03.25.10

The Literature of Betrayal

From Martha Stewart and John Edwards to J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the bookstores are packed with score-settling tomes. Lloyd Grove on the irresistible allure of backstabbing books.

The literature of betrayal is alive and well.

If anyone doubted the enduring appeal of this pop-cultural category, recent weeks have offered ample evidence of its vibrancy, what with book-length tell-alls on Martha Stewart, Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards by former friends and confidants. They are the latest in a sturdy and perfectly respectable literary tradition that connects us to primal forces at the core of human existence.

“Betrayal is the theme of modern life,” says Judith Regan, whose defunct ReganBooks imprint at News Corp.’s HarperCollins—which, she would argue, fell victim to a monstrous corporate betrayal by Rupert Murdoch and other fiends in friends’ clothing—trafficked profitably in the literature of betrayal. One of her last such books was 2004’s The Other Man, “Baywatch” actor Michael Bergin’s star-crossed tale of his bedpost-thumping communion with (the by then deceased) Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, who perished in a 1999 plane crash with her husband, John F. Kennedy Jr.

“We circled and sniffed each other like animals, a tentative touch, a quick withdrawal,” Paternak writes about—for goodness sake—an exchange of Christmas gifts in Westport, Connecticut.

“Some of it stems from pathological envy,” Regan says about betrayal lit. “Some is about setting the record straight and achieving justice; some, revenge.”

Real estate agent Mariana Pasternak’s The Best of Friends: Martha and Me is largely about envy and revenge. Pasternak labors under the fallacy that the author is even more interesting than her target, and the purpler the prose, the better. “We circled and sniffed each other like animals, a tentative touch, a quick withdrawal,” she writes about—for goodness sake—an exchange of Christmas gifts in Westport, Connecticut. “There was much I admired in Martha, in her fresh face and perpetual industriousness, how she figuratively spun so much yarn to silk. I can say with less certainty that there were things she admired in me.” To which one wants to shout: Get over yourself! And get thee to an editor!

It almost goes without saying, let alone reading, that Martha Stewart is revealed to be covetous, cheap, needy, abusive and predatory. She mocked and hectored her husband Andy, who could hardly be blamed if he left her for her assistant. She leaned on Pasternak’s real estate expertise to help her buy expensive homes and then stiffed her out of commissions. She invited her much poorer friend to accompany her on pricey vacations, and then billed her for her portion. It’s hard to see what kept Pasternak in the 20-year relationship—which abruptly ended when she testified against Stewart in the Imclone insider trading trial that sent her to prison, offering up the money quote to the jury: “Isn’t it nice to have brokers who tell you these things?”. (Martha, wisely, isn’t commenting on the book.)

The genre also includes Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, a memoir of her 10-month affair as a 19-year-old with the reclusive and controlling 50-something J.D. Salinger; Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow, an account of his disappointed idol worship of V.S. Naipaul, who turns out (in Theroux’s telling) to be a cruel and petty narcissist; and Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous A Moveable Feast, a deliciously nasty takedown of nearly everyone who ever did him a favor (most memorably, Papa’s unsparing description of Ford Madox Ford’s rank body odor and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s puny masculinity).

In the standard political version of betrayal lit, the disillusioned acolyte reveals that the great man not only has feet of clay but dirty toenails (or, as in For the Record, the 1988 memoir by Don Regan, Ronald Reagan’s aggrieved White House chief of staff, a disturbing deference to the first lady’s kooky astrology obsession). The current warts-and-then-some model is a departure from a kinder, gentler era when Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. could write an exhaustive account of John F. Kennedy’s A Thousand Days with nary a hint of the president’s sexcapades. Impossibly strict expectations of loyalty persisted well into the 1970s. After Ben Bradlee published Conversations With Kennedy, an intimately honest but wholly admiring portrait of his dear departed friend, Jackie never spoke to him again.

The Politician, Andrew Young’s memoir of lackeydom to former North Carolina senator John Edwards, is an instant classic of betrayal lit. Who isn’t betrayed, while also being a betrayer, in this repulsive yet riveting saga? The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown called it “a mesmerizing insight not only into the rotten nature of his hero but the corruption of the culture that allowed a man as devoid of authenticity as John Edwards to flourish for so long, even to the point of getting a decent shot at the White House.”

The stakes are lower in Journal of the Plague Year, Lloyd Constantine’s insider account of Eliot Spitzer’s short, unhappy New York governorship, the climax of which is the vaunted Sheriff of Wall Street’s self-immolation when exposed as a hypocrite who cavorts with hookers. Constantine, Spitzer’s close friend and sounding board for a quarter century, cheekily suggested to The Daily Beast’s Allan Dodds Frank that the book is really an act of “love.” Spitzer, understandably, isn’t feeling it. “That such a close adviser and confidant of my family and member of my administration would choose to write such a book,” the disgraced ex-guv told the New York Times, “is a fundamental breach of trust.”

On a less elevated plane—reaffirming Madame Anne Bigot du Cornuel’s observation that “no man is a hero to his valet”—Princess Di’s butler, Paul Burrell, dished her dirty little secrets in not one but two volumes; George Jacobs performed a similar service in Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra, meticulously detailing Old Blue Eyes’ romps with naked ladies and bouts of jealous rage.

At its best, the friend-of-celebrity expose can be enjoyably trashy. At its mediocre worst, a la Pasternak, this subgenre of betrayal lit can be whiny and self-indulgent. Yet whether high-flown or lowdown, the spectacle of erstwhile intimates ratting out their betters–and doing it for money, between hard covers—is at once illicit and irresistible.

Why?

“There isn’t a single answer,” says MIT literature professor David Thorburn, “but we have a special fascination with the shenanigans of celebrities and literary figures—who, for some of us, are a kind of celebrity. It has to do with the intimacy we feel either toward a figure we admire or a writer we care about, so that we know them as people. Indeed, we know things about celebrities that we don’t even know about our ordinary acquaintances—and that carries over into our fascination with various forms of backstabbing and revenge.”

Thorburn points out that some cultural historians liken our collective fascination with tabloid stories about misbehaving movie stars and politicians, to the ancient Greeks’ enchantment with myths about the gods on Mount Olympus. “The gods were not worshipped because they were good, they were worshipped because they were so unbelievably powerful,” Thorburn says. “They were essentially human beings who were misbehaving on such a grand, Olympian scale, they were fascinating—and surely betrayal and backstabbing were part of that mythology.”

In the end, though, the appeal of betrayal lit may come down to its surprising capacity to comfort and reassure. “Some scholars have said in explaining why people love soap operas that it’s because the characters in the soap operas are suffering so much more dramatically than the poor schmendricks who are watching. There’s always some subset of resentment against the wealth and fame of celebrity, and people who take such apparent pleasure in these stories of betrayal get kind of a special thrill. 'It serves them right!' 'Somebody stabbed Jack Nicholson in the back?' 'Good for them!' ”

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.