Kennedy biography proves biggest flop of the summer

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The Independent Online
THE EDITOR of Vanity Fair may be feeling a little rueful about the cover of the latest edition. Striped across the corner above Michelle Pfeiffer's forehead is a brash puff: 'CHAPPAQUIDDICK. Explosive Excerpt from Joe McGinniss's New Book on Teddy Kennedy.'

Until two weeks ago, running an extract from the book, The Last Brother, must have seemed a sure winner. It was, after all, destined to be the big non-fiction event of the summer. It was about a Kennedy and - even better - it was already the subject of controversy. But, so far, it has been a dreadful flop.

The book, a biography of Teddy Kennedy that dwells on the years covering the assassinations of his brothers, Jack and Bobby, through to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in the notorious 1969 car accident at Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts, has indeed attained fame. But it is disproving the maxim that all publicity is good publicity.

Rarely, in fact, can a single literary work have attracted so overwhelming a barrage of critical opprobrium. Newsweek devoted a double-page spread to the book - but dismissed it as a 'stale farrago of scandal and pop psychology that begins and ends by trashing its subject'. Time called it a 'bazaar of banalities' made worse by sloppy journalism and 'mini-series string music'.

The gravest charge against McGinniss, who first came to fame with his dissection of the 1968 Nixon campaign, The Selling of the President, was that long passages were lifted from an earlier study of the Kennedys by the historian William Manchester, author of Death of a President. Just before the McGinniss volume hit the shelves, Manchester threatened legal action.

The critics also were offended by McGinniss's willingness to load his text with made-up dialogue, and even the inner thoughts of his protagonists - an approach he defended as an effort to 'convey what it might have been like to be Teddy Kennedy'.

The game may not be over for the book, but so far it has been a disaster. 'By this point we would have expected to have sold about half of our stock,' said Susie Russenberger, purchasing director for the Ingram Book Company, America's largest book wholesaler. 'I bought 23,000 copies and so far we have sold about 2,300.'

She added that, given the book's first edition print-run of 250,000 - not to mention the dollars 1m ( pounds 660m) advance reportedly paid by its publisher Simon and Schuster - it would be expected to be in the top five by now. At best, she says, it is struggling this weekend to rise above 27th. A Washington book chain said it bought 63 copies and by yesterday had sold just seven.

Jonathan Yardley, a veteran reviewer for the Washington Post who joined in the derision of the book, said it was only the second time in 30 years he could remember a book being stopped dead by bad reviews. The other was Erica Jong's disastrous sequel to her bestseller, Fear of Flying, called How to Save Your Own Life.