Joe McGinniss: The Hide of an Alligator, And Then Some

After the death of the writer Joe McGinniss, his son Joe Jr. recalls the brilliance of the author of The Selling of The President and Fatal Vision whose work “sometimes nearly killed him and emotionally wrecked him, as it does most writers.”

Years ago, Joe McGinniss gave some urgent advice about the writing profession to his eldest son, novelist Joe McGinniss Jr.

“He said to not do it,” the younger McGinniss told me Tuesday, the day after his famous father died, at 71, after a year-long battle with prostate cancer. “He was so protective of me…He’d had the highest highs and the lowest lows, and he knew how hard it was. He didn’t want me to begin to think about it. He said find a job that gives you great satisfaction and write on the side if you feel compelled to, but don’t try to make a living as a writer. The hide of an alligator is not enough, he told me.”

McGinniss was only 26, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, when his first book, The Selling of The President, a riveting insider’s account of Richard Nixon’s cynical, successful 1968 campaign, became a huge best-seller, an enduring classic of political reporting, and made him an instant celebrity.

His next three books, including a failed novel, were disappointing also-rans, but McGinniss restored himself to best-sellerdom with Fatal Vision, his controversial account of the murder trial of Green Beret and Army officer Jeffrey MacDonald, and two other non-fiction narratives in a true-crime trilogy that was the basis of three television miniseries. He wrote a much-criticized biography of Sen. Ted Kennedy, and opted out of a million-dollar book about the O.J. Simpson trial, returning the advance, because he was so disgusted with the jury’s not guilty verdict. But he scored again with The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, the inspiring story of a small-town Italian soccer team. His last published work was a poorly received, anemically selling biography of Sarah Palin.

Joe Jr., 43, was on his way from Pelham, Mass., where various family members—including his four siblings from his father’s two marriages—were gathering to celebrate Joe Sr.’s life and lay him, finally, to rest.

“I was going through some YouTube video clips of my dad last night when I couldn’t sleep,” Joe Jr. said, “and there was one from a writers’ conference in upstate New York where he was talking about his career trajectory. He said something about how fortunate he was to start up here—and he drew a line with his hand—but after that there was nowhere to go but down. When you start out like this, where the hell else are you going to go?”

His son said he had written around 50,000 words of a memoir, including an account of his medical ordeal being treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic, that Joe Jr. hopes can be published in due course.

The elder McGinniss struggled with depression and alcohol abuse, but he didn’t succumb. Instead, in good times and bad, he threw himself headlong into an unforgiving, brutal but seductively rewarding line of work that, despite the advice to his son, he could never get enough of.

“I think it [the advice] has to do with the extent of the obsessiveness that’s required to bring a story to life in the way that it needed to be brought to life,” Joe. Jr. told me. “Whatever it was he was into, he was into 100 percent. It just took over his life, and he knew how taxing it was, and how much pressure existed to do it all alone, without the structure of a company or support system. There was just him.”

Joe Jr. continued: “And it was all on his shoulders—every project. And it only happened because of whatever risks he took and whatever he gave of his life to it. And it sometimes nearly killed him and emotionally wrecked him, as it does most writers.”

The younger McGinnis said his father’s ease of style and fluidity of output frequently conceals the sheer craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail, to say nothing of downright sweat, that he invested in each of his works. “No one talks about just what a skilled writer he was. People take for granted how skilled he was as a craftsman, the simplicity of the writing, and how naturally it came. To read his work, it was so effortless. ‘Wow. So easy. I should do this.’ ”

Yet that impression was wildly deceptive. “I lived with him for two years in Williamstown when he was writing Fatal Vision—the last book he wrote on a typewriter. And my only memory from that time—I was 12 or 13—was him shutting his office door at 7:30 in the morning in a little room upstairs, and the clicking of the typewriter. Until lunch on weekends and all day on weekdays. Just that clicking sound all day.”

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While a commercial blockbuster, Fatal Vision also provoked a searing attack from New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who argued that McGinniss had essentially conned his subject, MacDonald, into granting him total access, on the understanding that McGinniss believed him innocent of slaughtering his wife and kids, when in fact McGinniss thought MacDonald was a murderer.

Malcolm’s 1990 book, The Journalist and The Murderer, accused McGinniss of unethical conduct and worse—terrible behavior symptomatic of journalism as a whole. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Joe Jr. recalled that his father “was not pleased by it, but not surprised either. He always understood that from Nixon to Jeffrey MacDonald to Sarah Palin, if you swim in these dirty waters, you’re gonna get some stink on you. He understood that you can’t come out of this stuff clean.”

Joe Jr. dismissed Malcolm’s critique of his father as “bullshit.” He added: “Look, you’re not trying to make friends. You understand you have a job to do. You’re a journalist. You have to write the story as you find it, as you discover it, as you see it, and you owe nothing to anyone but the truth and the facts as you see them. That’s what he did with MacDonald.”

McGinniss, whose politics tended toward liberal Democrat, formed a close and lasting friendship with Nixon’s image-maker, Roger Ailes, a major character in The Selling of The President—never mind that Ailes was ousted from the president’s inner circle as a result of McGinniss’s behind the scenes reporting. On Tuesday Ailes, the founder and chairman of the Fox News Channel, issued this statement about his friend’s passing: “Joe McGinniss will be remembered as a talented man. He changed political writing forever in 1968. We differed on many things, but he had a good heart. My prayers are with his family.”

The younger McGinniss said: “I’m not a big fan of Roger Ailes’s work product, but he’s a true friend. He’s so generous”—especially during his father’s illness. “What he does individually and personally is truly beyond.”

He said his father didn’t want a formal funeral, and the family will mark his passing quietly and privately, with the hope that a public memorial service can be held in New York sometime soon.