Books June 2002

Playing Nick Carraway

A new biography of John F. Kennedy Jr. is less a book than a TV-movie script
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It's more than a little ironic that Henry Holt and Company, the publisher of American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., has asked reviewers to sign a "confidentiality agreement" protecting Richard Blow, the author, from the premature disclosure of anything newsworthy, or at least interesting, in his book. By writing it, after all, Blow has decided to disregard the confidentiality agreement he signed while working at Kennedy's magazine, George. The book deal he made after Kennedy's death angered a number of his former colleagues. "They lashed out," Blow recalls at the end of American Son, "accusing me of greed, opportunism, and bad intentions in general."

Some were especially angry because Blow, as George's executive editor, had punished staffers and contributors who talked to the press in the days and weeks after the 1999 plane crash that killed their boss. He now explains that he was protecting the magazine. Knowing that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the inheritor of her brother's half share in the financially shaky publication, would be disgusted to hear George personnel talking publicly about John, Blow himself turned down requests for comment from David Remnick and even Barbara Walters—a resistance he presents as rather heroic. But with George long since gone, Blow argues that his book is a different matter entirely from his ex-colleagues' mournful sound bites.

The author seems to have been struggling to keep his mouth shut from the day, in 1995, that he left the Washington magazine Regardie's and joined George as a thirty-year-old senior editor. He tells us that Kennedy's celebrity presented a unique dilemma for employees: "How could we work with John every day, forming a kind of family in the office—which was what John wanted, what he needed, to feel comfortable working with all these journalists—without getting so close that we lost our own identities?" Blow somehow managed to hang on to his while recording in a journal everything John Kennedy said, wore, and ate.

For all the secret scribbling and the anxiety about confidentiality (Blow's first publisher, Little, Brown, reportedly paid him a $750,000 advance but canceled the book), the gossip value of American Son is pretty paltry. The volume is full of dud anecdotes (a rebuffed autograph seeker calls John an asshole), and its attempts at score-settling usually backfire: Blow doesn't seem to realize that in the vengeful little stories he tells about Andrew Sullivan and Gore Vidal, for example, the joke's still on him.

Kennedy's high-maintenance wife, Carolyn Bessette, largely unknown and conveniently dead, passes in this book for a controversial character. Blow portrays Bessette, a former fashion publicist, as a shopaholic injector of Botox, a young woman without much to do after leaving Calvin Klein's employ. And yet, he writes, "If you wandered into [the art director Matt Berman's] office while she was there, you never wanted to leave." Moreover, Carolyn had a certain influence: "She once nixed a cover with model Gabrielle Reece because, she told Matt Berman, Reece was passé." Most important, as an alumna of "middle-of-the-pack Boston University," this girl from Greenwich "provided John a link to the lives of ordinary Americans."

Two years ago Blow told Brill's Content—a magazine now as dead as George—that the Kennedy family was "not opposed to the writing of history, just the bad writing of history." Of course, what the Kennedys have always opposed is the writing of history that makes them look bad; but they have nothing to worry about here. American Son shows Blow to be exactly the sort of family retainer who has always written "history" about (and sometimes even "by") family members. He includes just enough of his particular Kennedy's failings to show the subject's growth toward full self-awareness and noblesse oblige. Blow writes,

After four years of being startled, disappointed, moved, infuriated, puzzled, shocked, impressed, and educated by John Kennedy, I had come to respect this man. With George, John had made himself vulnerable, taken chances, made some mistakes, gotten lambasted in the press, and tried to accomplish something for his country—even as he labored to resolve his own identity questions.

Blow now believes that Kennedy would have gone on to the Senate, and won the presidency by 2012.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Sage, Ink: "A Kennedy Dream Cut Short" (July 22, 1999)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

He does little, however, to convince readers of the just-quoted judgment, let alone its posthumous extrapolation. One has no trouble believing in John Kennedy's overall decency, but the author has a habit of making him appear most inane when he's being most strongly praised. (If Blow were a more artful writer, one might suspect him of a certain sly subversion.) He notes that JFK Jr.'s list of "American heroes" (for a George photo-essay) included Yogi Berra and General Shalikashvili; that Kennedy "fiercely advocated" putting Cindy Crawford on the cover of the premiere issue; and that his willingness to personally interview political figures was "a stroke of genius," because he would thereby be "self-publishing a psycho-biography in semimonthly installments" and reclaiming his life from the tabloids. Blow's mention of his boss's inability, at a White House correspondents' dinner, to understand how "Clinton could stand and crack jokes before the people who, come the next morning, would return to pry into his sex life" makes one doubt Kennedy's basic fitness to write or edit anything about politicians.

A typical issue of George couldn't sustain the reader's attention for a forty-minute shuttle flight between New York and Washington, but Blow tries hard to validate the magazine as a "postpartisan" (Kennedy's term) production that provided what Blow describes as "an intimate appreciation of American politicians, whom we respected but still called by their first names—as if they were family members." Blow explains his own suitability for this "profoundly democratic" enterprise by writing, "Even though I attended Yale and spent three years studying American history in a Harvard doctoral program, I had always felt a kinship with outsiders and the less-than-powerful." Alas, Blow continually equates democracy with stupidity, and intelligence with dullness. He also tries to turn every piece of goofiness into something purposeful: Kennedy's appearance on Murphy Brown signified "a moment when culture and politics were woven together in an inseparable dialectic." Blow doesn't have the slightest idea what the last word in that sentence means.

In another burst of unintended revelation, while discussing the Clinton sex scandals, he asserts that "the idea of covering politics as entertainment, without apologies, had spread like a virus since our debut." So in providing its "intimate appreciation" of politicians George was passing around a social disease. Perhaps it should have been shrink-wrapped.

The magazine's underlying spirit was that of Kennedy's grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, who once pledged to sell his son "like soap flakes" to the American electorate. George tried to erase any remaining distance between politico and product. An article titled "Women of the G.O.P.," which Blow himself wrote, featured photos of its subjects in credited clothes: "Newt Gingrich media coordinator Leigh Ann Pusey (suit and shoes by Chanel, bag by Ferragamo)."

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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