Title: The Dark Side of Camelot
Author: Seymour M. Hersh
Hersh, Seymour M. (1997). The Dark Side of Camelot. Boston: Little, Brown
E843 .H47 1997
Date Posted: March 11, 2013
A review by Thomas Powers in The New York Times (November 30, 1997). The Sins of a President A reporter catalogues John F. Kennedy’s every offense against women, America and apple pie.
Marilyn Monroe alone escapes untarnished from this file cabinet of a book, in which the celebrated investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh holds up to the available light in strict chronological order just about every report, claim, rumor or telltale clue of precisely and exclusively those things that President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, his friends, assistants, confidants, lawyers, secret emissaries, faithful Government servants and, we are assured, his numerous one-time, part-time, sometime and longtime sexual partners were united in wishing to shroud in decent secrecy forever.
Monroe is identified as one of Kennedy’s lovers, but the news is old and has long since lost its power to shock. The star is not on stage for long—once again, isolated in the spotlights of the old Madison Square Garden in May 1962, Monroe sings as only a sex goddess can a steamy version of “Happy Birthday” to the President beaming nearby, as who wouldn’t. Hersh has also obtained and prints a bit of text from the transcript of a stream-of-consciousness tape Monroe made for her psychiatrist: “Marilyn Monroe is a soldier. Her commander in chief is the greatest and most powerful man in the world. The first duty of a soldier is to obey her commander in chief. He says do this, you do it. He says do that, you do it. This man is going to change our country. . . . It’s like the Navy—the President is the captain and Bobby is his executive officer. Bobby would do absolutely anything for his brother and so would I. I will never embarrass him. As long as I have memory, I have John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
This is sad and pathetic but it is not shaming. There’s a bit more of the same and then it’s over. The Marilyn Monroe we have always known—beautiful, confused, smarter than you might think and lonely as only a star can be—survives intact. But her modest walk-on role, we have been informed by weeks of highly public scandal, is very far from the full treatment Hersh originally had in mind. What Hersh had, or thought he had, or in any event persuaded ABC News for a time that he had, was a sheaf of incriminating documents—including letters, contracts and memorandums signed by President Kennedy—which proved, or purported to prove, or if true would have proved, that Marilyn Monroe changed her mind about embarrassing the President, threatened to deface the President’s image as a family man with the sensational news of their sexual affair and was bribed to shut up only by the President’s timely agreement to establish a substantial trust fund for the comfortable maintenance of her mother. There was lots more of the same, incriminating not only Monroe, in the documents allegedly left at his death by a New York lawyer who, according to his son, numbered among his private clients the President.
Hersh’s sensational discoveries and their incontrovertible proof had been rumored in journalistic circles for a year or more, but when the documents were at last examined in a serious way it was discovered, as ABC infuriated Hersh by telling the world, that the trove had been fabricated. The documents had all the earmarks of an utter scam, a cynical attempt to bilk naive collectors. Why they fell for it is not hard to imagine, but what about Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, the man who exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the man who first reported domestic spying by the Central Intelligence Agency? How are we to explain that to the children?
Since the Marilyn papers were exposed, Hersh and his far-too-long romance with the forgeries have been the subject of unflattering comment in news stories and magazine articles. Some might say there is a certain rough justice in the fact that the investigative journalist at last faces a little investigating. How Hersh could have let himself be dazzled will be addressed below, but in fairness it ought to be admitted here that Hersh came to his senses in time, and the sensational Marilyn Monroe documents never made it into his book. But a lot of other stuff did, and the question on the table is what to make of it.
The first thing to be said about The Dark Side of Camelot is that it is a reporter’s book, not a historian’s. What’s in it is mainly Hersh’s. Again and again we are told that so-and-so “said in an interview for this book” or “told me” thus-and-such or that certain documents were “obtained for this book” and are here “published for the first time.” The first half-dozen times this seems boastful and aggrandizing, but we soon grow used to the litany, and it becomes clear that Hersh has done his legwork; he is not trying to smuggle things in from other books. He tells us what he’s found up front, making judgment easier for reviewers and blood enemies alike. The source notes at the back can be a little cumbersome, but compared with investigative reporters who provide no source notes whatever, Hersh is standing in the choir with Edward Gibbon.
The subject of Hersh’s book is what Kennedy was really like and what he really did. Advance publicity suggests this is strictly a demolition job, but in fact there is much that casts Kennedy in a favorable light or makes him human. Among the most interesting of Hersh’s informants are well-known journalists like Hugh Sidey and Gloria Emerson. That said, The Dark Side of Camelot is mostly stuff you wouldn’t want your kids to know. It contains a great deal of information about Kennedy’s sexual life; his relations with the mob, especially Sam Giancana; and what appears to have been a ready acceptance of the use of personal violence—assassination—against foreign opponents, most famously Fidel Castro. The reader will seldom be startled by Hersh’s discoveries; all this has been discussed for years. But Hersh has much to add; the copious new detail often makes for painful reading, and the raw data come from a reporter with a professional style notoriously similar to the single-minded ferocity of the wolverine, a meat-eater of the north woods known among fur trappers of yesteryear for its ability to tear its way through the log wall of a cabin for a strip of bacon. If you want a considered account of the big picture of the Kennedy era you should consult a scholar like Michael R. Beschloss, the author of a definitive account of Kennedy’s handling of the cold war, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963; or Ernest R. May, the co-editor of The Kennedy Tapes, which relates the deliberations of Kennedy and his advisers during the Cuban missile crisis. Hersh does not write history in the usual sense of the term, but he makes life difficult for historians by digging up just enough about distressing matters so they can’t honestly be ignored.
Sometimes Hersh’s technique works persuasively. An example is the story of Kennedy’s fling in 1963 with an East German woman named Ellen Rometsch, possibly a spy, definitely trouble. Hersh has pieced it together with interviews of Washington insiders, declassified F.B.I. and C.I.A. files, what lay behind contemporary news accounts and a final, revealing quotation from Ben Bradlee’s 1975 memoir, Conversations With Kennedy.
It’s only too obvious that Kennedy’s rambling remarks about J. Edgar Hoover, a scandal on Capitol Hill, who was paying how much for Rometsch, the Senate investigator who loved her, were all intended not for Bradlee’s entertainment but to prepare Bradlee’s newspaper, The Washington Post, for some very bad news heading the President’s way. “There is something incredible,” Bradlee wrote 20 years ago, “about the picture of the President of the United States and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation looking at photographs of call girls over lunch.” It’s not so incredible now. That lunch with Hoover was not an idle gossip session. Hoover knew about Kennedy’s affair with Rometsch, and made sure the President knew he knew. Hersh has tied a great many separate strands together here to create a new, convincing and troubling tale of a man who has lost control of his appetites and is beginning to realize he is knee-deep in the tar-baby.
But other chapters are all over the place, none more so than Hersh’s account of how Kennedy handled Khrushchev’s reckless attempt to sneak Russian nuclear missiles into Cuba. Thirty years of vigorous historical research later, the received wisdom, with which I more or less agree, is that Kennedy found just the right mix of resolution and willingness to compromise, got Khrushchev to execute an about-face, ended the world’s closest brush with nuclear war and cleared the way for a more stable relationship.
Hersh will have none of it. Whatever Kennedy did was wrong or had a sneaky motive. He made too much of a fuss about missiles that didn’t matter, he never weighed the awful possibility of a nuclear exchange (not so; see The Kennedy Tapes), he compromised at the end by trading United States missiles in Turkey, he kept the deal secret so he could look tough. Even a week of deliberation by Kennedy’s advisers meeting as an executive committee, during which initial enthusiasm for an air assault on the missile sites gradually cooled, Hersh describes as just a clever ploy. “In one move,” he writes, “Kennedy isolated those men who could lead a public charge against his stewardship of state and left them to deliberate in private, while he and his brother struggled to reap political gain from a mess that had been triggered by their obsession with Cuba.” This is not wrong; it’s silly.
But Hersh’s account of the obsession itself, and especially of the role played by the President and his brother in the C.I.A.’s attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, is right on the money. Ever since the investigation of the C.I.A. by the Senate committee known after its chairman, Frank Church—an investigation set into motion by Hersh’s stories in The New York Times in December 1974—there has been a long rear-guard action by Kennedy loyalists to muddy the waters about the President’s responsibility for the murder plots. Robert McNamara, who had been deeply implicated himself, carefully refrained from trying to blame the secret warriors assigned the job. “The C.I.A. was a highly disciplined organization, fully under the control of senior officials of the Government,” he told the Church committee. But assassination, McNamara insisted, “I never heard of. . . . I just can’t understand how it could have happened.”
There was ample evidence even 20 years ago[in the 1970s] for Kennedy’s role in authorizing the attempts, and for Bobby Kennedy’s role in pressing the effort following the disastrous failure of the C.I.A.-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. But Kennedy loyalists have been amazingly successful in selling the McNamara line to historians. Somewhere among the winks and nods and grumbles of Presidential irritation must have been born an ember of conviction among high officials of the C.I.A. that perhaps what Kennedy actually meant, and actually wanted, when he said we have to get rid of Castro was . . . getting rid of Castro! The historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, in their exhaustive recent history of the missile crisis, One Hell of a Gamble, typically write that the Kennedy brothers “had pushed the C.I.A. to use whatever means necessary—including probably assassination—to remove the Castro brothers.”
Probably? That word of doubt sticks in the wolverine’s craw, and in effect inspires Hersh to dig up additional evidence, including a specific claim that the man first in charge of anti-Castro operations, the late Richard Bissell, told one of the men who helped him, William Harvey, that it was the President himself who instructed him to establish an “executive action capability” for killing foreign leaders. (Hersh’s new evidence includes a modest contribution from me. Hersh asked me a year or two ago if I’d learned anything new; when I told him that a former C.I.A. officer told me that in 1961 the President had said that a move to assassinate Castro was “already in hand,” Hersh backed up the story with documents in the Kennedy library.)
According to notes obtained by Hersh, Harvey met on Jan. 25 with a C.I.A. scientist to discuss poisons for killing Fidel Castro, among others on the hit list. Hersh has also learned that in 1962, while the assassination efforts involving Mafia hit men were still under way, Bobby Kennedy was assigned his own operational officer in the C.I.A., a man named Charles Ford picked from the staff of Task Force W, then commanded by Bill Harvey. Ford’s job was to handle contacts with Mafia chiefs while traveling under the pseudonym of Rocky Fiscalini, a name (along with Ford’s own) that appears in Bobby Kennedy’s office logs for 1962. But what Ford actually did for Kennedy remains unknown.
Hersh provides no definitive history of the C.I.A.’s attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, a subject that is complex, factually dense and spotted with missing pieces. But he has dug up numerous pieces of new information, many of them significant for any serious history even if they fall short of being sensational headline material. His account of the C.I.A.’s campaign makes clear what C.I.A. officers have been stressing for 20 years—that the driving force behind the all-out effort to get rid of Castro was the blast furnace of pressure from the Kennedy brothers.
This is not shocking. The basic facts, if not all the details, have long been known by those who desired to know. But it is painful to read about assassination planning by the very man whose murder was probably the greatest single traumatic event in American history. Painful in a different way is Hersh’s new material about the President’s sexual life. Marilyn Monroe we can forgive, just as we would forgive Antony Cleopatra. But Hersh describes many other affairs, some casual, some extended, with named individuals. His best material comes from a woman not named but not hard to identify, who describes what it felt like to be one of Kennedy’s girls from the first rush when she was a 19-year-old Radcliffe student (Kennedy was 40, married and running for President) to a bittersweet, postcoital moment the evening before his inauguration, when a chance comment made it clear Kennedy had no idea that a man he was considering for a high-level job was her father. She stuck it out for another two years, kept conveniently nearby with a “make-work White House job dealing with international affairs,” until a sense of being used finally persuaded her to break off. She learned two things, passed on to Hersh: that Kennedy paid serious attention only to men, and that he seduced journalists in the same way he did women. This and similar stories make poignant a remark to Hersh by Jackie Kennedy’s personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, that the First Lady sometimes asked her to call the President’s secretary to inquire whether his schedule permitted spending the evening with him.
But the President did not simply have affairs, according to Hersh. Several Secret Service men assigned to guard the President told Hersh he had a taste for bimbos, girls brought in off the street by friends acting as procurers; that he liked cavorting naked with such women in the White House pool, that friends often joined him, and sometimes his brothers Bobby and Teddy as well. “The high point—or low point—of Presidential partying,” Hersh writes, came in December 1962 at the Palm Springs estate of the movie star and crooner Bing Crosby. Secret Service men described to Hersh a night of drunken debauchery when state policemen guarding the front of the house thought the wild cries coming from the pool might be an invasion of coyotes. The women were introduced as stewardesses from a European airline, but who they really were the Secret Service men had no idea. This single tableau, including much I have not described, manages to cast a pale and bilious light over everything that’s wrong with politics, sex, California, swimming pools, drinking after dinner and all else that slips out of control once men feel they are invulnerable.
The obvious question is: Is it true? Can we trust the reporter who fell for the Marilyn papers? Two aspects of the reporting life suggest an answer. The first is that the truth never arrives neatly wrapped. Reporters must fight for every scrap of information or confirmation, and after all the hard work casual readers may airily dismiss the result as lacking a smoking gun. Reporters dream of finding the perfect witness, who knows all and wants to tell all, or the treasure-trove of documents—all that secret paper that the C.I.A., or the Mafia’s bookkeeper, or the President’s lawyer, thought was safely squirreled away. But if a reporter gets to them once in a lifetime it’s a sign of divine favor. We may assume that Hersh fervently dreamed of such a coup during his five years of research. The second relevant fact is that homework gradually creates a deep feel for the subject, for the operating style of the cast of characters, for the chronology and context of events. I am sure that presented to Hersh now, the Marilyn papers would set off a hundred alarm bells.
The questions inevitably raised by Hersh’s gaffe are the very sort he is accustomed to jabbing at others. Did his hopes of a big score, too long in his dreams, cloud his reporter’s judgment? Or did he suffer a moment of temptation, like a saint’s in the wilderness, weighing the promise of big bucks against the chance no one would ever know? Hersh has made too many people squirm to sweat that one in public. “So what’s new?” he said to Robert Sam Anson of Vanity Fair. “Boy reporter goes down wrong path.” It’s the inevitable answer, perhaps, but it doesn’t explain anything.
The big casualty of the Marilyn-papers fiasco is the five years of hard work Hersh put into his book. One may quarrel with his judgments but the man is a great investigative reporter, no lie, and when he says somebody told him something he makes it easy for doubters to check it out. Nothing in The Dark Side of Camelot gives off even a whiff of the dead-fish aroma of the trust fund for Marilyn’s Mom, but Kennedy loyalists, joined by others who just don’t want to know, are using Hersh’s terrible misstep to dismiss what he has dug up as trifling gossip and unsupported hearsay.
I think I can understand why. Sympathy for the late President’s wife must be part of it. The world may not have known for years just how much of himself Kennedy gave to other lovers, but she did, and that is hard to contemplate. Still harder to contemplate is the image of the murdered man saying O.K. to murder. If Hersh is right, then what we went through on Nov. 22, 1963, is exactly what Kennedy planned for Cuba. But if it’s not true, if Kennedy had nothing to do with planning the death of Castro, if the C.I.A. was off on its own, if Hersh’s witnesses were all lying, or can be dismissed, or just ignored, then we need never ask ourselves if the President’s death represents a kind of rough justice.
[Thomas Powers is the author of several books on politics and current affairs. See his book, Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb.]