The fact that a celebrity's story has been told and retold doesn't stop Sally Bedell Smith. Her last book, Diana in Search of Herself, about the Princess of Wales, was praised as an authoritative psychological study of that much-covered royal. Now Smith has taken on an even more overexposed subject in Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House.
The book, out in May, is the story of JFK and Jackie's Washington life from his election to his funeral. It's structured around the relationships in their inner circle: Kennedy and Bouvier family members, administration insiders from Mac Bundy to Tish Baldrige, and friends such as Ben Bradlee, Bunny Mellon, and Joe Alsop–not to mention hangers-on, mistresses, and, yes, White House interns.
"The idea was to look at it as a portrait of court life," says the DC author, a former New York Times reporter. "I was surprised at how many people thought about it in those terms even before Camelot."
Thus the book opens with the cast of the "Kennedy Court," complete with the ages of the principals in January 1961–a detail the author considers particularly important.
"Today poor John Edwards, at age 50, is trying to convince people he isn't a baby," she says. "Of the 40-some people around Kennedy, four were in their twenties, 16 were in their thirties, 19 were in their forties, seven were in their fifties, and only two were in their sixties."
At the center of the story are Jack and Jackie. Smith offers new insights into their marriage, his affairs, and Jackie's apparent tolerance of them.
"My sense is that she may well have had an 18th-century European view of their marriage that accommodated the presence of other women," Smith says. "It got her down, but she knew that it was happening."
One Jackie confidant who hasn't spoken to biographers until now is Frank Finnerty, a cardiologist and a neighbor of Bobby Kennedy's. For two years Finnerty was the First Lady's sounding board about JFK's infidelity and their sex life.
Smith also interviewed presidential girlfriends who had never spoken at length about their involvement–such as Helen Chavchavadze, a young woman in the Kennedys' social circle with whom JFK conducted an ongoing affair. A few weeks after the inauguration, he visited her Georgetown house in the middle of the day.
"He did not seem to consider it terribly reckless behavior," Smith says, "and that had to do with the relationship he had with the press. There were members of the press who were eyewitnesses, who were aware of his relationships with people like Mimi Beardsley and Diana de Veigh–she was even having an affair with one of the men who worked in the Time bureau.
The book isn't all affairs. Knitting together details from interviews as well as little-seen letters, diaries, oral histories, and other sources, Smith creates a behind-the-scenes narrative, from daily life to international events.
Quirky moments stand out, such as Jackie chain-smoking between takes on her White House TV tour, "flicking the ashes onto the expensive silk covering of the bench she was sitting on," according to the show's producer.
Then there's Smith's favorite anecdote: While entertaining Beardsley and two other female interns in the White House pool, JFK had them put down their wine, dry their hands, and help him pick out fur pelts for a bedspread he was giving Jackie for Christmas.
"The rules of everything were so different then," Smith says. "The fact that the Kennedys could have elaborate and wild parties where people got drunk and tore their pants and landed on the floor and couldn't function the next morning in the West Wing–that would never be tolerated now.
"They had fun–maybe a lot more fun than they ought to have had."
What Else Is New
Another high-profile book this month looks at a Kennedy by marriage. Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver by Scott Stossel, an editor at the Atlantic, is a biography of the first Peace Corps director.
Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America by Arlington's Mark Perry is about the relationship between Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain at a pivotal point in their lives. It is the Washingtonian Book Club's May selection; to find out more, go to www.washingtonian.com.
The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex is a collection of essays and interviews by Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth.
Orth is married to Meet the Press host Tim Russert, whose memoir, Big Russ and Me: Father and Son–Lessons of Life, is excerpted in this issue.
Nicolaus Mills revisits controversy in Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.
Chris Colin tracks down his classmates at Alexandria's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in What Really Happened to the Class of '93: Start-ups, Dropouts, and Other Navigations Through an Untidy Decade.
James Bamford–known for his National Security Agency exposés–takes on A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies.
The title of Republican defector David Brock's latest speaks for itself: The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy.
Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror is by former Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah.
Political writer Michael Barone expanded a U.S. News article into Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future, a critique of American society.
The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream is by Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin. She clerked for Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and was an adviser to Bill Clinton.
PBS newsman Jim Lehrer's 14th novel is Flying Crows, about a Kansas City cop delving into a homeless man's past.
His wife, Kate Lehrer, also has a new book, the comic novel Confessions of a Bigamist, about a New York lawyer who marries a Texas conservationist without telling him she already has a husband.
The Glory Cloak is a novel about Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton by DC writer Patricia O'Brien. The Civil War story is set partly in Washington.
On the Horizon
Former Washingtonian senior writer Courtney Rubin's The Weight-Loss Diaries is a frank and funny account of dieting successes and failures. It's the Washingtonian Book Club's June selection.
Also in June, Washington Post Style writer Joel Achenbach trains his offbeat eye on The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West. It's about the Founding Father's dream of transforming the Potomac into a major commercial artery.
Wendy Swallow's The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage is the American University journalism professor's second book to grow out out of a Washingtonian article. Her first was Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce.
Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. critiques both ends of the political spectrum in Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge.
Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate is by Austin journalist Robert Bryce.
Donna Brazile, the first African-American to head a major presidential campaign–Al Gore's–tells her story in Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics.
Chevy Chase writer Robert Shogan's latest is The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America's Largest Labor Uprising, about a 1921 West Virginia coal-mining strike.
In Old Boys, espionage master Charles McCarry brings back his recurring hero, CIA spy Paul Christopher, just in time for Christopher to die–or does he?
"You've Got to Read This"
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ben Cramer has written on baseball (Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life), politics (What It Takes: The Way to the White House), and the Middle East. How Israel Lost: The Four Questions, out this month, looks at that country's changing image. We asked Cramer, who lives in Chestertown, to recommend reading in each area:
"My baseball favorite is Jerome Holtzman's No Cheering in the Press Box, recollections of baseball writers from the game's golden age–unfortunately, now out of print. Baseball's best autobiography is Ted Williams's My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life.
"I try never to read political books in the same season they set out to cover. Too often they're quick and deadline-dirty. But I broke my rule for Walter Shapiro's One-Car Caravan: On the Road With the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In. He loves pols enough to show how funny–and touching–they can be.
"For history rich with drama and detail, you can't do better than Tom Segev's 1949: The First Israelis or his One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. From the other side of the green line, Raja Shehadeh's Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine is more instructive and effective than any polemic because the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation can only be gauged in the emotional detail of individual lives."