The October issue of Vanity Fair magazine has an article by Sam Kashner about William Manchester and what he went through writing The Death of a President: November 20 - November 25 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy asked Manchester to write the definitive account of John F Kennedy's assassination and Manchester felt he could not say no. Mrs Kennedy encouraged everyone to speak frankly with him about the events of that weekend and everyone did, excepting Lee Harvey Oswald's wife, who apparently refused to talk to anyone unless she was paid. The Vanity Fair article sent me to the book, which I had failed to read when it was published. It was time to read it now.
Manchester spent two years researching and writing the book, with a much-reduced income during that time as he accepted only a small advance and expected to earn almost nothing for himself from the book. He designated that the profits should go to the Kennedy Library, and they have made Manchester one of the largest contributors to the institution as the book sold in the millions.
When the publisher arranged for an excerpt from the book to be serialized in Life Magazine with the money to go to Manchester, the Kennedys, who by now were having second thoughts about the book, threatened a lawsuit to prevent publication. Eventually Jacqueline Kennedy realized that suing Manchester would result in negative publicity worse than that which would result from the publishing of the private feelings and impressions that she had shared frankly with Manchester four years earlier.
The book is exceedingly detailed but never tedious. Those of us who remember that day in November remember it very well. I was living in Massachusetts at the time and teaching at New Bedford High School. I was in the teacher's room with two women who had been my teachers only a few years before when the principal, Mr Garcia, came on the PA system to tell us the president was dead. He dismissed the school early and my sister, who was a student at NBHS, showed up in my home room and we drove home together.
Our family like most Americans spent much of the weekend watching TV. It is enlightening now to read about what was going on behind the scenes and the scramble between Friday night when Kennedy's body was brought back to Washington, DC, and Monday when there was a full-scale, historically based, and perfectly produced funeral.
Thousands of decisions had to be made: whether to have an open casket in the Irish manner, which groups would sing or play during the ceremonies, where the funeral would be, what route the procession would take, who would walk behind the casket.
People walked the roads of Arlington Cemetery in the pouring rain for hours to find the perfect site for the grave. Librarians dashed about in the darkened Library of Congress with flashlights to find reports and photographs of Lincoln's funeral and to research the history of "Hail to the Chief." Angier Biddle Duke, the chief of protocol for the White House nearly had a nervous breakdown dealing with the simultaneous arrival of 91 heads of state or their representatives, not least of whom was Charles De Gaulle.
One of the most interesting leitmotifs in the book is the ongoing and deepening feud between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. Manchester is exceedingly careful to be as objective as possible but the extreme dislike between the two men is impossible to avoid entirely. And of course the book skims over without mention the sexual escapades, the serious health issues, the amphetamine abuse, and various other less than admirable aspects of the Kennedy administration about which most of us knew nothing at the time or for many years after.
An excellent book. It's the first place to go if you're interested in this historic event in American history.
I've moved on to Seymour M Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), which is pretty depressing with it's tales of buying the nomination in 1960 and stealing the election and the connections with the Mafia and the antics of Kennedy's father and grandfather.