IT WAS ONE OF THE WORST MOMENTS IN A life that has been shrouded in pain. In his new biography of Ted Kennedy, The Last Brother, writer Joe McGinniss describes the day in 1969 when Kennedy told his father—who was unable to speak or stand after a massive stroke—about a car accident in which his female passenger, young Mary Jo Kopechne, had drowned.
“Dad,” he said….
“Dad, I’m in some trouble.”
He didn’t know what to say next.
This was worse, far worse than talking to the Kopechnes. And Teddy had never been very good with words unless someone else had written them for him….
“There’s been an accident. Dad.” He paused. He knew he had to say more.
“You’re going to hear all sorts of things about me…. Terrible things….”
Like many passages in the book, the Chappaquiddick confession delivers great drama, great insight and great quotes. How did McGinniss do it? With great presumption. He made some of it up. McGinniss—who in an author’s note calls Brother as much a ” ‘rumination” as a biography—argues that he had the right to invent Kennedy’s thoughts in order to fill in gaps in what was known and make Teddy come alive. But wait, there’s more: Just as controversy flared over that ethical question, the author was hit by a double broadside on the issue of plagiarism. Both William Manchester, author of the definitive account of JFK’s assassination, The Death of a President, and Doris Kearns Coodwin, author of the family biography The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, accused McGinniss of cribbing extensively from their works. Eager to cash in on the controversy, publisher Simon & Schuster acted decisively. They scrapped their original October release for Brother and rushed 250,000 copies to bookstores last week.
All of which leaves McGinniss, 50, unruffled and unembarrassed. “Teddy is beyond the reach of traditional journalism,” he says. “I felt I had to really push the envelope.” And what new insights have his unorthodox methods brought? “Oh, I think everything,” says McGinniss. “I don’t believe there’s been a book that’s put him in the center of his own life story. No one had looked at him as anything more than a cartoon or caricature.”
Not that McGinniss hasn’t gone to extremes before. Author of such true-crime best-sellers as Blind Faith and Fatal Vision, McGinniss was sued by Vision subject Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret convicted in 1979 of murdering his pregnant wife and two small daughters. MacDonald held that McGinniss led him to believe that the book would be sympathetic. Instead it was a damning indictment, and the author settled out of court for $325,000.
McGinniss is considered a master at persuading his subjects to entrust him with their innermost thoughts, but in the absence of Kennedy’s cooperation, The Last Brother is a leap. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post called it “a genuinely, unrelievedly rotten book…that should bring nothing except shame to everyone associated with it.” Some have criticized as extremely mean-spirited his portrait of an “overweight, underachieving, insecure Teddy” who forever paled beside his brothers. Other critics are outraged because Kennedy’s thoughts and feelings are repeatedly prefaced with qualifiers such as “one senses that” or “common sense strongly suggests.” McGinniss even has Teddy contemplating suicide while walking the beach in Hyannis Port with his mother and Eunice after learning of Jack’s death—”not that there is any evidence he considered this,” he writes.
McGinniss, who says he repeatedly tried to interview Kennedy during the three years he spent researching and writing Brother, insists he is doing the senator a favor. “I’m very sympathetic toward all he’s had to put up with. But he’s fallen into the realm of the late-night Jay Leno one-liner. I think it’s worth rescuing him from that and explaining just what life was like for him.” Not surprisingly, Kennedy is less than grateful. A spokeswoman has dismissed the book as “fiction” and accused McGinniss of exploiting “the Kennedy family for profit.” McGinniss reportedly stands to make $2 million from the book, a Vanity Fair excerpt and an NBC miniseries.
Manchester, first alerted to the Last Brother manuscript by a call from Ted Kennedy, is especially irked by McGinniss’ failure to give the title of his book in the text and intends to sue him. Goodwin is mystified by what she sees as basic laziness: “He does not appear to have gone that extra half mile for what makes for a biography.”
McGinniss, who lives in Williams town, Mass., with his second wife, Nancy, and their two sons, dismisses those charges and says that crediting both in his author’s note is acknowledgment enough. Not that a chorus of complaints is going to make him change his ways. “In 25 years, I’ve never had footnotes in a book of mine, and I’m not going to start now just because it’s Teddy Kennedy,” he says. “I’ve tended to take risks and not to follow the safe path. It may or may not be stupid, but this is what keeps writing interesting.”
ANN GUERIN in New York City