Among my recent book purchases is a tome by John Corry, then a New York Times reporter, entitled The Manchester Affair and published in 1967. The book details the battle by Robert F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy against the late William Manchester, historian and biographer. Prior to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Manchester had published a laudatory look at Kennedy, A Portrait of A President. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, both Robert F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy were looking for an author to give an “official” Kennedy view of the death of JFK. Manchester, who was the third author the offer was made to, jumped at the chance.
The book became something of a chase after the White Whale by Manchester who read the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission several times before it was published, interviewed well over a thousand people, including both Jackie Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy twice, and suffered a collapse from exhaustion. He finished writing the book, The Death of a President, in 1966 during an eight week stay at a hospital in Portland, Connecticut.
The Kennedys were dismayed by the volume: Robert F. Kennedy by the hostile attitude in the book towards President Johnson and Jackie by too much blood and gore in the depiction of the assassination, and by Manchester revealing too much of her private thoughts, which she had confided in him, during the day of the assassination and the days following. (Robert Kennedy hated LBJ, a sentiment returned with interest by LBJ. However, he understood that a book that would appear to be a hired Kennedy “hit” against LBJ would do him no good if he decided to run against him in 1968.)
Manchester, who viewed his work with the love of a parent for a child, was willing to make some revisions, but not nearly enough to placate the Kennedys. The Kennedys foolishly filed suit to enjoin the publication on the grounds that Manchester had violated the terms of his original agreement with the Kennedys, (he hadn’t), thus greatly enhancing the interest of the public in the book. The suit was settled by Manchester in January 1967 agreeing to cut some 1600 words and seven pages from the 654 page book. Manchester described the cuts at the time as “harmless” and the settlement was a face saving device for the Kennedys retreating from a legal fight they could not win. The book was a massive best seller, selling over a million copies, and Look magazine paying the then unheard of price of $650,000.00 for serialization rights. Manchester went on to write such acclaimed works as his biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, still the best of the many books on MacArthur in my opinion, his two volume look at Winston Churchill up to 1940, subsequently completed after Manchester’s death by another author, and his haunting memoir of his service as a Marine in World War II, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War.
The controversy is largely forgotten today, all the principals being dead and RFK, due to his assassination in 1968, having his role in American history cut short, and LBJ’s decision not to run for re-election rendering moot any impact the book could have had on his run for a second term. Additionally, all the many , many books on the assassination, most invoking arcane, not to say laughable, conspiracy theories, published since, have rendered Manchester’s book both tame in comparison and buried under the subsequent avalanche of paper.