, conflicting, and sometimes sensational things would be
written about President Kennedy's death. So I hired William
Manchesterto protect President Kennedy and the truth … and if I
decide the book should never be publishedthen Mr. Manchester will be
reimbursed for his time." And then, as if thinking aloud, "I suppose
I must let it appearfor I have no right to suppress history, which
people have a right to know, for reasons of private pain."
And finally, "I will not talk to you about the events in Dallas, and
nobody connected with it will talk to you."
She sent copies of her letters to Manchester, who was alarmed by what
he read. In the first place, he didn't consider himself to have been
"hired" by Mrs. Kennedy, and in the second place, he'd never agreed
to be "reimbursed" for his time. But none of that mattered to Jim
Bishop. He wrote his book anyway, called The Day Kennedy Was Shot,
and his response to Mrs. Kennedy's letters was simply to grouseas
reported in John Corry's 1967 The Manchester Affair"She's trying to
copyright the assassination."
Manchester held himself to a 100-hour-a-week schedule. "The research
was also difficult. Half the people I interviewed displayed deep
emotional distress while trying to answer my questions. None of the
other sessions were as affecting as those with Jackie." She couldn't
bear to talk about it in the daylightthe assassination had happened
in daylight. So as the sun was going down Manchester would appear at
her house in Georgetown, arriving with his Wollensak tape recorder,
which he strategically placed out of her sight on a low table, so she
wouldn't worry about it. "Future historians may be puzzled by odd
clunking noises on the tapes," he later wrote. "They were ice cubes.
The only way we could get through those long evenings was with the
aid of great containers of daiquiris." Also present on the tapes are
the sounds of matches being struck, as both Jacqueline and her
interlocutor smoked through the sessions.
It was both a help and a horror that she remembered so much. A friend
of hers confides, "She has a great visual eye and great recall. She
told Manchester everything there was to tell. It was like expunging
herselfthe wound was still pretty raw."
One of the things she remembered was how the president, shortly
before their trip to Dallas, had for the first time in their marriage
asked what she planned to wear: "'There are going to be all these
rich, Republican women at that lunch,'" J.F.K. told her, "'wearing
mink coats and diamond bracelets. And you've got to look as marvelous
as any of them. Be simpleshow these Texans what good taste really
is.' So she tramped in and out of his room, holding dresses in front
of her. The outfits finally chosenweather permittingwere all
veterans of her wardrobe: beige and white dresses, blue and yellow
suits, and, for Dallas, a pink suit with a navy blue collar and a
matching pink pillbox hat."
She remembered the scene in a Fort Worth, Texas, hotel room where she
and Jack prepared to retire the night before arriving in Dallas.
Kennedy's aides had already removed the hotel's double mattress and
replaced it with the special one he always traveled with for his
troubled back. The president lay down on the bed, saying he had a
stomachache, and asked Jackie not to stay with him, explaining that
he had to make a breakfast speech, and that way she could remain in
bed the next morning. There was a long embrace. She said good night
and went out.
She remembered how, in the motorcade, her husband had asked her to
remove her oversize sunglasses because the crowd had come to see her
face. It was the last thing he would ever ask of her.
She did not, however, remember seeing the serrated piece of skull
ripped from her husband's head, nor did she remember climbing to the
rear of the six-passenger 1961 Lincoln, code-named SS 100 X. At that
point she was already in shock, and when Manchester later showed her
still frames of dress manufacturer Abraham Zapruder's film, which had
caught the entire assassination on 8-mm. Kodachrome, it was "as
though she were looking at photographs of another woman."
But she did remember that she "tenderly wrapped" the president's head
in the lining of Secret Service agent Clint Hill's suit jacket as
they placed the president's body on a stretcher just outside of
Parkland Memorial Hospital, in Dallas. She remembered the backseat
wet with blood, and she recalled a "brief moment of panic" when they
tried to move his body from the open car. "I'm not going to let him
go, Mr. Hill," she remembered saying. "You know he's dead. Leave me alone."
But she also remembered holding out a brief, desperate hope that her
husband was still alive. She remembered fighting with a nurse to gain
admittance to the trauma room at Parkland Hospital. When Rear Admiral
George Burkley, one of Kennedy's physicians, offered her a sedative,
she remembered, she told him, "I want to be in there when he dies."
She remembered the expression on her husband's face in death,
describing it as a look of "compassion." Manchester, who had seen men
die on Okinawa, and thought he was made of strong stuff, found it
increasingly difficult, as he listened, to maintain his composure.
She remembered asking one of the surgeons, Dr. Kemp Clark, who had
worked fruitlessly over the president's inert body, if she could see
her husband in his coffin before it was closed. When he said no, Mrs.
Kennedy remembered, she said, "Do you think seeing the coffin can
upset me, doctor? … His blood is all over me. How can I see anything
worse than I've seen?"
She remembered trying to remove her left glove so she could place her
wedding ring in the coffin, on her husband's finger, and how she had
fumbled with the snap on her glove, and how she had held out her
wrist to police sergeant Robert Dugger, who undid the snap and peeled
the glove from her hand.
She remembered being asked by the president's physician on board Air
Force One if she wanted to change out of her blood-smeared suit into
a pristine white dress that had been laid out on the presidential bed
for her. "No," she vehemently told him. "Let them see what they've done."
Death and Texas
Eventually, Manchester had to go to Dallas. Once there, he walked
everywhere, including the entire five-mile motorcade route, from Love
Field onto Main and then Houston and Elm Streets, past the Texas
School Book Depository Building, searching for spectators and, in
Dealey Plaza, possible snipers' nests.
He discovered deep political enmities that had simmered at the time
of the assassination, not just against the Kennedys but among the
Democrats as well. Indeed, that's what had compelled Kennedy's trip
to Dallas in the first place: John B. Connally, the conservative
Democratic governor, was at war with the more liberal Democratic
senator Ralph W. Yarborough. Even a formidable Texas politician like
Vice President Johnson couldn't put out the oil fire the two men had
ignited. Kennedy didn't want to lose the state in the upcoming '64
election, so he'd agreed to go to Dallas in an attempt to heal the rift.
Manchester also discovered that Dallas "had become the Mecca for
medicine-show evangelists … the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick
Henry Societies, and the headquarters of [ultra-conservative oil
billionaire] H. L. Hunt and his activities."
"In that third year of the Kennedy presidency," Manchester wrote, "a
kind of fever lay over Dallas country. Mad things happened. Huge
billboards screamed, 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Jewish stores were
smeared with crude swastikas.…Radical Right polemics were distributed
in public schools; Kennedy's name was booed in classrooms; corporate
junior executives were required to attend radical seminars." A
retired major general ran the American flag upside down, deriding it
as "the Democrat flag." A wanted poster with J.F.K.'s face on it was
circulated, announcing "this man is Wanted" foramong other
things"turning the sovereignty of the US over to the Communist
controlled United Nations" and appointing "anti-Christians … aliens
and known Communists" to federal offices. And a full-page
advertisement had appeared the day of the assassination in The Dallas
Morning News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the
Communist Party; when it was shown to the president, he was appalled.
He turned to Jacqueline, who was visibly upset, and said, "Oh, you
know, we're heading into nut country today."
Manchester discovered that in a wealthy Dallas suburb, when told that
President Kennedy had been murdered in their city, the students in a
fourth-grade class burst into applause. For Manchester, who revered
Kennedy, such responses, encountered throughout Dallas, were deeply
offensive and would influence the book he was about to write.
Manchester also learned that in 1963 there had been 110 murders in
Dallas"Big D"in what he described as the city's "dark streak of
violence." "Texas led the United States in homicide, and Big D led
Texas," he wrote. He would come to believe that Dallas's charged
political climate had been a factor in the assassination, helping to
further unhinge the already unstable Lee Harvey Oswald.
He also discovered that Kennedy had been warned not to make the trip.
"Evangelist Billy Graham had attempted to reach Kennedy … about his
own foreboding. The Dallas mood was no secret," he wrote. And Senator
William Fulbright, the liberal senator from Arkansas, had pleaded
with Kennedy: "Dallas is a very dangerous place. I wouldn't go there.
Don't you go." Manchester learned that the last words Kennedy
probably heard were spoken by Nellie Connally, the governor's wife.
Delighted by the enthusiastic crowds along the motorcade route, she
turned around in her seat and said, "Mr. President, you can't say
Dallas doesn't love you." And then the first shot rang out.
Over the two years of his research, Manchester interviewed l,000
people. "It was exhaustive, and exhausting," his son, John, says. In
addition to tape-recording his interviews, he took copious notes in
tiny, meticulous handwriting. Only two people refused to see him:
President Johnson, who would later give him written answers through
members of his staff, and Marina Oswald, the assassin's Russian
widow. But he did spend time with Oswald's mother, Marguerite, who
made a powerful impression on him. She told the writer that her son,
far from being an assassin, was in reality a secret agent of the government.
Unknown to Manchester when he began his research, shortly before Lee
Harvey Oswald left Louisiana for Dallas in July of 1963, Oswald made
one of his frequent visits to the Napoleon branch of the New Orleans
Public Library. Incredibly, he checked out Manchester's admiring
study of John F. Kennedy, Portrait of a President. Like many young
couples, Oswald and Marina were obsessed with the Kennedys. Priscilla
Johnson McMillan, in her fascinating 1977 account of the Oswalds,
Marina and Lee, reports that Marina's schoolgirl crush on the
chestnut-haired presidenther mooning over magazine photographs of
Kennedy strolling on the beach in his khaki pants, her insisting that
Oswald translate for her any articles about the Kennedyswas becoming
a sore point in their already troubled marriage. "He is very
attractive," Marina Oswald told her husband. "I can't say what he is
as president, but I mean, as a man." McMillan writes, "It got so that
she would flip through the pages of every magazine she could lay her
hands on asking, 'Where's Kennedy? Where's Kennedy?'"
Manchester flew to Dallas from Fort Worth, after examining the hotel
room where the Kennedys had spent their last night together. He stood
in the sixth-floor-window sniper's nest and looked out onto Dealey
Plaza, sighting an imaginary rifle down Elm Street. He visited
Parkland Hospital. He discovered that the Dallas mortician, Vernon
Oneal, had been worried about bloodstains on the green satin interior
of the Elgin Britannia casket, so he wrapped six rubber bags around
the president's head. Manchester visited Oswald's rooming house, at
1026 North Beckley, and even sat in the seat that Oswald had occupied
when he was finally arrested in the Texas Theatre while War Is Hell
flickered on the screen. He read a full year's back issues of The
Dallas Morning News. He watched the Zapruder film close to 100
timesthe slow, silent procession; the smiling figures in the car;
Jackie in her pink suit; the president slumping in his seat, then
reeling backward; the sudden pink mist; Jackie crawling over the back
of the seat; the car disappearing into the shadow of an overpass.
Ten months after beginning their investigation of the tragedy, the
Warren Commission found no evidence of any connection between the
assassination and "the city's general atmosphere of hate."
Interestingly, the chief justice asked Manchester to read the first
draft of the commission's report andsurprisinglyto approve its
findings on behalf of the Kennedys. Though he would eventually come
to share its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had been the sole
gunman in the assassination, Manchester refused to speak for the
family. After all, he was not overly impressed by the men on the
commission, especially as much of their research fell to junior
staff. ("I have more investigative experience than any of them," he
felt.) And Robert Kennedy remained skeptical of their findings for
the rest of his life, which would be ended by another assassin's
bullet five years later.
John remembers his father, back in Middletown, "working away, in the
back room, upstairs at the house, or at his office" in the Olin
Library. And he was clearly working alone. Though he was invited to
Hickory Hill and to the Kennedy-family compound, in Hyannis Port, for
occasional swims and family dinners, Manchester increasingly found
himself fobbed off on Bobby's and Jackie's secretaries. He had
become, for them, the living reminder of the assassination and all its horror.
After Manchester finally interviewed Robert Kennedy at his apartment
in United Nations Plaza, the two men went to La Caravelle, a favorite
restaurant of the Kennedys in Manhattan. Over drinks, Manchester
offered to bring the book out three years earlier than planned,
pointing out that 1968 was an election year, and that publishing the
book then might look like a cynical plea for sympathy should Bobby
decide to seek national office. Evan Thomas had already approached
Bobby about trying to pre-empt Jim Bishop's book. Kennedy instantly
agreed, and he promised to read the manuscript as soon as it was completed.
Manchester had lobbied for the earlier publication date, but it added
pressure to an already grueling schedule. He continued to write 14 or
15 hours a day, seven days a week. Schlesinger, who had become a
friend, feared Manchester might be on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
John remembers, "My father was the man who couldn't stop grieving. He
had to live with the assassination every day." He was becoming
unhinged. Once, while working on a homework assignment, 15-year-old
John asked his father what day it was. Manchester replied without
thinking, "November 22." On another occasion, he acted strangely
during an interview with a friend of Jacqueline's. Manchester had
gotten up to look out the window, convinced that he saw something
moving in the bushes. "I've been followed ever since I began this
book," he said.
During the great northeastern power failure of November 1965,
Manchester called Schlesinger and told him it was "a sign.… It was
just the way it had been in Saigon before the fall of Dien Bien Phu,"
according to John Corry. "He had been there, and he knew."
By the second anniversary of the assassination, Manchester began to
crack. "I had no appetitefor food, for beauty, for life. I slept
fitfully; when I did drift off, I dreamt of Dallas. I was gripping my
Esterbrook [fountain pen] so hard that my thumb began to bleed under
the nail. It became infected … marring the manuscript pages with
blood." He stopped driving because he didn't trust his reflexes.
Finally, on November 22, 1965, he found himself writing the sentence
"Oswald, surrounded by over 70 policemen, was murdered in the
basement of the Dallas jail," when his hand stopped moving. He
couldn't go on. "This is Camus," he would eventually write. "This is
the theatre of the absurd."
Four days later, he was admitted to a Portland, Connecticut,
hospital, suffering from nervous exhaustion, which gave rise to
rampant rumors in Washingtonthat he had fallen into catatonic
schizophrenia, that he had fallen in love with Jacqueline Kennedy,
that he had fallen completely apart. Manchester's doctor even
received an anonymous phone call saying that he had died in Mexico
City. Hearing the rumor, Robert Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler
exclaimed, "We've killed him!" But after 12 days, Manchester asked
for his typewriter and his files to be brought to him, and he
finished the book in the hospital, where he remained for eight more weeks.
Read It and Weep
The final manuscript, which Manchester had titled The Death of Lancer
(Kennedy's Secret Service code name), was l,201 pages380,000 words.
He wrote to Bobby Kennedy upon its completion, "When I awoke this
morning I felt as though I had emerged from a long, dark tunnel." He
made four copies and packed them into a suitcase, which weighed 77
pounds, and on March25, 1966, he boarded a Trailways bus for New York
and hand-delivered the first copy to Evan Thomas at Harper & Row. He
dropped another copy off with Don Congdon, and then, with Thomas at
his side, the remaining copies were delivered to Robert Kennedy's
Manhattan office. Angie Novello, Robert's secretary, and Pam Turnure,
Jacqueline's private secretary, brought Manchester to the Kennedy
suite at the Carlyle, No. 18E, where they toasted the completion of the book.
It was finally a glorious spring for William Manchester. The
reactions of his first readers were ecstatic. Back home in
Connecticut, he got a phone call from Evan Thomas: "This is the
finest book I've read in 20 years here," his editor told him. "I
couldn't stop crying, but I couldn't stop reading." Cass Canfield
wrote to Manchester, "A work of unusual distinction and great power.
It will be in demand long after you and I have disappeared from the
scene." Schlesinger wrote in a six-page memorandum, which he sent to
Robert Kennedy, Evan Thomas, and Manchester, "I think that this is a
remarkable and potentially a great book. The research, the feeling,
the narrative power, the evocation of personality and atmosphere,
much of the writingall are superb."
That was the good news. The bad news, as his editor informed him, was
that neither Jacqueline nor Robert would read the manuscript. It
would only open up painful memories, Robert had explained, so he
delegated his and his sister-in-law's right of approval to two
trusted Kennedy aides, Ed Guthman and John Seigenthaler. Richard
Goodwin, the poetry-loving speechwriter and adviser to Presidents
Kennedy and Johnson, would also weigh in.
Manchester thought he was finally seeing the light at the end of the
tunnel, but it turned out it was the light of an oncoming train.
Guthman, Robert Kennedy's press secretary, had left the Justice
Department and was now national editor at the Los Angeles Times.
Seigenthaler, "the blond, tough editor of The Tennessean," was Robert
Kennedy's closest friend. And Dick Goodwin, the rumpled, summa cum
laude graduate of Tufts and Harvard Law School, had worked in the
Justice Department as an investigator into the television quiz-show
scandals of the 1950s. After the president's death, Goodwin continued
as a speechwriter for President Johnson, but Senator Kennedy also
came to rely upon him. Coincidentally, Goodwin and Manchester were
neighbors at the time in Middletown, as Goodwin had accepted a
two-year fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan.
Thomas worked with Guthman and Seigenthaler, who provided him with
long memos about their concerns. Their main objection, which Thomas
shared, was Manchester's unflattering depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Johnson, Thomas felt, was portrayed as a rawboned boor, too eager to
take over on Air Force One the day of the assassination. If Bobby
sought the nomination from his party in the 1968 election, the book's
less than flattering portrayal of Johnson would look opportunistic.
On May 16, 1966, after reading the manuscript for a third time,
Thomas wrote to the two Kennedy friends that he didn't want Robert
Kennedy to be hurt by association with Manchester's book, which he
found, "in part, gratuitously and tastelessly insulting to Johnson."
He suggested that Manchester had become "so deeply involved in this
tragic narrative that he could not resist turning it into a magic
fairy tale"Jack the Lancer, "all pure Camelot," versus "the Texans
in their polka dot dresses and bow ties."
Most troubling to the early readers was "the deer-hunting incident"a
scene described by Jacqueline that opened the original manuscript. On
a visit to the Johnson ranch, along the Pedernales River, eight days
after the election, Johnson took the president-elect deer-hunting,
initiating him into the blood sport. "At 6 a.m. they turned out by
the ranch house, Johnson in weather beaten cowboy clothes, Kennedy in
a checked sports jacket and slacks. They left in Johnson's white
Cadillac, zooming and jouncing across the fields, and Kennedy was
forced to shoot his deer.… To Kennedy," Manchester wrote, "shooting
tame game was not sport, and he had tried to bow out gracefully." The
scene underscored the implication that Texas and its culture of
violence were factors in the assassination. Manchester, when asked to
delete the scene, refused to do so, but he did plow it further back
into the narrative, which diminished its power. Still, the
implication remained that "a Texas murder had made a Texan
President," in the words of Jay Epstein, who would later write
Inquest, about the Kennedy assassination.
Dick Goodwin joined the jury, poring over the manuscript, which he
praised as "a masterful achievement." He advocated only three
changes: to begin with, a new title. It was Goodwin who suggested the
elegant The Death of a President. He also suggested excising a quote
by Mrs. Kennedy and shortening the ending of the book by five pages,
all of which Manchester agreed to do.
The $665,000 Question
Thomas felt that the book was "overwrought," and he worried about his
author's reaction to their edits. There were already concerns about
his emotional state. Manchester was, for the most part, left out of
the editorial processKennedy's aides conveyed their responses only
to Thomas and to junior editors at Harper & Row. Not only that,
Manchester was running out of money and needed the final third of the
publisher's advance, which would be released only when Robert,
representing the Kennedys, approved the book for publication. Thomas
told Seigenthaler that Manchester, already a sensitive man, was
almost at the breaking point, and he needed to hear
somethinganythingfrom the Kennedys. That's when Robert finally sent
him a telegram, on July 29, 1966: while i have not read william
manchester's account of the death of president kennedy … members of
the kennedy family will place no obstacle in the way of publication
of his work.
Reassured by Kennedy's words of support, Evan Thomas now felt he
could schedule the book's publication for January 1967, though the
edits were still under way.
Don Congdon sent copies of the manuscript to six magazines for
possible serialization: Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home
Journal, McCall's, Good Housekeeping, and Look. Look had expressed
interest two and a half years earlier, when the book was announced.
Life and Look quickly entered into a bidding war. Look won out,
coming in with a final bid of $665,000 for world rights, the largest
sum ever paid for serialization at the time. When Manchester called
Senator Kennedy in Hyannis Port to tell him the news, he responded,
"Great … Look has been so nice to the family and Henry Luce has been
such a bastard." It was a staggering amount of money in 1967, and it
would all go to Manchester. John remembered that his father "was
flabbergasted. It was a lot of money back then. It was like five
million dollars today."
The record bid delighted the author, astounded his agent, and
impressed the senator. But there was one person who did not share
their joyJacqueline Kennedy.
She had vacationed in Hawaii in June of 1966 and had returned to
Hyannis Port to celebrate her 37th birthday, on July 28, at a gala
hosted by banker Paul Mellon, with a guest list awash in money,
influence, and talent: the Jock Whitneys arrived by yacht; the
William Paleys and Averell Harrimans mixed with Broadway set designer
Oliver Smith, director Mike Nichols, and Kenneth, Jackie's
hairdresser and confidant. She had come into her own in the three
years after the president's death, trading her Miss Porter's
boarding-school propriety for much-commented-upon miniskirts. "Fully
emerged from mourning," Manchester later wrote, "she was photographed
dancing, skiing, riding in a New Jersey hunt, cruising along the
Dalmatian coast, greeting European nobility, and visiting Acapulco,
the West Indies, and Spain." Women's Wear Daily gushed that she had
become "one of the realgirlshonest, natural, open, de-contrived,
de-kooked, delicious, subtle, feminine, young, modern, in love with
life, knows how to have fun."
She had seemed content to let her brother-in-law manage the final
approval and publication of The Death of a President, until July 31,
when Senator Kennedy told her about the Look offer. She was appalled.
She felt that the huge serialization fee by rights should go directly
to the Kennedy Library and not to Manchester.
"I think that Jackie Kennedy looked at my father," John Manchester
recalls, "as not being in the same social class as her, and it was
part of her notion that he could be pushed around … that he was
malleable. When it looked like he was going to get wealthy as a
result of all this, I think she was upset."
Jacqueline got Robert to complain to Evan Thomas that "the author was
making too much profit from magazine rights," and to remind him,
"Mrs. Kennedy and I must give permission for publication of the book
that has not been given." He seemed to have forgotten about his
earlier telegram to Manchester, telling him he would put no obstacle
in the way of publication.
Mrs. Kennedy still had no intention of reading the manuscript, but
her personal secretary, Pam Turnure, read every word, and was
apparently alarmed about the many personal revelationsemotional
responses, reminiscences, intimate details that had been given to the
author during his 10 hours of taped interviews with Jacqueline.
Turnure objected to Manchester's including descriptions of the
president wandering around in his underwear before bedtime, and a
list of the contents of Mrs. Kennedy's purse the morning after the
assassination, because it contained something Jacqueline had
successfully hidden from the public throughout her thousand days as
First Lady: her cigarettes. Turnure gave Manchester copious notes as
to what she, speaking for Mrs. Kennedy, wanted deleted from the book,
including many references to the children, the contents of a letter
written by Caroline and placed in her father's coffin, and Jackie's
description of the night she spent with Kennedy before Dallas. Jackie
had unburdened herself to Manchester, had confided her deepest
memories of the tragic event and its aftermath, but now, faced with
their disclosure in a glossy magazine for all the world to see, she
panicked. It was, she would later say, "tasteless" to include those
private memories, admitting to Manchester that she thought his book
"would be bound in black and put away on dark library shelves"she
wasn't prepared for what was about to happen. "Jackie was very
vulnerable," Seigenthaler recalls. "Bill was an excellent journalist,
but I had the feeling that in some ways he had taken advantage of her
As far as Manchester was concerned, The Death of a President had
already been approved by Robert Kennedy, who was now bending over
backward to please his sister-in-law. It particularly rankled
Manchester that he now had to deal with the passages Pam Turnure
wanted deleted. He reminded his editor that she "was not qualified to
edit historical work" and that they had agreed, once Bobby gave his
approval, that "no suggestion from Pam Turnure was to be even considered."
In August, Thomas received a shocking telegram from Robert Kennedy,
backpedaling on the entire project: "I feel the book on President
Kennedy's death should be neither published nor serialized.… It just
seems to me that rather than struggling with this any longer we
should take our chances with Jim Bishop." Jim Bishop!
Jackie's Last Stand
On August 12, in the face of an airline strike, Manchester and Thomas
chartered a plane to Washington to attend a meeting at Kennedy's
Senate office. Kennedy "paced tigerlike," taking up Jackie's cause by
inveighing against the serialization in Look. Manchestertrying to
keep his voice downreminded Robert that he'd already signed a
contract with Gardner "Mike" Cowles Jr., founder and publisher of
Look magazine. "You have a contract with me, too," Kennedy snapped.
Manchester reminded Kennedy that he wasn't planning to get rich on
the deal, nor was Harper & Row, and that he'd been through a great
deal over the past two years. In fact, he was currently under a doctor's care.
"Do you think you've suffered more than Jackie and me?" Kennedy cried
out in anguish. He asked that the serialization be shredded so that
it could never come out, and Manchester refused. Furious, Kennedy
left the room. "There's something wrong," Manchester said to his
editor. "This is not the brother of the man I knew."
When Kennedy returned, he'd apparently had a change of heart. He took
Thomas aside, assuring him that he could go ahead with the
publication of the book, and not to worry about the serialization.
After all, this was really Jackie's fight, and he had taken up her
interests as far as he could.
Jackie was not pleased. She summoned Mike Cowles and his attorney,
John F. Harding, to Hyannis Port, where she and her lawyer Simon
Rifkind met with the Look publisher. Rifkind, a former federal judge,
was a senior partner at the powerful law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind,
Wharton & Garrison, which had had close ties to the Kennedy
administration. Jackie sent the family plane, Caroline, to fly the
two men to the Kennedy compound. Once there, she alternately cajoled,
charmed, shed tears, and stalked off in anger. She even offered
Cowles a million dollars to kill the serialization. Cowles refused,
but he did offer to reduce the seven installments to four, and to
postpone publication from November to January of 1967, to avoid what
had become, for Jacqueline, the cruelest month. Next she turned her
attention to Manchester.
In September, Manchester and Dick Goodwin flew to Hyannis Port, where
Jackie met them at the airstrip in a green miniskirt. She was
determined to win Manchester over, first by dazzling him with her
hospitality and athleticismshe water-skied and swam with him in the
ocean, leaving the ex-Marine gasping for breath. Back at the
compound, she pressed her case against the Look serialization,
alternating between anger and tears. "It's us against them," she said
in her whispery, intimate voice. "Anyone who is against me will look
like a rat," she added, "unless I run off with Eddie Fisher." She
tried a charm offensive, recalling her home telephone number as a
child ("Rhinelander4-6167") and confiding how incredulous she was
that her picture appeared so often on the covers of movie magazines.
When that didn't work, she insisted her taped interviews had been
made exclusively for the Kennedy Library and that Manchester had had
no right to use them. She reminded him that she had "poured out her
soul as if he were a psychiatrist." She was deeply critical of all
books about her husband, even Schlesinger's A Thousand Days: John F.
Kennedy in the White House. Through tears, she told Manchester that
she was going to fight Look, and fight him if she had to, and she was
going to win.
By November 15, Manchester was exhausted and run-down and had caught
a cold he just could not shake. He decided to take his wife, Judy, on
a much-needed vacation to London aboard the Queen Mary, and prior to
embarking they spent the night in New York at a hotel suite
maintained by Look magazine. To avoid further publicity, he checked
into the Berkshire Hotel under his agent's name. To his dismay,
waiting for him in the lobby was Evan Thomas, with a clutch of
further cuts requested by Seigenthaler and Pam Turnure. The
beleaguered author refused, having already planned to attend a
cocktail party in his honor, and an Ella Fitzgerald concert later
that night. Nonetheless, when the evening was over, Manchester sat
down in his hotel room at midnight and began, once again, to review
the manuscript. He worked throughout the night, planning to deliver
his revisions to Thomas the next day at seven a.m. in the hotel dining room.
But when he met his editor that morning, also waiting for him were
Dick Goodwin and Kennedy aide Burke Marshall, with still more editing
demands. Goodwin wanted assurances that all of Jackie's deletions
would be made. Manchester couldn't believe it. He charged the two men
with "trespassing beyond the borders of decency," and he fled to his
hotel suite, with Evan Thomas trailing him. In the elevator,
Manchester accused his editor of bushwhacking him. No one was
supposed to have known where he was staying. On the way up to the
suite, Thomas blurted out, "I didn't betray you."
In the hotel suite's living room, Thomas was trying to persuade
Manchester that he had not set him up, when they heard a pounding on
the door and a voice shouting, "Bill, are you there? Bill, I know
you're in there!"
It was Robert Kennedy.
Thomas turned to Manchester and said, "You have to let him in."
Manchester replied, "The hell I do. I didn't invite him, and I have
nothing to say to him. Do you really think a former Attorney General
of the United States is going to break down a door?"
Without speaking to Kennedy, and after summoning Don Congdon,
Manchester was hustled onto the deck of the Queen Mary. His cold
worsened, and by the time he and his wife returnedsmuggled off the
ship to avoid the presshe had full-blown pneumonia.
Evan Thomas had tried valiantly to negotiate from the middle, hoping
to preserve his friendship with the Kennedys, his loyalty to his
author, and his desire to publish The Death of a President. But
working with Bobby was not easy. "My memory is that he was loyal as
all hell to Jackie," Thomas's son says. As the struggle between the
warring factions continued, Jackie summoned Thomas and Cass Canfield
to a l0 p.m. meeting at her Fifth Avenue apartment. "Last night,"
Thomas wrote in a lettercuriously, dated November 22, 1966"Mrs.
Kennedy charged me with responsibility for the Look first
serialization … and various other acts of irresponsibility. The width
and depth of her charges were so all encompassing that I was, for a
change, speechless." Thomas's son describes a chilling moment: "As
they're leaving, Jackie is hugging Cassthey were old buddies and
social equalsand she leans over Cass's shoulder and whispers to my
father, 'I'm going to ruin you.'"
So, in the eleventh hour, after Manchester had already made changes
in response to Guthman, Seigenthaler, Thomas, Goodwin, and even
Turnure, Jacqueline filed an injunction in New York against
Manchester, Harper & Row, and Cowles Communications, Inc., which
owned Look, claiming that "because she supplied Manchester with
certain information to be used in his book and because she assisted
him in obtaining interviews with others from whom he gained
information to be used in the book, she therefore has an absolute
right to decide what may and what may not appear therein."
Manchester was devastated. He dug in his heels, refusing to renege on
his contract with Look or to incorporate any further changes in the
text. "There's a quote," John recalls, "in which my father says,
'I'll die for this book.'"
The moment Jackie filed her injunction, all hell broke loose. The New
York Post headlines shouted, "bitter new row on bookManchester vs.
RFK, JackieWords Fly." The leading columnists of the day, including
James Reston, Drew Pearson, Max Lerner, Jimmy Breslin, and Murray
Kempton, weighed in, and Manchester even appeared on Meet the Press
to tell his side of the story.
Reporters and photographers showed up in Middletown, waiting outside
the Manchesters' 176-year-old farmhouse, which was bathed in
television lights; the journalists roamed through the town,
buttonholing Manchester's neighbors and following his children home
from school. Once, a Middletown policeman walked into the house,
announcing he'd "just been hired as a stringer for the New York Daily
News." The telephone rang constantly; Roger Mudd, the prominent CBS
correspondent, called with a camera crew in tow from the Merritt
Parkway. John Manchester recalls coming home for Christmas vacation
from prep school: "My mother was annoyed by all the TV trucks outside
of our house, and my father was hiding. So I went to the door. I
stood there and smiled and talked a lot and didn't tell them anything
they wanted to know. I kind of enjoyed the attention, but, for my
parents, it was very bad." Because of the giant headache the Kennedys
were causing Manchester, Bayer Aspirin offered him $35,000 to endorse
its product. (He turned down the offer.)
For the first time, Jacqueline Kennedy's popularity declined in
national polls. The World Journal Tribune and the New York Post ran
the results of a Gallup poll and a Harris poll showing, respectively,
that "44 percent of the people think the dispute has hurt her public
image," and "33 percent 'think less' of Mrs. Kennedy." Senator
Kennedy also suffered in the polls, threatening his political career.
"Bobby got fed up with Jackie," Evan Thomas recalls. "'Why am I being
dragged into this?' It hurt him politically, and that never goes down well."
Roll the Presses
On January 16, 1967, just a few hours before Robert Kennedy was to
appear as the first witness in Mrs. Kennedy's lawsuit, she agreed to
settle out of court. Perhaps she feared that a trial would hurt her
brother-in-law's political fortunes. Manchester had noticed that
relations between them had become strained. (Having drinks with
Arthur Schlesinger at P.J. Clarke's not long after the settlement,
Bobby Kennedy confided that "he was sorry that he'd ever become
involved in the whole thing," recalled Schlesinger.) Ultimately,
Manchester agreed to cut 1,600 words out of the Look serialization
and 7 pages out of the book's 654 pages of textchanges he later
deemed "harmless." jackie settles was front-page news in the New York
Post; jacqueline kennedy's victory, announced Newsweek. The
serialization went forward.
A few hours after Look's first installment hit the stands, 4,000
copies were sold in Times Square alone. United Airlines discovered
that all of its l,800 copies were stolen from their binders by
airline passengers. Copies were pirated and sold on the black market
as far away as Mexico City. Interest was so high that 400,000 advance
copies of The Death of a President were ordered before its
publication, and The New York Times predicted that it would become
"one of the great best-sellers in book publishing history."
Certain revelations in the four installments took the public by
surprise: Manchester questioned why two middle-aged Secret Service
agents with "slowing reflexes" were assigned to President Kennedy,
and wondered why they were not routinely tested; the driver of the
limousine was 54, and the agent sitting beside the driver was 48.
"They were in a position," Manchester wrote, "to take evasive action
after the first shot, but for five terrible seconds they were
immobilized." Readers also learned how Mrs. Kennedy "struggled with a
nurse who tried to bar her from the operating room." And how the
president, after being in a crowd the night before their arrival in
Dallas, had said to her, "Suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase."
Six hundred thousand copies of The Death of a President sold out
within two months, and by the summer of 1967 it had sold more than a
million copies. The reviews were full of guarded praise, mostly for
Manchester's exhaustive assemblage of detail. But Alistair Cooke,
writing in the World Journal Tribune's Book Week, noted that "the
dispute is already more famous than the book," and he accused
Manchester of "deliberately shoveling at us a mountain of minutiae."
Gore Vidal wrote that "the crowded, overwritten narrative holds," yet
Manchester is "too haughty in his dismissal of the plot-theory." In
two New York Times reviews, the anti-Johnson bias was discounted, but
both reviewers worried over the "peculiar emotional insistence that …
infuses this book." In the late 1960s, it seems, reviewers wanted
their history straight up, no chaser. But the final consensus: "It
was worth the effort; it may even have been worth the pain,"
according to Tom Wicker's review in The New York Times.
When the History Books Are Written
The Death of a President and its serialization had taken their toll
on everyone. Evan Thomas knew that Manchester had felt betrayed by
him, and he himself felt that he had not lived up to his own ideal of
standing by his author. His M.S., which had been in remission for so
long, reappeared, possibly brought on by the incredible stress of so
public a battle. "The long remission was ending," his son recalls.
"He lived until 1998, and he started having mental symptoms as early
as 1973. That's a pretty long, slow decline."
Thomas left Harper & Row in 1968, barely a year after The Death of a
President was published, and he spent the rest of his career at W.W.
Norton. He and Manchester remained somewhat estranged, although
Thomas kept a Christmas card from Manchester which read simply,
"Seasons Greetings. And thanks for everything. Remember, the Marine
Corps never taught me how to surrender. Bill." In the end, Thomas was
proud of having published Manchester's book, his son believes.
Manchester returned to Middletown and would write eight more books,
including his long-delayed history of the Krupp family (The Arms of
Krupp 15871968); a collection of essays callednot
surprisinglyControversy; his greatly admired and highly influential
history of America from 1932 to 1972, titled The Glory and the Dream;
and American Caesar, his biography of General Douglas MacArthur,
which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Back in his familiar Olin
Library office, overlooking Wesleyan's football field, he also
completed two volumes of a life of Winston Churchill, but after two
strokes he found he no longer had the stamina to continue. Another
writer, Paul Reid, is completing the third and final volume.
Despite his power struggle with the Kennedys, Manchester eventually
mended fences with Robert and even campaigned for him during his 1968
bid for the presidential nomination.
Manchester never changed his mind about the Warren Commission, though
he felt its investigation had been less than thorough.
In the end I concluded that [the Warren] report was correct on the
two main issues. Oswald was the killer, and he had acted alone.…
Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the
victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning … 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.
As Manchester pointed out to conspiracy theorists, great crimes are
often the result of petty, almost banal motives. Jacqueline Kennedy
came to a similar conclusion: that her husband had not died for a
great cause but for a private, pathetic grievance of which he was
The taped interviews Jacqueline had made with Manchester were
delivered to the Kennedy Library and are kept under seal, not to be
made public until 2067l00 years after publication of The Death of a
President. By 1970, royalties for Manchester's book had reached
$1,057,347.64, all donated to the library. Manchester later
complained that he was one of the library's biggest single donors,
but his book and research materials were kept away from the public
and unavailable to scholars.
By virtue of their original agreement with Harper & Row, the Kennedys
continue to control the fate of The Death of a President. Even now,
after William Manchester's original manuscript has come home to
Wesleyan, where it is held under a kind of house arrestheavily
censored, and subject to extremely restricted usethe Kennedy family
has allowed the book to go out of print, according to John
Manchester. Sitting in the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in sight of
Boston Common, where his father had first met Kennedy, when both men
were newly home from the war, he says, "The Death of a President
helped build that library, but if you go there today, there's no
mention of it or him anywhere. He was written out of their history."
Finally, not long after the Sturm und Drang, Mrs. Kennedy sat in a
favorite chair in her Fifth Avenue apartment and began to read The
Death of a President. She stayed up all night reading. Before she
knew it, daylight was in the room. She turned the last page over and
said only one word: "Fascinating."
Sam Kashner is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.