Book Article

Whose Words Are They, Anyway?

Joe McGinniss' alleged plagiarism -- The author's ''The Last Brother'' is stirring controversy for it's blend of fact and fiction as an unauthorized ''biography'' of Senator Edward Kennedy

Joe McGinniss' new book, The Last Brother, about Sen. Edward Kennedy, won't be released to bookstores until mid-August, but it has already sparked the hottest literary flap of the year: Is the book nonfiction as claimed or part fiction as charged? And how much of it is the work of another writer?

The first of the controversies swirling around the unauthorized ''biography'' concerns a weird disclaimer that appeared in a 123-page advance excerpt distributed at the American Booksellers Association meeting this May. ''Some thoughts and dialogue attributed to people in this narrative,'' the statement read, ''were created by the author.'' The disclaimer later was dropped, reportedly at McGinniss' insistence, but coming hard on the heels of the much-publicized lawsuit over quotes allegedly fabricated by The New Yorker's Janet Malcolm, it hit a very exposed nerve.

Legendary editor Roger W. Straus, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says, ''Will the public accept it when an author says, 'I'm selling you this book as a bio, but I'm also telling you that I made up a lot of stuff myself' ? It's a helluva way to run a railroad.''

The second flap was ignited in the July 12 issue of New York magazine, in which journalist John Taylor examined The Last Brother's advance excerpt and found the ''overwhelming bulk of the material in the first 11 chapters'' to be right out of William Manchester's 1967 Kennedy classic, The Death of a President. ''I'm prepared to go to court,'' says Manchester, who himself counts ''over a hundred'' examples of direct copying from his book. ''I'm working on a biography of Winston Churchill, which is the most important book I shall write. I'm 71. I will never write such major work again. The last thing I want is to turn aside for something like this from which I can gain nothing. But it is a simple matter of right and wrong. ''

Since Simon & Schuster refuses to release any more of the new book and McGinniss isn't returning calls, the issues of plagiarism and trumped-up quotes are both unresolved. ''What really shocks me is not McGinniss,'' says Manchester, ''but Simon & Schuster. I know from someone at Simon & Schuster that copy editors did not check it at all (against original sources).'' Responds S&S marketing VP Wendy Nicholson, ''Joe McGinniss has treated Manchester's work in a thoroughly responsible way both legally and morally. If any suits are filed, we are confident we will prevail.''

McGinniss has other defenders. Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, speculates that McGinniss simply ''did what David Halberstam did in The Best and the Brightest, and what Woodward and Bernstein did: talked to lots of people about who said what, and who thought what,'' then reconstructed dialogue out of the reporting. McGinniss' first book editor, Gene Prakapas, who persuaded him to put documentation at the end instead of in the main text of the hit The Selling of the President 1968, also defends the author's standards. ''The first thing I'd say about Joe,'' declares Prakapas, ''is that he's a quality act. There's no tin there.''

But others have been swayed by Taylor's suggestions of plagiarism. When asked about it, Halberstam, whose The Fifties has been at the top of most nonfiction best-seller lists this summer, chuckles.

''I'm sorry,'' he says. ''I shouldn't break into laughter about someone else's misfortune. Apparently the best part of this book came not just from the mind of William Manchester but from his typewriter as well — it's quite insulting. There's absolutely no evidence, as far as I can tell, that Joe has done very much legwork...There are situations where you've done careful, careful saturation reporting where you can use the words 'thought such and such,' but you'd really better have very damn good sourcing.''

Other publishing veterans are astounded by titanic Simon & Schuster's lack of spin control in the imbroglio. ''That ridiculous disclaimer is like a death wish,'' says a former S&S employee. ''Someone was asleep at the switch. They might as well have drawn a bull's-eye on the book. It's like Vietnam, where they called in mortar fire on their own position. You have to ask, Are they stupid?'' And such rebuttals as S&S has issued have been suspect at best. ''It would not surprise me if (Kennedy aides) would try to discredit the book by stirring this (controversy) up,'' S&S president Carolyn Reidy told Publishers Weekly, ''but I have absolutely no evidence to back that up.''

This isn't the only recent literary scrap involving Simon & Schuster. In March, writer Robert Sam Anson sued for $1 million, charging S&S with suppressing his in-progress investigative book on the Disney company (which will now be published by Pantheon). In 1990, S&S at the last minute canceled publication of the gory novel American Psycho, by McGinniss protégé Bret Easton Ellis.

Insiders say that McGinniss himself is not delighted with his publisher's actions. ''He's apparently not very happy with his treatment here,'' says one S& S editor. ''He thinks they've bungled things, and he's decided to start calling the shots.'' Conversely, says the editor, the publicity department has had it ''up to here'' with McGinniss' meddling.

The whole truth about the affair won't be clear at least until mid-August, when The Last Brother is slated to hit bookstores. The original October publication date was moved up, presumably to capitalize on the controversy — though a Manchester legal volley could delay it. ''I think this is all fuel for the fire,'' says Globe Pequot Press' John Whalen, an S&S alumnus. ''Nobody publishes explosive biographies like Simon & Schuster. They'll have a great success with McGinniss' Kennedy book. I'm positive of that.'' And Joe McGinniss, who had his first No. 1 best-seller at age 26 with The Selling of the President 1968, may have another lucrative hit on his hands at 50; an NBC movie version is already in the works, which will considerably fatten his reported $1 million book advance — New York guesses the project, including magazine excerpts and movie rights, could net McGinniss $2 million.

That would outdo The Death of a President, says Manchester, who insisted on donating his $1.5 million in royalties to the Kennedy Library. ''I didn't write the book for money then, and I don't want it now. I don't want a big settlement. All I want is justice.'' — Additional reporting by Joanna Powell

Originally posted Jul 30, 1993 Published in issue #181 Jul 30, 1993 Order article reprints
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