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Not 'Just Jackie' but a Flurry of Prose on the Kennedy Clan

October 08, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You don't need me to tell you that books about the Kennedys--and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in particular--never lack for interest among publishers. But it's remarkable when a bunch of these books come out during the same period.

Stores are seeing another such wave right now.

The title receiving the splashiest introduction is Edward Klein's "Just Jackie: Her Private Years" (Ballantine), which picks up where the Vanity Fair writer's 1996 bestseller, "All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy," left off. Klein's new book rates the cover of this week's People, which excerpts portions about Jackie's amorous adventures with architect John Carl Warnecke and others after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Klein and his book also were featured on NBC's "Dateline" Monday night and on "Today" the next morning, as "Entertainment Tonight" and other TV newsmagazines waited in line.

What can separate one book from a pack of similar titles is access--for example, the kind of access enjoyed by Klein himself, who was a friend of Kennedy Onassis and clearly was able to tap some of those who were in her closest circle. His opening chapters, describing how Theodore White ("a willing collaborator," then on deadline for Life magazine) and the newly widowed Mrs. Kennedy together draped the Kennedy presidency in Camelot mythology, is startling and terrific.

The first printing is 125,000 copies.

Beating "Just Jackie" to stores last week was "The Onassis Women" (Putnam), a memoir written by Kiki Feroudi Moutsatsos. The former personal secretary to Aristotle Onassis helped the Greek shipping baron manage relationships not only with the president's widow, whom he married in 1968, but also with his mistress, the opera star Maria Callas, and his demanding daughter, Christina.

Thirty years after the slaying of Robert F. Kennedy, the senator and presidential candidate is remembered in five very different books.

Generating the most heat, for better or worse, is C. David Heymann's "RFK: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy" (Dutton), which covers the senator's political career and offers lurid claims about his private life. Heymann previously wrote one of the first bestsellers about Kennedy Onassis, "A Woman Named Jackie," originally published in 1989 by Lyle Stuart, and later an unauthorized bio of Elizabeth Taylor ("Liz"), which prompted columnist Liz Smith to observe: "Nobody deserves C. David Heymann for a biographer."

Rhodes scholar Jeff Shesol took what has been long known about Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson--that they hated each other--and sought to find out why. Through exhaustive research and interviews with numerous intimates of both men, he produced "Mutual Contempt" (Norton), subtitled "Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade." Of special drama is Shesol's account of Kennedy's fateful decision to challenge the incumbent Johnson for the presidency in 1968.

Michael Knox Beran, a New York lawyer who was 2 years old when Robert Kennedy was killed, has written perhaps the most unexpected addition to the category. In "The Last Patrician" (St. Martin's), he argues that Kennedy's 1968 candidacy did not represent a reinvigoration of FDR liberalism, but an embrace of something akin to conservatism. In praising the book recently in the New York Times Book Review, conservative commentator George F. Will said of Beran that "he is such a lively writer, and such a risk-taking thinker, that the sparks he promiscuously strikes from his literary flint are, cumulatively, illuminating. And what he says is clear enough that it will provoke liberals to accuse him of an intellectual train robbery."

Among those who served President Kennedy (as chief of staff) and then his brother was the late Kenneth P. O'Donnell, one of their "Irish Mafia," or "the Murphia," as Jackie referred to these Boston pals. O'Donnell's deep devotion to Robert Kennedy in particular is chronicled by daughter Helen O'Donnell in "A Common Good" (Morrow). The brothers' deaths, she writes, left her father badly wounded: "He was bound up in pain, anger and sadness--a pain that he could not give voice to, that he could not explain to himself or anyone else."

In addition, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, one of Robert's 11 children, has compiled and edited "Make Gentle the Life of This World" (Harcourt Brace), a small and handsomely designed book that collects stirring passages from his father's speeches and writings, as well as quotations from the ancient Greeks, Camus and other thinkers who moved him. In an introduction, Maxwell Kennedy says he hopes that the reader "will find reason to wonder what it means to be a politician, to be an American, and to contribute to one's family, society and country."

Is there more to say? Of course.

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