Feeding on Newsweek’s brutal ‘portrait’ of Mary Kennedy

Today's tabloids, June 11, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

You may not know of Laurence Leamer, but he's considered an authority on the Kennedys. He was a sort of immersion journalist who wrote on-the-ground accounts of coal mining in West Virginia and won prizes for his reporting on the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, and worked for Newsweek in the early '70s.

By the '80s he was largely writing biographies of American royalty (before Tina Brown was a glimmer in New York media's eye), starting with Make-Believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1983. Following that were bios of Ingrid Bergman and Johnny Carson, before Leamer started dominating bestseller lists with his biographical portraits of the Kennedys, starting with The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family in 1994.

There were two more Kennedy books, followed by a book about Arnold Schwarzenegger that was enabled by his Kennedy book-writing via the Maria Shriver connection. He's no Robert Caro, but he's not Kitty Kelley, either.

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Here's Mim Udovitch, reviewing Leamer's 2004 book Sons of Camelot, about the generation of Kennedys that includes Bobby Kennedy Jr. and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.:

In many ways, [the book] has more in common with the most recent edition in a series of commemorative plates—some more collectible than others—than it has with serious biography. The Kennedys have long been a brand as well as a family. As such, they are something of a Leamer specialty.

In this week's edition of Newsweek, the Leamer specialty shop rolls out a new and grisly product: A tale from the marriage of Bobby Kennedy and Mary Richardson Kennedy, who committed suicide last month by hanging herself at the house she had painstakingly remodeled even as her marriage to Bobby became increasingly difficult. The court documents constitute Bobby's long list of reasons why Mary should not have custody of her children, and lay out anecdotes of violent rages (including an attack on him with a pair of scissors in the bathtub and running over the family dog), and rampant alcoholism and depression. The Newsweek article hinges on these court documents, which are normally under seal and not publicly available; needless to say, Leamer does not disclose who leaked the documents to him.

But Kerry Kennedy, ex-wife of Andrew Cuomo, who has been acting somewhat as the Kennedy family proxy on the death of Mary (there was that op-ed piece she wrote for the Post about how Mary was suffering from depression and alcohol dependency), provided nine pictures of Mary to Newsweek; "Courtesy Kerry Kennedy" is the credit on all nine photos in a slideshow about her life that appears on the Newsweek-Daily Beast hybrid website.

Kerry Kennedy is quoted only once in the article, though broad statements describing her point of view on Mary, her life and her death that occur at intervals could have been obtained in an exclusive interview for this article or could have been collected from various statements she's already made, making the extent of her cooperation with Leamer hard to assess (and increasing the feeling that the perspective of the article is one endorsed by the Kennedy clan).

Sample line: "Kerry recalls Mary both as troubled and extraordinarily creative and original," Leamer writes, though when and where she made these recollections is left unspecified.

(The Richardsons declined to comment for the story, instead issuing a press release after its publication repudiating the truth of Bobby Kennedy Jr.'s statement to the court.)

It's important to note that the court documents constitute Bobby Kennedy Jr.'s argument that, temporarily at least, he ought to have had sole custody of his children with Mary. It's also important to note that Mary's family and some of her friends have been saying over and over again that Mary did not suffer from mental illness, but was herself the victim of a cruel, philandering and emotionally abusive husband and an oppressive familial apparatus.

The web of self-serving disclosures to the press on all sides is the more depressing story, really. As Udovitch goes on to say in her review:

The real question raised by ''Sons of Camelot'' is not so much whither-a-dynasty as the extent to which its subjects deserve the attention, in either a positive or a negative sense. Only a few of the younger Kennedy men in this book have or have had political careers (notably, Joe was a member of Congress, and Patrick Kennedy still is). Others have been in the news for both noble and ignoble actions: Bobby Jr. has done and continues to do important environmental work; Michael Kennedy had an affair with the family's teenage baby sitter.

It's important, because so much of the fight at present between the Kennedys and the Richardsons is about the public legacy of Mary Richardson Kennedy, a legacy that could have been determined in private if the Kennedys were not still such a focus of fascination. One even wonders whether the family would have been under such strain if, like some more obscure young branches of the Kennedy family tree, they had grown a little more toward the light instead of festering in the shade of the bigger, older boughs.

A statement from the Richardsons, which you can find appended to the end of Leamer's Newsweek article, points out that even at the time these papers were filed, Mary repudiated them as unfactual. But Leamer's account bolsters the court record with more material, namely the testimony of a housekeeper who was in a position to see quite clearly the condition into which Mary Richardson Kennedy's life had deteriorated, and who was there when she was found dead.

Less impressively, there is the account of a Harvard psychiatrist whose sense of decency is clearly on the fritz, Dr. John Gunderson. Considered by many the "grandfather" of borderline personality disorder diagnosis and treatment, Gunderson offers Leamer his assessment, put together from one preliminary meeting with Mary Richardson Kennedy, that Mary suffered from B.P.D.

There is also "John Hoving, a social worker and longtime family friend of both Bobby and Mary" who says, "I loved Mary. I want that to be known. I adored her. I didn’t adore what BPD did to her."

It's hard to avoid the impression that this Newsweek article was driven by interests that are not aligned with those of the Richardson family, although Leamer positions it as a grown-up counternarrative to what the press had offered so far:

Here was the womanizing Bobby, always described as a former heroin addict, leading his innocent wife to her death, yet another victim of an overweening male ego—and he did so while flaunting his affair with actress Cheryl Hines, who played Larry David’s wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a juicy tale, lacking in nuance. But perhaps Bobby wasn’t guilty. Perhaps nobody was guilty. Perhaps Mary Richardson Kennedy was, and had been for some time, a desperately sick woman. That’s the portrait that emerges from a sealed, 60-page court affidavit filed by Bobby during divorce proceedings, which I have reviewed in detail, and from interviews with those who were closest to Bobby and Mary, including medical professionals who treated her and said she suffered from a psychiatric disorder.

In fact, as we've seen ourselves, the competition between the tabloids has guaranteed that there has been no shortage of press from all sides of this family dispute.

In how many cases is a friend of the suicide and sister of her estranged husband allowed in a first-person article to make claims about the mental health and habits of the deceased? Can we really argue the Kennedys have not had the platform they deserve to make their side of this story known?

It's the part of the whole Leamer episode that reeks, to me, of false consciousness and cynicism. Some commemorative plates decrease in value.