American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.
by Richard Blow
Playing Nick Carraway
A review by Thomas Mallon
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.
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)."
There was, Blow writes, "one question none of us wanted to ask: Were readers buying George because they liked the magazine or to get a glimpse of John?" Let me answer that question: to get a glimpse of John. George wasn't much different from O or Rosie, and its brief life was destined to end when its editor's did. But thanks to Blow's diary-keeping, history will not be denied a record of nearly every staffer's outfit on the first day of a George editorial retreat, an event chronicled as if it were the Dumbarton Oaks conference.
American Son is not so much a book as a TV-movie proposal. Its author is quite candid about its adaptive possibilities, and he has helped potential producers by eschewing the more subtle constructions of prose memoir in favor of what appears to be a ready-made "treatment." The scene openers are all in place — for example, Blow nervously checking the time before he escorts Kennedy to an interview with the president of the NRA ("Damn it, I thought, we're going to miss this flight"). The closers are here too, as in this last line of the job-offer scene: "I thought about it for four or five seconds. 'When do I start?'" The white space that follows on the printed page will soon become a Doritos commercial.
Blow includes a strategic amount of foreshadowing ("I took the train to Connecticut to spend Christmas with my family. John traveled to Vero Beach, Florida, to commence flying lessons") in addition to notes for the costumer ("a dark blue tie and a white pocket square, an accoutrement he always wore on important occasions"). The prevailing tone is that of non-premium cable TV: the Lifetime network ("triumphs and tragedies") with an AMC dash of Frank Capra. "So what if we didn't have the insiders and the elites on our side?" Blow writes. "We had the people — or at least a lot of them." Blow even does what he can to pump some drama into the establishing shots ("Hachette's building, an ominous black and silver skyscraper ...").
The TV movie will work better than the book, because, except in the implausibly reconstructed dialogue, it will lack the print version's off-key, malaprop prose. This is a book in which confetti can bounce, monarchs become "monarchists," and metaphor is a kind of extreme sport: "We would need our strength because John was entering a year of intense and painful self-examination and he would pull us along with him, like a whaleboat crew tethered to a harpooned animal, bouncing along the choppy ocean toward the endless horizon." Attempts at aphorism only make things worse: "In New York City, you can always see celebrities, but you can never see stars."
Blow would like us to believe that when he took the job at George, he "wasn't that interested in celebrities." But he also tells us that the "high-powered real estate agent" who found him his New York apartment would one day "help Bill and Hillary Clinton buy a house in Chappaqua." And in recounting the night he and his girlfriend found themselves caught between JFK Jr. and the paparazzi, Blow winds up telling a story quite different from the one he intended.
Nyssa and I stood frozen, not knowing what to do but not wanting to abandon John. I instinctively grabbed Nyssa's hand, then, torn between protecting her and defending John, let go and tried to block the photographers.
The incident reveals a man who is above all desperate to get into the picture. (Nyssa eventually dumped him, and he went on to date a woman who had worked at, yes, Calvin Klein.)
Despite Blow's talk of "kinship with outsiders and the less-than-powerful," it seems pitifully obvious that he wanted to work at George for the same reason anybody cared to read it—to be around John Kennedy Jr. Recollecting a bit of touch football played during a winter snowfall, he writes, "Romping like a kid, I forgot that I was throwing a football around the streets of Manhattan with John F. Kennedy, Jr., substituting in a ritual he usually performed with his famous family." This is not, of course, what Blow "forgot"; it's what he most remembers. "I would respect and protect John," he recalls thinking in early 1996. "I would do my utmost to stand by him. But I would not be seduced by him." Well, we'll be the judge of that. Readers of whatever sex or orientation will enjoy this chastely homoerotic moment between author and hero.
"Here," John said. He reached out and took hold of the tie, smoothing out the creases. Then, his strong hands working the material expertly but gently, he slid the knot up so that it was snug in the center of my shirt collar.
Blow tries to dismantle the analogy he says people used to make between Kennedy and Jay Gatsby. "There was an essential difference between the two," he writes. "Gatsby knew who he wanted to be but denied who he was; John knew who he was, but not who he wanted to be." Perhaps. What's more certain is that Blow saw an opening in the role of Nick Carraway. By 1999, he says, he was forced to contemplate his own demi-celebrity.
How much life had changed. Now I was the executive editor of a national magazine, appearing on television shows and speaking at press conferences ... And yet I had paid a price ... Was what I had gained worth what I had lost?...Part of me wished I had never met John Kennedy.
Oh, but once Kennedy was gone:
The silence was unnatural; the city was never this silent. It felt wrong, like a movie without sound, a flower without color.
Nick Carraway confessed to a similar sensory disruption:
So this is how New York feels without John, I thought.
After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.
Richard Blow is still in Manhattan, waiting — in vain, one suspects — for the second act in his American life.
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