The Death of a President
|Publisher||Harper & Row
Little, Brown and Company (2013 reissue)
|Pages||781 pp (first edition)|
|LC Class||E842.9 .M28 1967a|
The Death of a President: November 20–November 25, 1963 is historian William Manchester's 1967 account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The book gained public attention before it was published when Kennedy's widow Jacqueline, who had initially asked Manchester to write the book, demanded that the author make changes in the manuscript.
Death is dedicated "For all in whose hearts he still lives -- a watchman of honour who never sleeps".
The book chronicles the long November weekend in 1963 from a small reception the Kennedys hosted in the White House the evening of the trip to Dallas, through the flight and trip to Texas, the motorcade, the assassination, the hospital, the plane trip back to Washington, and the funeral. The friction between the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson factions, the worldwide reaction, and Lee Harvey Oswald's unplanned televised execution by Jack Ruby are all discussed in painstaking detail.
In early 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Manchester to produce an account of the assassination. She and the Kennedy family wanted a definitive telling of the events to preempt other books, including Jim Bishop's forthcoming The Day Kennedy Was Shot. Kennedy was familiar with Manchester's work through Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy in Profile, his account of the president's first year and a half in the White House. Manchester had met and grown to admire her husband when both were recovering from war wounds in Boston.
The book agreement stipulated that Kennedy and the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, then Attorney General, would approve the manuscript. As part of the agreement, Mr. Manchester would receive an advance of $36,000 but only against the income from the first printing. All other earnings would go the John F. Kennedy Library.
Kennedy promised Manchester exclusive interviews with members of the family, and sat for 10 hours of interviews with him. Manchester interviewed 1,000 people for the book, including Robert F. Kennedy; only Marina Oswald refused. Working 100 hours a week for two years to meet an accelerated 1967 publishing deadline, the stress of focusing on the assassination sent Manchester to a hospital due to nervous exhaustion for more than two months, where he completed a manuscript of 1,201 pages and 380,000 words.
Manchester turned in the manuscript to his editor at Harper & Row, Evan Thomas, and to the Kennedy family for review in March 1966. He received an offer of $665,000 from Look magazine for serial rights; his agent had obtained an agreement that payments for a serial would go to the author.
Both Jacqueline and Robert F. Kennedy had refused to read the manuscript, delegating the review to former Kennedy administration members John Seigenthaler, Ed Guthman, and Richard N. Goodwin. They believed that passages in the book "unflattering" to Johnson might damage Robert Kennedy's political plans for 1968, and requested changes. Pam Turnure, Jacqueline Kennedy's secretary, also read the manuscript; alarmed by many "personal revelations" from Kennedy's interviews with Manchester, such as the fact that she smoked (something Jacqueline Kennedy had successfully hidden in the White House), she also provided lists of changes. In addition, Jacqueline Kennedy believed that the proceeds from the Look offer should go to the Kennedy Library. She claimed that her interviews with Manchester had been intended for the library, threatened to block publication of the book unless the changes were made, unsuccessfully offered Look $1 million to cancel the serialization, and in late 1966 filed a lawsuit asking the court to issue an injunction to stop the book's publication.
Newspaper articles about her decision speculated on the contents of the book. Through an out-of-court settlement in January 1967, Manchester agreed to cut 1,600 words from the serialization and seven out of 654 pages from the published book. Although headlines called Jacqueline Kennedy the victor Manchester called the cuts "harmless", and retained the serialization fee.
Harper & Row published The Death of a President in the spring of 1967 to good reviews. It sold more than one million copies by summer and was later given the Dag Hammarskjold International Literary Prize. By 1970 the book had earned $1,057,347.64 in royalties for the Kennedy Library.
In 1988, the book was reprinted and Manchester wrote a new foreword. People had come to him wondering whether he would update and modify his original work due to "new developments" in chronicling the story. Manchester wrote that, in his view, there were no new developments.
The Kennedy family retains control of materials related to Death. Jacqueline Kennedy's interview tapes with the author are sealed at the Kennedy Library until 2067. Manchester's original manuscript is held at Wesleyan University under "extremely restricted use" and, according to his son John, the Kennedy family allowed the book to go out of print.