With America's royal family, it's sure to be one for the books


August 04, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

If the Kennedys didn't exist, we'd have to invent them.

Or perhaps, some say, that's exactly the problem: A book like Joe McGinniss' controversial "The Last Brother" (Simon & Schuster) is but the latest example of the way fact and fiction, rumor and reality blur when it comes to chronicling this much docu-dramatized family.

Their story is, of course, the ultimate page-turner: the immigrant family turned dynasty. The seemingly equal parts of fortune and tragedy, selfless acts and scandalous indulgences. The saga of a multigenerational rise to political power, leavened with the sex appeal of Hollywood goddesses from Gloria Swanson to Marilyn Monroe to Darryl Hannah.

There seems to be an insatiable market for reading about the Kennedys, be it fact or fiction, positive or negative, or something somewhere in between.

While the trend toward novelizing non-fiction and factualizing novels is increasingly common -- witness the Amy Fisher dramas enacted nearly simultaneously in the courthouse and on the TV screen -- the Kennedys seem to provide particularly rich fodder for this kind of treatment.

"Anybody who inspires that much attention is a target for this," Carol Schneider, an associate publisher at Random House, says of the fact-or-fiction blur with many Kennedy treatments. "It's like when you go to Oliver Stone's film, ["JFK"], you ask yourself, is it the real or the mock?"

"I was by his side for every campaign, I saw him every day at the White House, and even I have difficulty now separating the man from the myth," says Dave Powers, longtime friend of John F. Kennedy and now curator of the Kennedy presidential library in Boston.

It's gotten to the point where it's even a cliche to say it's a cliche that the Kennedys are America's royal family. Yet as with many cliches, this one carries at least a kernel of truth. Indeed, the Kennedys have all the trappings of royalty -- and they have inspired the same kind of love-hate, worship-resentment as other monarchies.

It's no giant leap, for example, to see Rose Kennedy as the Queen Mum or to recall how the young Jacqueline Kennedy captivated the public as much as the young Princess Diana did. Nor is it much of a stretch to see both families' images and good will as rising so high that they inevitably could only slide down the slippery slope of revisionism.

"It goes back to the whole Camelot syndrome -- there really wasn't any investigative reporting then, and the media painted a certain picture of the Kennedys as people who should be on a platform and looked up to," says Washington-area writer Jerry Oppenheimer, a former newspaper reporter who is working on a biography of Ethel Kennedy. "The public fell for it at the time, but since then the Kennedys have shown themselves as wealthy, powerful people with a lot of foibles and a lot of problems."

Still, Mr. Oppenheimer, who has also written books about Barbara Walters and Rock Hudson, says he is troubled by the liberties Mr. McGinniss has taken with the biography format. He sees it as part of an overall "tabloidization of the news." Which, of course, is what much of Kennedy lore has become.

"The Kennedys are in the same realm as Elvis and Marilyn and Big foot and UFOs," he says.

Whether that voyeuristic interest will translate into best-seller status for Mr. McGinniss' book remains to be seen. Although the book has trickled into stores over the past 1 1/2 weeks -- Simon & Schuster accelerated its intial October release date as negative stories started appearing in the media -- the publishing company says it's doing well. The book was 13th on the Barnes & Noble best-seller list and 19th on Waldenbooks' list, says Wendy Nicholson, marketing director at Simon & Schuster. But it's too early to tell how many of the 260,000 books shipped have sold, she says.

Even before it became available to the public, "Last Brother" was condemned by numerous newspaper and magazine critics for straining the bounds of credulity with "ruminations" on the senator's private thoughts and re-creations of conversations to which the author was not privy. Additionally, Kennedy favorites William Manchester and Doris Kearns Goodwin have charged that the new book plagiarizes from their own volumes.

"This will be the real test of the mania for reading about the Kennedys," Ms. Schneider says of "Last Brother." "I'm curious to see what effect the controversy will have on sales. Usually, controversy fuels interest in a book, but the reviews have been so brutal."

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