NEW YORK — Edward Klein didn’t begin his career with the ambition of being an unauthorized biographer. He began at Newsweek, where he worked as a reporter and then as the magazine’s foreign editor. An even more prestigious post followed when he was named editor of The New York Times Magazine in 1977, where he worked for 11 years before leaving in 1988. But his fascination with the Kennedys led to the bestselling book, “All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy,” a year later and he has not turned back since.
A second book followed on Jackie’s later years, while his third, “The Kennedy Curse,” hits stores today. In it, the author — who also has a day job writing Walter Scott’s Personality Parade for Parade Magazine — lays out an exhaustive (if not overly psychoanalytic) case for why tragedy has plagued the Kennedys for the last 180 years, from the family’s early years in Ireland in the 1820s all the way through to the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in 1999. Mainly, Klein claims, the Kennedy Curse is the result of the family’s “fantasy of omnipotence” and the “cold, hard reality of life.” Translation? Arrogance with a capital A.
The buzz on the book has been deafening. In addition to Vanity Fair’s August cover story on the book, the author has garnered attention because of his book’s two explosive chapters on the marriage of John and Carolyn, in which Klein alleges she was a cocaine abuser whose marriage to John had disintegrated in the months preceding their fatal plane crash.
On Monday, WWD interviewed Klein at the Upper East Side apartment he shares with his wife, Delores Barrett, a former spokesperson for Ralph Lauren, and their four-year-old boxer, named…Kennedy.
WWD: You’ve gone from The New York Times Magazine to the Walter Scott Personality Parade. How do the Kennedys fit into all of this?
Edward Klein: I’ve felt for a long time that the black-and-white distinction between high culture and low culture no longer exists, that our culture is so permeated with celebrity culture that to ignore it in the name of high culture is to be blind. The Kennedys have a number of good or beneficial characteristics, but they also embody a lot of base instincts, so they themselves are this combination of the high and the low.
WWD: Why, 40 years after the assassination of JFK, are people still obsessed with them?
Klein: I think that there’s no family in American history like the Kennedys. They bring together the three great obsessions of American culture: power, sex and self-destructiveness. And as long as books are written, there will be books about the Kennedys. Some future Shakespeare plays will be dramas about the Kennedys.
WWD: Do you think it’s also partly about the need for myths — that, as America becomes a more secular culture, it begins to turn celebrities and political figures into gods, who either self-destruct or get ripped to shreds when they can’t live up to expectations?
Klein: Yes, absolutely. I think that celebrities today are very similar to the Greek gods of antiquity and we project onto them characteristics, we anthropomorphize them into our kind of human gods, because we’d like to idealize them. But these people are, after all, just human — or in the title of my first book, “All Too Human” — and inevitably their flaws show and we become critical, perhaps overly critical. We need to gossip about them. It’s amazing two people can meet at a dinner party and wind up talking about Jennifer Aniston. Why would anyone talk about Jennifer Aniston?
So the Kennedys are the ultimate example of this because the family is so vast. They have so many lower-case gods, we can attribute all kinds of characteristics to them. We wanted to believe for a long time that JFK Jr. was exempt from the Kennedy Curse; that somehow he’d escaped, that he was different and hadn’t inherited the characteristics that had brought down some of the other Kennedys. And when he married Carolyn Bessette we were even more convinced of that because it seemed like such a perfect marriage.
WWD: Still, it wasn’t genuinely immoral behavior that brought him down.
Klein: On his part, I agree that John was an almost universally liked person on the part of those who knew him. He was a generous, loyal and decent guy. He, however, was not depraved but driven in some way he had no control over, to make his mark as the son of this mythic martyred president. He risked his life again and again: walking around without a bodyguard — despite threats of kidnapping and murder; kayaking up the Hudson River alone to West Point; rappelling down mountainsides; bicycling in the midst of Manhattan traffic, and then, finally, in the ultimate risk situation, taking off in an airplane he had no business being in. So it wasn’t depravity but it was this need to prove to himself how much of a Kennedy he was.
WWD: Are you persona non grata with the Kennedys at this point?
Klein: You know, I rarely see them, and when I do, I don’t have any confrontations with them. But it’s so amazing to me about the John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette marriage. I can’t tell you how many people have called me and said, ‘We all knew about this marriage and how terrible it was. It was an open secret around New York and especially the fashion world, and no one ever wrote about it. We’re glad you did, because it was such hypocrisy.’
WWD: Much of the Kennedy Curse seems to be the result of an avalanche of self-destructive behavior which is rooted in one addiction or another. Have we finally arrived at the point where we look back on what you call the Kennedy Curse and say it all could have been different if psychopharmacologists had just been around?
Klein: I don’t. I think it’s almost inconceivable to the rest of us what it was like to be the son of John Kennedy or Jacqueline Kennedy. I think it’s a classic example of classic hubris and modern genetics, this obsession with power and this thirst for dominance over others, which you can trace back tens of decades. It led them to act as though they were omnipotent, as if they weren’t susceptible to the laws of God and man. Plus there is very good evidence that they had what scientists have now identified as this variant gene, the thrill-seeking gene, so it’s [both] genetics and this fantasy of omnipotence that have led them to these collisions with reality.
WWD: Does this base thirst for power and this fantasy of omnipotence say something about their political legacy? Do you think that the Kennedy family had a real political belief system or was it just greed [for power]?
Klein: Their political ideology was power, pure and simple. We’d like to attribute to them all kinds of highfalutin political ideals, but one of the psychoanalysts I spoke to for this book said that their use of the phrase ‘public service’ rather than politics was frequently a way of expiating their guilt for their pursuit of power at the expense of all ethical standards. And I agree with that.
WWD: With regards to this lack of ethical standards, one thing that cuts through the book is what appears to be a total objectification and mistreatment of women. We see it with JFK’s sexual dalliances in the White House, with the William Kennedy Smith incident and with the way, according to your book, that Teddy tried to cover it up. Do you think that they’re a misogynistic family at heart?
Klein: I think it is a misogynistic family at heart. People often attribute that to the way Joseph Kennedy brought up his sons, but I think that’s superficial. I think the deeper explanation is how Rose Kennedy failed to bring up her sons — her absences and her detachment and coldness. So the Kennedy men have this powerful yearning to be close to women but they’re so afraid of this impulse.
WWD: With the behavior patterns you describe, do you see parallels between the Kennedys and the Clintons?
Klein: Well, certainly Bill Clinton behaves very similarly to the Kennedys in the sense that he thinks that he can just get away with these outrageous things, especially these sexual peccadillos, and walk away unscathed. And, of course, he did not walk away unscathed. And Hillary is very similar to a lot of the Kennedy women, who simply turned a blind eye to the outrageous behavior of the Kennedy men, and she has done that publicly for decades.
WWD: Looking at the treatment of the family in the media, the portrayal of John and Jackie during his presidency was like a Fifties movie with all the Audrey Hepburn costumes to go with it, then you had Court TV and William Kennedy Smith, which just fed off each other. You once said that “the Kennedy family is one that changes with the Times.” Looking at the Andrew Cuomo-Kerry Kennedy thing, are we finally at the point where the Kennedys are something like another reality series?
Klein: That’s good, you should develop that. But I think that the thing about the Cuomo-Kennedy scandal, if you want to call it that, is that Andrew Cuomo committed the gravest sin in the Kennedy bible: He lost a political race. He fell off the end of the earth and had to withdraw from the gubernatorial race and when he became a loser, his wife, Kerry Kennedy, dumped him. The phrase that echoes in the minds of every Kennedy is, ‘You’ve gotta be a winner, you’ve gotta come in first, there is no place for losers in this family.’ She started this affair after Cuomo disintegrated.
WWD: Are the Kennedys finally over?
Klein: When I did the interviewing for this book, some people described the Kennedys as a comet whose light is fading, and I think that’s true. If you look at their performance in the political arena over the last decade, you see they’ve lost one election after another, they’ve pulled out of primaries, so yes, it seems to be the twilight. We’re seeing the flickering light of their comet over the world.