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‘I Would Rather Win a Pulitzer Prize Than Be President’

JFK might not have really written Profiles in Courage, but he certainly promoted it.

John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) the Senator from Massachusetts, in his Washington, D.C. office, February 27, 1959.

In the spring of 1953, John F. Kennedy met a prominent historian named Margaret Coit. Kennedy was only a few weeks into his first term as a U.S. senator. But Coit, who was in her 30s, wanted to interview him about the buildup to World War II, a subject Kennedy had covered in his first book, the bestselling Why England Slept.

Many years later, she described their meetings in great detail for an oral history at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. “I will be very frank with you,” Coit said. “I had designs on John F. Kennedy. Everybody in Massachusetts did.” The historian decided to engage in some friendly flirting, in addition to their scholarly discussions, and the senator encouraged both pursuits. At the end of their third encounter, in Kennedy’s Senate offices, he offered to drive Coit home. He was suffering from terrible back pain—in person, Coit thought, the 35-year-old looked at least a decade older—and he needed crutches to get to the car. Once they reached her apartment, she invited him in to rest, and Kennedy collapsed on her couch. But instead of continuing their interview, he pulled her down and tried to kiss her.

Coit had never intended for things to go that far, and she pushed him away. “I made up my mind that I was not going to kiss you on the first date,” she said.

“This isn’t a first date,” he replied. “We have been making eyes at each other three times now.”

Kennedy grabbed at her again.

“I have standards just like your sisters,” Coit pleaded. “You wouldn’t want me to do anything you wouldn’t want your sisters to do.”
“I don’t care what they do,” he said, before grabbing at her a third time.

Coit began to cry, and Kennedy retreated, flipping back to bookish mode with frightening ease. “It was as if he had shifted gears,” Coit remembered. “It was the cold, machine-like quality that scared me so.”

Eventually, Kennedy brought up Coit’s biography of the nineteenth-century politician John Calhoun, which had recently won the Pulitzer Prize. “You know,” the senator said, “I would rather win a Pulitzer Prize than be president.”

***

Kennedy’s authorial image played a crucial role in his rise. It gave him celebrity, but it also gave him credibility—a brainy addition to his good looks, glossy magazine covers and famous televisual appeal. Richard Nixon always remembered a comment Kennedy made after their presidential battle in 1960: “There’s something about being an author which really builds the reputation of a political figure.”

And yet, for Kennedy, political reputation was never enough. He craved literary fame to a degree that his previous biographers have missed. Kennedy needed his books and magazine writingand especially his second bestseller, Profiles in Courage—to not only shine up his resume but to be regarded as literary successes, even as he lacked the patience for the literary work of research, writing and revising. Still, Kennedy always had patience for promotion. For my new book, Author in Chief, I uncovered many new details about Kennedy’s literary obsession, including his direct involvement in pursuing a Pulitzer and in using his family’s wealth to keep his ghostwriter quiet. In the end, Kennedy got everything he wanted—the presidency and the Pulitzer both.

Kennedy began working on Profiles in 1954, about a year after his encounters with Coit. Actually, it was Theodore C. Sorensen, his most important aide, who began working on it. Sorensen, who was even younger than Kennedy, wrote most of the senator’s speeches, in addition to handling the press and digging into policy. Kennedy called him “my intellectual blood bank,” though from the outside their relationship appeared more vampiric. But Sorensen felt an intense loyalty to Kennedy, and Kennedy to him. When Sorensen joined the staff, they’d discussed him writing articles and books under Kennedy’s name—and how to handle, as Sorensen cautiously put it, “the recognition of my participation.” Both agreed that instead of sharing credit, they would share the profits from any such writings.

This agreement governed the creation of Profiles. As Sorensen would later recall, the book started as a magazine story about John Quincy Adams. Kennedy had always been struck by the calculation and courage America’s sixth president had shown while he was a senator himself. “How about using this one and some other examples,” Kennedy asked his aide, “and put it together for Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly?”

Sorensen researched and wrote the political courage article in the fall of 1954 and the first weeks of 1955. On January 17, he submitted his draft to Kennedy, and in a cover letter to the senator, Sorensen suggested it might be the start of something more. “There is certainly a wealth of fascinating material which had to be boiled down,” the aide wrote. He knew Kennedy had an in at the publisher Harper & Brothers. (One of the editors, Michael Canfield, was married to the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy, the senator’s wife.) Would the house, Sorensen wondered, “be interested in a book along these lines?”

Kennedy took the idea straight to Harper, and the house loved it. Over the next few months—a period in which Kennedy was recovering from a dangerous spinal surgery and undergoing a second one—Sorensen worked frantically on the book, which grew into a chronicle of eight major senators who’d exhibited true political courage.

Today, Sorensen’s role in Profiles is well known, though it’s still striking to remember its full scope: The book’s structure, research, first draft and most of its second came from the aide. Even the book’s idea came from him. Amid the thousands of pages of Profiles material at the Kennedy Presidential Library, one can find only a few examples of Kennedy’s contributions—mostly from the handwritten notebooks and dictabelt recordings that include his attempts to make sense of the previous books on those senators, attempts Kennedy undertook only after Sorensen had read those very same books and written his first drafts. Kennedy “wrote” Profiles the way many modern presidents write their books. One can place his efforts on a continuum of political authors: He did a bit more than Barry Goldwater had on The Conscience of a Conservative, but far less than Harry Truman had on his two-volume presidential memoirs.

Where Kennedy stood out was in the time and effort he put into his book after it was finished. In fact, he worked much harder, and paid much closer attention, to the promoting of Profiles than the writing of it. Kennedy reminded Harper that its marketing materials should mention the New York Times’ praise for Why England Slept, a review he could still quote from memory. In letter after letter, he weighed in on his new book’s blurbs, cover, flap copy and author photo. (Kennedy requested a larger one.)

He also wrote a brief preface that included his acknowledgements, and in it Kennedy failed to mention his chief collaborator. Based on their private agreement, and based on Sorensen’s superhuman efforts, Kennedy had paid him a bonus of $6,000, roughly a third of Sorensen’s annual salary. Perhaps Kennedy believed the money sufficed.

When Sorensen edited the preface, he sent Kennedy four potential tweaks. The last one read: “4. TCS?” Kennedy added a sentence thanking Sorensen “for his invaluable assistance and preparation of the material upon which this book is based.” Meanwhile, Sorensen oversaw the book’s tedious final details—its pictures and captions, its index and copyedits. Sorensen had also orchestrated a staggering campaign of magazine and newspaper serials, placing excerpts in Harper’s, Collier’s, and Reader’s Digest, among many others. The book’s publication date of January 2, 1956, was approaching, and between the serial deals and the industry buzz it looked like Profiles was going to be a big hit—and a boost to Kennedy’s political standing.

Yet the senator was worrying about more than politics. On Christmas Eve, Evan Thomas, the editor of Profiles (and the father of the historian of the same name), was filling stockings with his wife when the phone rang. It was Kennedy, and he was in a rush: “I’ve really got to get this book out this year.”

Thomas patiently explained that they were far too late in the process for that, but Kennedy wouldn’t hear it. “We’ve got to get it out before the year turns,” he said.

The two continued to talk past each other, and Kennedy grew frustrated. So did Thomas. (So, one suspects, did his wife.)

Finally the editor asked Kennedy why it mattered so much.

“Well,” he said, “I understand it would win the Pulitzer Prize this year.”

***

Thomas and Harper held to their original publication date of January 2, and over the next two years Profiles in Courage spent 88 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It morphed from a book into a phenomenon, a franchise, with Sorensen writing Kennedy-bylined spinoffs, such as a McCall’s feature on three women who were also “profiles in courage.”

Kennedy, for his part, continued to handle the promotion. He signed endless autographs and appeared at functions like the Washington Post’s Book and Author luncheon. (“I always used to wonder what the ladies did in Washington in the daytime,” he joked.) The senator pestered Harper for sales updates and panicked at the smallest slump in reorders. He sent his editor letters like this: “Dear Evan: Just a note to let you know that neither the shop at the LaGuardia Airport nor the shop at the National Airport had a copy of my book.”

Profiles earned Kennedy invites to TV shows like Meet the Press, where he was introduced as both a senator and “an author.” The book landed Kennedy the keynote address at the 1956 National Book Awards, where he spoke in front of nominees like Flannery O’Connor and Richard Hofstadter. At the awards, Kennedy ran into Margaret Coit, though at first he didn’t recognize her from their encounters just a few years earlier.
Later that summer, Kennedy came within a few delegates of securing the Democratic nomination for vice president. During the convention, he dropped by former president Truman’s hotel suite. What, a reporter wondered, had Truman asked about? “My book,” Kennedy replied.

Kennedy was still just a senator, but he was a far different senator than he’d been before the publication of Profiles. In the weeks after the convention, the press continued to rave about the politician and his book. “Our country,” the Philadelphia Tribune noted in a column about Profiles, “[would be] in safe hands with such a political philosopher at the helm.”

It’s important to emphasize how much Profiles had accomplished by the start of 1957—how much Kennedy had to be thrilled with, to be content with. It was on track to accomplish even more, with Pocket Books preparing a paperback edition of 400,000 copies; Kennedy called the publisher directly to suggest spots where the books should be sold.

Yet Kennedy was still preoccupied with literary spoils and especially a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzers were awarded each spring through a two-step process. First, a set of screeners, usually specialists, created a list of recommendations for their particular category; then the advisory board, made up of notable figures such as the president of Columbia University and the publisher of the Boston Herald, chose the winners, typically but not always from the screeners’ lists.

The process kicked off in early 1957, and despite everything else he had to do as a senator, Kennedy made time to discuss the prize privately with his father, Joseph Kennedy. On January 15, the son followed up with a brief letter:

Dear Dad:

I am enclosing a list of the members of the Advisory Board for the Pulitzer Prize.

This letter is a tantalizing and overlooked clue of Kennedy’s personal involvement. Soon after receiving it, Joseph Kennedy—perhaps on his own, perhaps with his son’s further plotting—enlisted the help of Arthur Krock, a family friend who’d recently finished a 15-year run on the advisory board.

It was Krock who’d given Kennedy the Christmas-time tip to rush out Profiles, in order to qualify for the Pulitzer in 1956, and now he lobbied the board in secret to honor the senator in 1957. “No mention is made of the book by either of the screeners,” a board member admitted to Krock in a note now found in Krock’s papers at Princeton University—a note to which the board member added, “I do not need to mark this letter Personal and Confidential.”

In another letter, the board member continued to strategize with Krock: “Give me some reasons why the Kennedy book might be considered.” They must have been good reasons, for when the Pulitzers were announced on May 6, James Reston won for national reporting, Eugene O’Neill won for drama and John F. Kennedy won for biography.

***

Kennedy’s friends and family always said the Pulitzer made him happier than any other honor, including his World War II Purple Heart. But the award proved costly, especially after Kennedy began planning a run for president. In New York, journalists and editors had been gossiping about Kennedy’s use of a ghostwriter—and about that ghostwriter’s cut of the royalties—since Profiles had first appeared, though none of them felt the need to report it. The Pulitzer changed that. On May 15, not even two weeks after Kennedy won the award, a veteran critic named Gilbert Seldes wrote about the rumor in the Village Voice. “As no one else seems willing to do this,” he began, “I will.”

Seldes soon received a passionate denial from Kennedy, but the senator did not address the charge publicly, probably because no other outlets were willing to follow up. That month did see one further Profiles development: Joseph Kennedy’s lawyers quietly drew up a document that paid Sorensen an additional and frankly astonishing sum—a sum that, based on Harper’s royalty statements and Sorensen’s late-in-life comments, amounted to more than $100,000 (or more than $1 million in today’s dollars).

The ghostwriting issue disappeared until December, when Drew Pearson went on The Mike Wallace Interview, a Saturday night show on ABC. Pearson was a popular columnist, and during a segment on Kennedy he noted that the senator was “the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize on a book which was ghostwritten for him.”

On Sunday, Kennedy huddled with Sorensen, and both agreed the charge could wreck Kennedy’s upcoming candidacy. (As Kennedy put it, “We might as well quit if we let this stand.”) On Monday, they met with Clark Clifford, a pricey DC lawyer who advised them on how to pressure ABC. Kennedy’s staff assembled a list of loyal witnesses like Arthur Krock and Evan Thomas; they searched Kennedy’s notebooks for the few handwritten pages that lined up with the final book. Most importantly, Sorensen wrote an affidavit, sworn in front of a notary, in which he claimed that his only role was “to assist [Kennedy] in the assembly and preparation of research and other materials upon which much of the book is based.”

Later in the affidavit, Sorensen added that his assistance had been “very generously acknowledged by the Senator in the preface.” It was a breathtaking bit of loyalty—citing the credit in the preface that existed only because Sorensen had reminded Kennedy that he hadn’t credited him at all.

After a meeting, ABC agreed to an on-air retraction as long as Kennedy signed a document promising not to sue the network, the show or their various corporate partners. Kennedy and his circle continued to fight the ghostwriting rumors aggressively. When he ran for reelection to the Senate, in 1958, Kennedy taped copies of the handwritten Profiles pages in the windows of his campaign headquarters, for passersby to see. When John Oakes, a journalist at the Times, half-joked with a Harper employee about a ghostwriter, Kennedy sent Oakes a letter: “I have, on many occasions, directly and indirectly, formally and informally, stated unequivocally that I was the sole author of the book.” The next time Oakes was in Washington, he met with Kennedy. The journalist tried to talk politics, but Kennedy refused. For a half-hour, he made Oakes study those few handwritten pages while he held forth on his authorship of the book.

It was quite a performance, and Kennedy delivered it again and again as he prepared to run for president. There is no reason to trust any of it. During his defenses, Kennedy lied easily and prolifically. He pointed to Why England Slept—another project with little evidence of Kennedy’s contributions to the final text—as proof that he could buckle down on a book. He promised he’d pocketed all of the earnings from Profiles, with no mention of Sorensen’s two separate payouts. He claimed the Pulitzer—both the award itself and his willingness to accept it—was proof of his authorship. The lies became cover for the lies.

The lies worked. Three years after he won a Pulitzer, Kennedy won the White House, too. But he also revealed something about himself. One thing that made Profiles a hit was its inspiring backstory. Reviewers and feature writers had taken turns rehearsing it, from Kennedy’s risky back surgeries to the convalescence he’d supposedly devoted to writing his book. “The book reflects Kennedy’s own character,” Evan Thomas told one reporter. The editor was admitting more than he knew.

From AUTHOR IN CHIEF: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman. © 2020 by Craig Fehrman. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.