John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Obsession Consumed Him—and Won Him the Prize

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


For John F. Kennedy, political reputation was never enough. He craved literary fame to a degree that his previous biographers have missed.

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

, 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.” *** 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 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 Profile s 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. Read more: POLITICO

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