WHEN is biography not biography? The question is exercising the book-reviewing doyens of America, and most believe they have found the answer: when the subject is Senator Edward Kennedy and the author is Joe McGinniss. Rarely can so much contempt have been heaped on one work. 'By a wide margin, the worst book I have reviewed in nearly three decades,' spluttered Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post.
The Last Brother depicts the travails of Teddy Kennedy from childhood until the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969. The view that the book offers no fresh insights only partly explains the opprobrium. More damaging are accusations that it contains plagiarised passages and that by inventing conversations and even characters' thoughts, McGinnis has strayed into fiction.
Consider speculation about possible thoughts of suicide in the senator as he walked the beach of Hyannis Port with his sister, Eunice, immediately after JFK's death. 'Suppose - not that there is any evidence he considered this - he suddenly just veered left, away from his sister, and plunged, fully clothed, into the roiling, frigid waters of Nantucket Bay.'
McGinniss, who established a serious reputation with a dissection of Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign, The Selling of the President, tries to defend his style in a postcript: 'Different subjects call for different techniques. . . When an individual as encrusted with fable and lore as is Teddy Kennedy (and his brothers), a writer must attempt an approach that transcends that of traditional journalism or even, perhaps, of conventional biography.' But this cut no ice with Yardley, who said the work was an attempt to cash in on the public's appetite for Kennedy gossip and was thus a 'cynical and avaricious slop in the trough of cheap profit'.
The charges of plagiarism are being made most loudly by William Manchester, who says details in the new book have been lifted from his Death of a President. Manchester is promising to go to court. So far it has been left to Mr McGinniss' publisher, Simon & Schuster, to rebut the allegation. In a statement, the publishing house said the 'restatement of fact already in the public domain is not plagiarism'.
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