Mel Ayton: Review of Burton Hersh’s Bobby and J. Edgar – The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America (Carroll & Graf)
Burton Hersh’s previous Kennedy-themed books, The Education of Edward Kennedy (1972) and Shadow President (1997), give much insight into the character and career of the last Kennedy brother. With these two books Hersh stuck closely to the facts and they were widely acclaimed as a result. However, in Hersh’s new book, Bobby and J Edgar(2007), the story of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover and his relationship with the Kennedys, the author appears to have abandoned the historian’s careful methodology in selecting source material in favor of one more more suited to the tabloid journalist. When Hersh comes to write about the controversial aspects of the Kennedys and Hoover (Hoover’s alleged homosexuality and cross-dressing, RFK’s purported relationship with Marilyn Monroe, the suspicious circumstances of Monroe’s death, the assassinations of JFK and RFK) his well-honed journalistic skills in rooting out a good story have been compromised by his willingness to absorb every far-fetched tale spun by those who entered into an unholy alliance with the financially lucrative conspiracy industry.
Nonetheless, Hersh’s book is a worthy contribution to the literature of the Kennedys and their times, but only in those parts where he doesn’t indulge his wild theorizing.
Hersh’s book is fascinating in the way it moves between narratives dealing with the advancing acquisition of power by the Kennedys (most importantly through Joe Sr’s immoral business dealings, his bootlegging and his associations with the power elite in Washington, including corrupt politicians), and the consolidation of Hoover’s power throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s (in the form of the infamous Official and Confidential files which were used, albeit sparingly, to coax and blackmail presidents, Senators, Congressmen and the powerful into doing his bidding). Especially interesting is the way in which Hersh delineates the tensions that existed between the ageing Hoover, committed to hanging on to power at all costs, and the young upstart Bobby Kennedy who had a different perspective about how to collar the bad guys. Hersh’s recounting of the career of J. Edgar Hoover interlocked with Jack and Bobby on the one hand, and Joseph Kennedy Sr on the other, is absorbing.
Hersh is on safe ground when he describes the links between the business world, politics and organized crime, thanks to the excellent referencing of works by organized crime scholars like Gus Russo, (The Outfit, 2001, and Supermob, 2006). Hersh thus adds some fresh perspectives about the links between Joseph Kennedy Sr and mobsters like Johnny Rosseli, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky and the Chicago ‘Outfit’; links which have previously been provided by other researchers but were flimsy or less than persuasive.
However, Hersh’s achilees heel is the way in which he has vacuumed up every conspiracy angle and presented it as worthy of consideration. Indeed, Hersh goes further than anything he did in his previous books by appearing to accept, without criticism, the fantastic tales of many actors who were caught up in the dramas surrounding the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, JFK and RFK.And his allegations that J.Edgar Hoover was likely a homosexual is contradicted by other sources he uses. His considered opinion about the FBI Director’s sexual orientation does not assist the reader in arriving at any definite conclusions on the matter.
Hersh buys into the notion that the Kennedy brothers were most likely murdered by organized crime figures and possibly others (‘There was, in fact, a conspiracy’ Hersh writes). In his research about the JFK assassination he has unwisely used so-called Dealey Plaza ‘witnesses’ like Beverly Oliver (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/oliver.htm ), alleged assassins like James E. Files (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/files.htm ) and bogus experts like Robert Groden (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/experts.htm ) to prop up his conspiracy thesis yet the credibility of these ‘witnesses/experts’ has long been denounced by serious assassination researchers. There can be no better example of how Burton Hersh has skewered the evidence in favour of the conspiracy buffs than the way he dealt with the House Assassinations Select Committee acoustics evidence that was debunked by some of the country’s top acoustics experts many years ago. (See: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/odell/ )
The incidences where Hersh has used flawed research with regard to the RFK/JFK/Monroe chapters are too numerous to mention. However, his chapter title about the JFK assassination, ‘The Patsy’, hints at what the reader should expect – a compendium of title-tattle nonsense designed to get Oswald off the hook.It is seriously devoid of any credible and supportive evidence. In this chapter Hersh buys into every false story that has been doing the rounds for forty years, including: Jack Ruby was a co-conspirator and knew Oswald, Oswald knew alleged conspirator David Ferrie, Jack Ruby had close links to the mob and did their bidding by shooting Oswald, Oswald was an FBI informant, Oswald was ‘managed’ by alleged CIA asset George DeMohrenschildt, – it goes on ad nauseam - but these examples alone show how little Hersh really knows about the JFK assassination. ( see: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm )
Unfortunately, Hersh’s book went to press before he had time to digest Vincent Bugliosi’s ‘Reclaiming History’(2007) which makes a mockery out of the mob-did-it, CIA-did-it, and anti-Castro Cubans-did-it theories Hersh so willingly embraces.
Hersh has also ignored the evidence provided by authors like Dan Moldea who puts the lie to allegations the mob murdered JFK’s brother Bobby. In fact, Hersh is even less informed about the Robert Kennedy assassination than he is about the JFK murder despite the fact he had access to Dan Moldea’s book ‘The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy’ (1995) and even referenced it. Moldea’s book renders absurd everything Hersh has to say about this crime including Hersh’s inference Sirhan was likely controlled by Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen.
Hersh has obviously come under the influence of the conspracy community. Perhaps his publishers, Carrol and Graf, famous for publishing numerous books about the purported conspiracy to murder JFK, may have had something to do with it.
For his Marilyn Monroe narrative Hersh is on safer ground in alleging (but not proving) RFK had an affair with the Hollywood actress. But we really have no way of knowing for sure as Hersh’s sources are as unsound as the ones he used to write his chapters dealing with the assassinations of JFK and RFK. For his Monroe, JFK assassination and RFK assassination chapters he relies heavily on the stories peddled by Chicago mobster Sam Giancana’s brother and nephew, in their book ‘Double Cross’(1992), a silly tale of how Sam Giancana sent seven assassins to Dallas to murder the president and of how they were aided by Dallas police officers J.D. Tippit and Roscoe White. The book also tells of how Sam Giancana sent a team of four assassins to murder Marilyn Monroe and blame it on the Kennedys.Years of research have confirmed this story to be complete fiction. (see: http://davesjfk.com/roscoew.html )
Hersh’s selective use of sources for JFK/RFK brother-in-law Peter Lawford demonstrate the way Lawford’s sad and contradictory tales have been used over the years. Lawford was a drug addict and alcoholic who, during the latter part of his life, frequently said things to his wives he later regretted. Patricia Seaton had been a common law wife to Lawford for 11 years and married him on his deathbed. In statements made to the New York Post, Seaton said that former wife Deborah Gould had invented the stories about the Monroe/RFK relationship. Gould’s story, published in C. David Heymann’s book, was the source for Hersh’s recounting of what happened the night Monroe died. Seaton also told the Post's Neal Travis that C. David Heymann fabricated stories about RFK and Monroe.
According to Seaton, Lawford discussed the Kennedys and Monroe with her on many occasions. Her account of the RFK/Monroe story is credible and authoritative precisely because she was close to the actor for 11 years, unlike Gould who had a stormy and superficial relationship with Lawford for a brief period of time - their relationship lasted only a few months.
Hersh also relies on the demonstrably false stories provided by Robert Slatzer, who claims he was once married to the star, and Jeanne Carmen whose stories about Monroe have titillated a whole generation of Kennedy authors and documentary makers.
It was Monroe biographer Donald Spoto who put the lie to Slatzer’s far-fetched claims. Spoto discovered that none of the people who were close to the actress had even heard of Slatzer. Spoto wrote in his definitive biography Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1993), "...not one of Marilyn's friends, relatives, business associates, colleagues, spouses or lovers could even recall meeting him (much less Marilyn ever mentioning him) nor is he to be found in any of her personal telephone or address books." This was confirmed by Hollywood journalist James Bacon, a friend of Monroe's, who said he talked to her friends and they said they had never heard of him.
During his research, Spoto discovered that Slatzer's claim that he had been married to Monroe was pure invention. Spoto found out that Monroe was in Beverly Hills on the day of the alleged marriage on a shopping spree and she signed a check dated Oct. 4 to pay for articles she purchased. Since Slatzer says that the couple left for Mexico on Oct. 3 and stayed for the following weekend, Spoto's research demolishes the story. Spoto also revealed how Slatzer’s story about Monroe's ‘red diary’ was invented; it is an invention which Hersh accepts as true. The ‘diary’ purportedly revealed information about Monroe’s affairs with the Kennedys and the plots to kill Castro. The red diary, however, was simply Monroe's address book that was on the table next to her bed after she was found dead.
Hersh’s reliance on proven confabulator Jeanne Carmen is another central weakness in his research. Carmen has been used by writers as a witness to just about every scandalous aspect of the RFK/Monroe story. Carmen was a late-surfacing, supposed intimate of Monroe. She said she was a friend and neighbor of Monroe's when the actress lived in Doheny Drive before she bought her home in Brentwood, a Los Angeles suburb. Carmen began to tell her story after Robert Slatzer published his invented story. Donald Spoto discovered that Monroe's neighbors at Doheny Drive and Monroe's friends at the time had no knowledge of Carmen. Carmen is the source for the oft-repeated story of how RFK and Monroe visited a nudist beach and RFK was disguised in a wig and dark glasses, a story that Hersh buys into as he repeats it without any hint of incredulity.
By the late 1990s Carmen apparently decided she was running out of new revelations. She told author C. David Heymann, whom Hersh relies on as a credible source, that she had had an intimate relationship with JFK. For the previous two decades she had forgotten to tell this sensational aspect of her story. It was, after all, the president of the United States she claimed she had been sleeping with. Carmen has also maintained that Monroe had sent her a birthday card shortly before Monroe's death and yet it has never surfaced. One would have expected Carmen to have treasured the card especially since it was the last birthday card Monroe had given. Furthermore, no photographs exist of Carmen and Monroe or any documentary evidence to prove they had anything other than a slight acquaintenceship.
In support of his ‘RFK/Monroe romance’ and his inferences Monroe was likely murdered Hersh brings in wiretappers Bernie Spindel and Freddie Otash. As Otash and Spindel are dead he relies on authors James Spada and Milo Speriglio to provide the ‘truth’. However, both Spada and Speriglio are not the most reliable when keeping track of the deception these two snoopers were capable of. A close friend of Otash, acclaimed novelist James Ellroy, author of American Tabloid, said Otash had confided in him his belief that the RFK/Monroe affair was bogus. Ellroy told the Richmond Review, "As much research as I've done, one fact stands fast…… he did not play bury the brisket and pour the pork with Marilyn Monroe...I used to be friends with Shakedown Freddy Otash, private eye to the stars in LA circa 1955 to 1965. God bless him, Freddy died recently at the age of 71...Freddy told me he is convinced that Bobby never had an affair with Marilyn Monroe that, at the time of Marilyn's death, Bobby was interceding on Jack's behalf, trying to get this crazy woman to quit calling the president of the United States at the White House. She just kicked off coincidentally."
Bernie Spindel, a known boaster, had stated as early as December 1966 that he had conducted electronic surveillance of Monroe's home and obtained material "which…strongly suggests that the officially reported circumstances of (Monroe's) demise are erroneous". However, he made this statement after a raid on his home by the Manhattan District Attorney's office in which evidence of illegal wiretapping had been seized resulting in the arrests of 28 people. Days later Spindel claimed the tapes had been stolen. The district attorney's office concluded that Spindel's story had been a fraud. Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Ronald Carroll wrote in his report, "Spindel's asserted desire to have the tapes made public appears to have been a ploy...The (Spindel) tapes were in fact heard by staff investigators and none of the tapes contained anything relating to Marilyn Monroe."
Hersh does not allow the reader to make his or her own mind up about a number of particularly ambiguous statements made by those close to Monroe and RFK. For example, Hersh accepts uncritically the claim that RFK’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, had confirmed in a letter that RFK and Monroe were having a relationship. The letter refers to Monroe and Robert Kennedy as an ‘item’, but Smith has gone on record as saying the phrase was used as a ‘joke’, no doubt in reference to Monroe's admiration for the president's brother and her determination to impress him with her knowledge of current affairs. Hersh tells his readers about the letter but without Smith’s disclaimer. Similarly, C. David Heymann wrongly used notes/letters passed between RFK and Pat Newcomb to substantiate an affair between those two. The letters can only suggest a light-hearted communication between friends.
Sadly, Hersh’s omissions render the reader unable to arrive at a considered judgement about what all these factoids mean. All that remains in Hersh’s book, as far as the alleged RFK/Monroe romance is concerned, is the decades-old unproven speculation that Robert Kennedy had an affair with the Hollywood actress; that Monroe kept a secret diary; that she threatened to reveal her affairs with JFK and RFK to the world shortly before she died; and that RFK met Monroe on the day of her death. All of these claims, which have evidently persuaded Hersh (and also, apparently, persuaded him not to provide anything which may challenge them), are contradicted by more credible sources whose stories are related in many Monroe biographies, including Spoto’s.
And the effect of Hersh’s book on history? Conspiracy buffs will no doubt be heartened for they now have an experienced and respected journalist/historian on their side. However, for those more skeptical, Hersh’s contribution to the history of this era will be appreciated but it will also present them with a puzzle as to how and why this great writer allowed himself to be seduced by the conspiracy industry.
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