Kennedy ‘Expert’ C. David Heymann: Do His J.F.K. Jr. Stories Hold Up?

It was 3 o’clock on the muggy afternoon of Saturday, July 24, and the author C. David Heymann was drinking a vodka tonic in the subterranean dankness of the Madison Pub, a tiny neighborhood bar on Madison Avenue between 79th and 80th streets. It was in that same wooden booth, Mr. Heymann said, that he last saw John Kennedy in the flesh, on an evening last summer when, according to Mr. Heymann, he and his girlfriend had a drink with Mr. Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. Now Mr. Heymann was back at the bar to discuss his own media exposure in the week since Mr. Kennedy, his wife and her sister Lauren Bessette had disappeared from a radar screen over Martha’s Vineyard. Since that day, the 54-year-old Mr. Heymann had appeared on several television programs because of what he describes as his ten-year acquaintance with Mr. Kennedy. He had been on WNBC’s Extra, CNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and found himself sitting with ABC’s Bill Beutel and Roz Abrams as they covered the July 23 memorial service at the Church of St. Thomas More on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

What launched Mr. Heymann on his TV blitz was a story he had told New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, about a conversation he says he had with Mr. Kennedy nine days before the fateful flight, in which, Mr. Heymann claimed, Mr. Kennedy had complained to him about having to drop his wife’s sister off on Martha’s Vineyard.

Ms. Adams did not question Mr. Heymann’s tale, which essentially portrayed the Bessette sisters as demanding women who unintentionally led Mr. Kennedy to his death, nor did she question why Mr. Kennedy would be having a friendly chat with the man who in 1989 published a salacious biography of Mr. Kennedy’s mother, A Woman Named Jackie , and last year penned R.F.K.: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy, which claimed that the late Senator had been physically intimate with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as well as with dancer Rudolph Nureyev. Ms. Adams, who said she has known Mr. Heymann for 20 years, said she made no attempt to check the facts. “With whom?” she said. “John? He was dead.”

The editors at Rupert Murdoch’s Post did not question Mr. Heymann’s story, either, but instead splashed it across the front page on Monday, July 19, with the headline “HE DID NOT WANT TO FLY” and caption, “John Kennedy Jr. told a pal he didn’t want to stop on Martha’s Vineyard, but his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, insisted they drop off her sister.” Inside, Ms. Adams reported the conversation according to Mr. Heymann, in which John Kennedy allegedly said, “I don’t even want to go to Martha’s Vineyard…”

“Why,” asked Mr. Heymann.

“Unfortunately, I have to take my sister-in-law with us. She’s going to Martha’s Vineyard. My wife insists I take her there. I don’t want to do that. I told her I didn’t want to do that. I said I’d rather fly straight to Hyannis…but my wife’s insisting.”

Thus, before the plane had been found, in those first few days of media spray and spittle, before the facts coalesced, the idea that somehow the tragedy had been the fault of the Bessette sisters entered the media airspace around the story, joining the hazy weather conditions over Fairfield New Jersey and Lauren Bessette’s waterlogged garment bag as key elements of the unfolding tragedy.

Mr. Heymann’s story didn’t seem plausible to some. Was he really the confidante of John Kennedy he claims to have been, or was he just a savvy media operator who-like many other “Kennedy friends” and “Kennedy experts” who surfaced within minutes of the first reports that the Piper Saratoga was missing-knew that the press was ravenous for any first-person account of a supposed recent Kennedy encounter?

Interviews with sources at George magazine indicate that, if Mr. Heymann was acquainted with Mr. Kennedy, they did not know about it. And a source with knowledge of Lauren Bessette’s travel plans told The Observer that she did not ask Mr. Kennedy for a ride to the Vineyard until Monday, July12-five days after Mr. Kennedy purportedly complained to Mr. Heymann about having to bring her along.

Drinks at Bemelmans?

“All of this [media attention] has come out after the Cindy Adams thing,” said Mr. Heymann, easing back in the booth at the Madison Pub. Wearing black motorcycle boots and a monochromatic ensemble of gray t-shirt and trousers, he resembled a slightly overfed Deepak Chopra. A baseball cap covered with sequins sewn in elephant shapes sat on the table in front of him. He sighed and said, “I called her to tell her about this conversation I’d had with John Kennedy ten days before he died. I guess it’s like people complaining they talked to Truman Capote and then he put it in book form. She is a gossip columnist.”

But another New York Post gossip columnist, Neal Travis, told The Observer he doubted Mr. Heymann’s story. “I can’t believe John Kennedy would have done anything more than punch out an author who claimed that his uncle fucked his mother,” Mr. Travis said.

Then again, Mr. Kennedy was known to disarm people by some of his alliances. He sat down with his father’s nemesis, Fidel Castro, for a George magazine interview that never ran, and he brought Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, who published nude photos of Jacqueline Onassis sunbathing on Skorpios, as his guest to the May 1999 White House Correspondents Dinner. If John Kennedy could break bread with Larry Flynt, why couldn’t he hang out with Clement David Heymann, “Clem” to his friends?

According to Mr. Heymann, about six months after his bestseller A Woman Named Jackie was released in 1989, John Kennedy, who had refused requests to be interviewed for the book, called him and told him the book was “balanced.” They agreed to meet at the Madison Pub. “He kept getting up and putting money into the juke box and playing nothing but Frank Sinatra,” Mr. Heymann said, “I said to him, `Do you like Frank Sinatra?’ He said, `No, but my mother does and since you wrote the book on her, I’m playing it in your honor.’”

Mr. Heymann said between that time and this year, he got together with Mr. Kennedy about a dozen times and spoke with him several times by phone. He said they would meet at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel and The Oak Room at The Plaza Hotel. “I paid for the guy almost all the time,” Mr. Heymann said. “I didn’t mind doing it. He kept saying ‘Let me pay.’ I said `No, no,’ but I figured, he’s doing me the big favor.” He said Mr. Kennedy visited him at his apartment in the Belnord on the Upper West Side in 1995, to drop off a wedding gift, because he hadn’t been able to come to Mr. Heymann’s wedding to an English book publicist. (They are no longer married.) Mr. Heymann said Mr. Kennedy arrived with a gift, which Mr. Heymann described as four items of “Tiffany gold.” “It was a wedding present which we promptly lost,” Mr. Heymann said. “She and I had a fight. She went back to England, and in the course of it I drank myself into a stupor and fractured my left elbow, went into the hospital. When I got out-maybe a maid took them or something-they were gone.”

Mr. Heymann said Mr. Kennedy also visited him in his country house in Sherman Connecticut in 1997. Asked if he could provide any witnesses, Mr. Heymann, through his attorney Mel Wulf, put The Observer in touch with Roberta Feinberg, a former girlfriend of Mr. Heymann’s who is a freelance photographer and copy editor. Ms. Feinberg said she was in Mr. Heymann’s Connecticut home when Mr. Kennedy allegedly visited, although she did not exactly have a face-to-face encounter.

“I had taken some natural medicine with bovine extract and it gave me a terrible allergic reaction,” said Ms. Feinberg. “So then I had to take something to sort of ease that, because my whole face was swollen, and I have other allergies, too, but we don’t have to get into my allergy problems. So David had told me that he was having a meeting with [Kennedy]. David meets with a lot of people. At the time I didn’t’ think it was such an extraordinary event. I mean, I did want to be there, but because I had this allergic reaction, I couldn’t. So I was pretty much in one area of the house, so that I was not privy to the actual meeting, other than I was a little curious and when I heard the door close I looked outside and I saw the back of a figure leaving the house with dark hair. That was it. To the best of my knowledge, he said he was meeting with John F. Kennedy Jr. and I assumed it was John F. Kennedy Jr.”

Mr. Heymann said that while he was researching his R.F.K. book, Mr. Kennedy had helped him by calling “close family friends” and encouraging them to cooperate. “One of the conditions of his helping me is that he didn’t want to be acknowledged,” said Mr. Heymann. “He was like his father. He was very private. I did ask him to intervene to interview Ted Kennedy, but on that he said, ‘Look I’m not going to ask Ted Kennedy because I know he’s not going to talk.’” Mr. Heymann declined to provide The Observer with names of any Kennedy family friends who might have received a prompting call from Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Heymann’s editor at Dutton, Arnold Dolin, said he hadn’t heard that John Kennedy had been a source on the book. “I don’t know about his relationship with John Kennedy Jr.,” he said. “I wasn’t aware he had one, but that doesn’t mean that it is not so.”

A Double Date?

According to Mr. Heymann, when Mr. Kennedy started George in 1995, he asked Mr. Heymann to write about his experiences in the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, of which Mr. Heymann claims to have been a member of during the ’80s. “As soon as he started the magazine, he started bothering me about it,” Mr. Heymann said. “Every six months or so, he would bother me about doing the piece. At first he wanted me to tell him everything about it. At first I was evasive, but he got me to talk about it.”

But Mr. Kennedy’s associates at George had no recollection of his ever mentioning Mr. Heymann. Elizabeth Mitchell, George’s executive editor from 1996 to January 1999, told The Observer , “As far as all the time I knew John, he never had talked to Heymann. Perhaps he did in the last five months of his life or so. But I can assure you that he never came up in conversation before then.”

A close associate of Mr. Kennedy at George found no listing of Mr. Heymann in Mr. Kennedy’s personal Rolodex, and a source with access to Mr. Kennedy’s phone records at George stated that there was no record to indicate that Mr. Heymann had ever called Mr. Kennedy at the magazine. Mr. Kennedy was reportedly scrupulous about having all of his meetings, lunches, saunas, drinks, and dinners arranged and scheduled through a third party at the magazine. But a person with access to Mr. Kennedy’s schedule book found no meeting scheduled between Mr. Heymann and Mr. Kennedy for Wednesday, July 21, which is the date Mr. Heymann said they had agreed upon to meet about the Mossad piece.

Mr. Heymann said he usually called Mr. Kennedy at home and that he tape recorded those conversations. He declined to play the tapes for The Observer.

Last June, according to Mr. Heymann, he and his girlfriend at the time went on a double date with Mr. Kennedy and his wife. He said they started their evening at the Madison Pub, and after having a drink, walked down Madison Avenue to the Right Bank Cafe. In Mr. Heymann’s account of that evening, Mr. Kennedy was upset with his wife. “Carolyn was like 45 minutes late and he got on that public phone and I could hear him,” Mr. Heymann said. “There was no one in here. It was about 5:30. He got very hostile about it. He always had a light hearted aspect to everything, but he was angry that she was forty five minutes late…I remember him saying, ‘Wear anything. It’s an informal thing.’”

Renci Serranos, the nighttime cook and daytime waiter at the Madison Pub, told The Observer he has worked there for the last ten years. For the last five years, he said he has generally worked seven days a week, 10 A.M. to closing. Two years ago, he saw Mr. Kennedy peering through the window of the bar; Mr. Serranos said that was the last time he saw Mr. Kennedy anywhere near the bar. Mr. Serranos said he had never seen Carolyn Bessette there, and that if she had come in while he was in the kitchen, he would have known about it. “I think with a person like this, people know,” he said.

At the Right Bank Cafe, a manager named Jim who declined to give his last name, said John Kennedy hadn’t been through the doors of the restaurant in at least two years. The manager said he normally works seven days a week and has worked there for fourteen years. “When you get a guy like him, the whole place stands still,” he said. ” Believe me. And especially the couple. You wouldn’t hear the end of it. Years ago, when Bruce Springsteen came in with his girlfriend, that was a big thing. Big things like that you’d hear about.”

When The Observer asked Mr. Heymann if his date might corroborate his account of the evening, he replied that she lived in California and he saw her only “occasionally.” But Mr. Wulf, the attorney for Mr. Heymann, subsequently put The Observer in touch with Jerry Visco, who identified herself as Mr. Heymann’s date that June evening. Ms. Visco, who works as an office administrator in the department of classics at Columbia University, said she is Mr. Heymann’s current girlfriend and has lived in his apartment for two years. She backed up Mr. Heymann’s account of the drink at the Madison Pub, she said that Mr. Kennedy had used the phone to track down his wife, who arrived late. “I know that John was talking about this article that he wanted David to do on the Mossad and David was telling his stories about this intelligence stuff,” said Ms. Visco. “The wife came late, and then we went on to this other place for dinner. The Right Bank. I asked her a bit about her fashion stuff. Years ago I had gone to F.I.T. [the Fashion Institute of Technology] myself. I played a low key role, I’d say. It was really more David.”

It was to firm up details of the alleged Mossad piece that Mr. Heymann said he called Mr. Kennedy on July 7. He said he suggested meeting in the George offices on Friday, July, 16. Mr. Kennedy purportedly replied, according to Mr. Heymann, “No. Can’t do Friday. I have a wedding to go to. It’s my cousin in Hyannis.” And then, as Mr. Heymann told it to Cindy Adams, Mr. Kennedy started complaining about dropping his sister-in-law off in Martha’s Vineyard.

Hutton, Liz and Jackie

Mr. Heymann said he was raised by a “pushy”, “dictatorial” German Jewish émigré father and his wife on Riverside Drive and 114th Street. His father, who he said had investments in the Wellington and Peter Stuyvesant hotels in New York, and the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, encouraged young Mr. Heymann to pursue an hotel administration degree and sent him packing for Cornell University. He didn’t like it. After graduating, he enrolled in a creative writing graduate program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He wrote two novels which he said he’s not proud of, then pursued a doctoral degree in English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. While there, he wrote two nonfiction books. The first, American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy and Robert Lowell , was about the New England family of the poet Robert Lowell. For the second, titled Ezra Pound: The Last Rower , he said he went to visit the aging poet in Venice and conducted an interview. The book was published in 1976, four years after Pound’s death, and Time magazine called it “The most harshly realistic portrait of the poet so far produced.” But Hugh Kenner, a Pound scholar from Johns Hopkins University, questioned the authenticity of Mr. Heymann’s work. In 1983, Professor Kenner told The Washington Post , “I demonstrated [ that an interview that Heymann said he had done with Pound was ] a wholesale fake. I found the book from which he had lifted the Q-and-A, a book published in Venice and done with an Italian interviewer.” Through his lawyer, Mr. Heymann denies Mr. Kenner’s claims, and chalked up the professor’s snub to a negative review Mr. Heymann had written for The Saturday Review about Mr. Kenner’s book, The Pound Era.

Mr. Heymann developed a reputation of something of an eccentric. He freely admitted that he wrote in the nude and had a nervous habit of chewing rubber bands. After neither of his first books sold particularly well, Mr. Heymann changed his literary course. “I learned from this never write a book about a poet if you want to sell books. Or a painter. Or a musician,” he said.

So as luck would have it, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton came into Mr. Heymann’s life. He said he interviewed the ailing heiress “a dozen” times in her Beverly Wilshire Hotel rooms in 1978, the year before she died. In 1982, Random House gave him an advance of around $50,000 to write a biography. He said he had some of Hutton’s notebooks and her signature giving him permission to use the materials as he wished. Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton, was published in 1983. A few weeks later, Random House recalled the book because a Beverly Hills doctor, who Mr. Heymann claimed had overprescribed drugs to Hutton, pointed out that in the year Mr. Heymann had him drugging Hutton, he was only 14 years old. The print run of 58,000 copies of the book was shredded, and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morganthau’s office investigated Mr. Heymann for fraud.

“They were trying to charge that I’d never interviewed people, that this was all off the top of my head. I don’t know what they were getting at,” said Mr. Heymann. A source familiar with the investigation, which never led to an indictment, told The Observer the investigation concerned documents Mr. Heymann had submitted as documentation for the book.

Hutton’s friends, among them ex-husband Cary Grant, came forward claiming that they had never seen her keep any notebooks. And in 1984, handwriting expert Charles Hamilton, who had helped determine that the recently-published Hitler diaries were fake, told reporters that he believed the Hutton notebooks and letter of authorization provided by Mr. Heymann were not authentic. Mr. Wulf disputed Mr. Hamilton’s contentions, and offered the fact of the book’s eventual success, and its adaptation as an NBC TV miniseries, as vindication of Mr. Heymann’s work.

Mr. Heymann, who according to Mr. Wulf was despondent over the Random House recall, attempted suicide with pills, then ran off to Israel and, Mr. Heymann says, joined the Mossad after the regular Israeli army told him his eyesight wasn’t good enough.

But he soon regrouped as a biographer: the Hutton book was republished, by Lyle Stuart, and became a bestseller. In 1989 Mr. Heymann published A Woman Named Jackie and, in 1996, Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylo r. He received a mid-six figure advance from Dutton Publishing, publisher of Michael Crichton and Joyce Carol Oates, to write the Robert F. Kennedy biography. When it was published, Bob Sherrill, writing in The Washington Post , called the book “a solid biography.” New York Post columnist Jack Newfield, who had also written a biography of R.F.K., attacked Mr. Heymann as “a man who defames the dead. He reads the obit, then writes the novel.”

Book Deal?

At the Madison Pub, Mr. Heymann said he had never particularly wanted to be John Kennedy’s friend.

“I hate to say it in the wake of his death,” he said, “but for me, he was more of a curiosity than anybody that I ever felt that I could develop a close friendship to. He was a child.”

On the day after Cindy Adams published her account of Mr. Heymann’s alleged phone call with Mr. Kennedy, she reported that Mr. Heymann was working on a book about John Kennedy. “For the last dozen years,” she wrote, Mr. Heymann had “kept notes of every meeting and phone call with John. By the time you read this, Heymann will be on Chapter Three.”

That same day, the Daily News’s Celia McGee, in a story headlined “Kennedy biographies to flood bookshelves,” reported that “First out of the gate likely will be author David Heymann, who is published by Dutton, a division of Penguin Putnam. Heymann’s biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, A Woman Named Jackie , and last year’s R.F.K.: A Candid Biography of Robert F. Kennedy , not only steeped him in Kennedy family history, but led to a cordial relationship with John, who helped with the Robert Kennedy book `but didn’t want to be acknowledged.’ Heymann is rushing to finish a J.F.K. Jr. book proposal for consideration by publishers, several of whom tried to contact him as early as Saturday.”