“You can’t put everything you know into a book. You have to decide what story you’re telling, which parts of ‘true’ you want to stick with.”
Two-thirds through his biography of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, author Jeff Himmelman, in writing about Bradlee’s poorly-reviewed 1975 portrait of President John F. Kennedy, provides (perhaps unconsciously) a bit of an explanation for his own book. Himmelman, who coauthored a 2009 memoir of Bradlee’s son, Quinn, first entered the Bradlee orbit while working as research assistant to Bob Woodward, famous for reporting, along with Carl Bernstein, the Watergate story that earned the Post a Pulitzer and sent President Nixon packing. Invited by Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, to help the retired journalist, then in his mid-80s, assemble a book based on his vast correspondence, Himmelman soon found himself alone with thousands of letters, memos, and transcripts, as well as carte blanche from Bradlee to write his own book (Bradlee declared he had no interest in writing another memoir).
The result is “Yours in Truth,” an episodic, highly personal look at Bradlee’s life and career that has reportedly angered Woodward and the Bradlees (newspaper reports have alluded to the airing of dirty laundry, the biting of hands that feed, and so on). Woodward’s anger presumably stems from Himmelman’s quoting from an unpublished interview Bradlee gave to researcher Barbara Feinman in preparation for his 1995 memoir. While discussing Watergate, Bradlee had told Feinman that some of the details surrounding Woodward’s meetings with the anonymous informant known as Deep Throat didn’t sit right — “there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight,” he says.
Himmelman brings the fruits of his research to Woodward, who is outraged and unnerved, and Bradlee, who seems bemused. Meanwhile, the Bradlees are allegedly angry that Himmelman chose to publish some personal notes, including one marked “unsent” to Sally Quinn in 1978, in which Bradlee writes, “I guess I’m having trouble understanding what you want from me beyond total acquiescence and endless cash.” In a book that regularly alludes to the drama of fathers and sons and mentors, Himmelman positions himself as a brave truth-teller, but he seems more like a sneaky younger brother.
Other notes of immaturity are hard to ignore. Himmelman is a diligent researcher with a clear, winning prose style, but he can’t seem to knit together these fabulous details, stories, and voices into a coherent narrative. He’s hampered by history, too; many of the most interesting episodes in Bradlee’s life have been beautifully written about by others, leaving Himmelman to sound more like an aggregator than an author. The book that results is less than the sum of its parts (though some of its parts are brilliant). Worse still are his apparent efforts to shock, as in titling the section on race relations at the Post and disgraced reporter Janet Cooke after a quote Cooke gave regarding her inflated resume. One feels he’s grasping for a kind of New Journalism, white-guy cool that went out of style decades ago (and was questionable even then).
In his chapter on Bradlee’s Kennedy book, Himmelman quotes from Taylor Branch’s devastating review. Bradlee, wrote Branch, “seems resolutely oblivious to the possibility that, to eyes less bedazzled than his own, his portrait might be a betrayal.” Himmelman’s biography doesn’t seem a betrayal — if anyone comes out looking good, it’s the perpetually tough and honest Bradlee — but a later line in Branch’s review, calling the book “either a failed tribute or an unwitting catharsis” fits perfectly.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@