This week Edward Klein, brandishing his credentials as the former editor of The New York Times Magazine and the former assistant managing editor at Newsweek, became the pariah of the world that made him-in an era when media villains aren’t hard to find.
There were still only hints on the eve of the book’s release at the sort of reading experience one can expect from The Truth About Hillary, scheduled to hit bookstores on June 21. A carefully managed series of leaks about Mr. Klein’s forthcoming book about Hillary Clinton were meant to hype it up.
But that very campaign met with indignation from journalists far afield of Mr. Klein’s own august alma maters. On June 10, readers were able to find a rebuttal to Mr. Klein’s reported account of Mrs. Clinton’s college-age lesbian exploits in no less a gossip haven than the New York Post’s Page Six.
Outrage over some of the claims purportedly made in the book-and carried on the Drudge Report-were so problematic for editors at the very publications where Mr. Klein had worked for so long that they opted not to reprint the claims at all.
Mr. Klein’s nonfiction book-writing career has been characterized by thinly sourced best-sellers on Jacqueline Onassis and the Kennedy family. (His 2003 entry, The Kennedy Curse, made the New York Times best-seller list, even as The Washington Post’s Peter Carlson dismissed it as “sordid.”)
However “gossipy” the books are-and what does the phrase mean? That the books are full of anonymous reporting and outrageous claims and exhibit an unseemly interest in the personal lives of their characters?-Mr. Klein has arguably put himself at the center of the present firestorm as much for the way he approaches his subjects as for the way he reports. In a word, it’s a question of taste.
“The reporting is one issue, but before that, why are you reporting on this? Who gives a shit?” said New Yorker media columnist Ken Auletta, referring to Mr. Klein’s books. “Who cares about the first time Jackie had sex and with whom? The questions [he was] asking were the first things that punched me in the nose. The way he was answering them comes after. Why is a serious journalist doing such unserious work?”
Some will no doubt argue that it’s just a matter of politics.
The Kennedy Curse had its partisans: Writing in The National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. called it “engrossing to read.” But Publishers Weekly referred to Mr. Klein’s Farewell, Jackie as reliant on “questionable sources” and called it “unseemly” in tone.
Mr. Klein’s publisher for the Hillary Clinton book is the conservative Sentinel imprint at Penguin Putnam, where he shares catalog space with Jim Kuhn’s memoir of his time with the Reagan administration; Mona Charen’s Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (and the Rest of Us); and Ronald Kessler’s A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush.
Mr. Klein’s books-the four Kennedy titles and this latest-all seem to have in common an obsession with the ruling dynasties of liberal American politics.
(Mr. Klein’s deal to write a book about the lives of Barbara and George Herbert Walker Bush fell through. According to an article in the New York Law Journal from 1993, A Day in the White House With George and Barbara Bush encountered problems when the White House withdrew the promise of cooperation by George and Barbara Bush. A State Supreme Court judge ordered Mr. Klein to return the $166,666 advance he’d received from his publisher, Little, Brown.)
Cooperation, it seems safe to say, wasn’t a stipulation of Mr. Klein’s contract to write about Mrs. Clinton.
Philippe Reines, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, said: “We don’t comment on works of fiction, let alone a book full of blatant and vicious fabrications contrived by someone who writes trash for cash.”
Mr. Klein declined to speak with The Observer aside from addressing-albeit indirectly-the question of his political motivations. “Although I am a registered independent on the voter rolls, I have rarely voted because, as a journalist, I want to maintain my independence of party and political persuasion,” he said in a statement e-mailed by his publisher.
But Mr. Klein’s professional life is less a study of left and right than ups and downs, of the contrast of the high and low cultures of the American media. From the mastheads of the top establishments in American journalism, Mr. Klein has come to the field of tabloid book writing in the tradition of England’s most reviled royals-watchers.
Indeed, in a statement released by his current publisher, reference is made less to his editors’ confidence in his reporting or even the present book, but to his previous record.
“We stand 100% behind Ed Klein’s credibility,” said the somewhat question-begging statement. “He is a widely respected and distinguished journalist who has worked for publications like Newsweek, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair.”
While attending Columbia University, Mr. Klein worked as a copy boy for the Daily News. After attending journalism school at Columbia, he spent time in Japan as a foreign correspondent for U.P.I. (where he got to know former New York Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who was working for The Times there) and went on to Newsweek, where he became assistant managing editor. In 1977, Mr. Rosenthal brought Mr. Klein in to edit the Times Magazine, where he stayed until 1987. The magazine was thought to have improved in many ways during Mr. Klein’s tenure-it got livelier, embraced new writers and even garnered a Pulitzer Prize-but he was a polarizing figure, according to several staff members who worked there at the time.
“I would describe it, honestly, as a bit rocky,” said James Greenfield, who was assistant managing editor at The Times during Mr. Klein’s tenure and who succeeded him at the Magazine. “I think he was having trouble with his staff. I think there were personality conflicts.” When asked whether Mr. Klein’s journalistic ethics came under scrutiny at The Times, Mr. Greenfield said: “The Times was a big organization. He was watched. He wasn’t just totally on his own with the Magazine. And I think they watched him.”
“I’m aware of Ed’s reputation,” said Alex Ward, who was an editor at the Times Magazine in those days and is now the newspaper’s editorial director of book development. “I know that Ed is a controversial guy. I won’t deny there was some tension.”
The tension, according to Mr. Ward, Mr. Greenfield and other staffers, centered in part on the perception that Mr. Klein used to try to influence the angle of stories by pushing writers to conclusions that they didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with, and the result was a very magazine-y sensibility imposed upon a news publication.
“I know that there were complaints from a lot of writers, which were not unjust, that he’d kind of swoop in on a story at the last minute and want major changes in it for some reason or another,” said Mr. Ward. “That caused a lot of consternation.”
Mr. Klein was perceived to be a pet of then–executive editor Abe Rosenthal, who took the unpopular step of bringing him into the Magazine as an outsider from Newsweek. Then, according to staffers, Mr. Rosenthal went on to treat Mr. Klein rather poorly, berating him in meetings and telling colleagues, “I love to torture that man,” according to one former Times editor who was there at the time.
“I think he was perceived as weak, and indecisive, and having problems with management,” said the former Times editor of Mr. Klein.
In 1987, after Max Frankel had replaced Mr. Rosenthal as executive editor of The Times, Mr. Klein’s reign at the Magazine ended-and not by choice, according to several staff members who were there at the time.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Klein was married to his third wife, Dolores Barrett, a public-relations consultant, at the Manhattan home of actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, according to their Times wedding announcement. Later, Mr. Klein began writing the “anonymous” gossip column in Parade magazine, called “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” for a salary that was reported to be around $300,000 at the time. He became a contributing editor at Vanity Fair in 1989.
Then the books started. Mr. Klein had written novels while he was still at The Times, but his first nonfiction book was meant to be the George and Barbara Bush biography.
In 1996, All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy was published. In 1999 came Just Jackie: Her Private Years, and then more Kennedys yet: 2003′s The Kennedy Curse, which famously stirred up even more innuendo about the beleaguered legacies of John-John and Carolyn Bessette, and 2004′s Farewell, Jackie, rounding out his Camelot obsession.
Although the books were best-sellers, reviews in high-profile media outlets were hard for Mr. Klein to come by. And the trajectory of his career looks like a plummet even to defenders who attempted to explain it.
“Don’t hold it against Ed that he went off on this track,” said James Atlas, the author of My Life in the Middle Ages, who said he felt very grateful to Mr. Klein for bringing him into the fold at the Times Magazine. “He was very well paid, and I don’t know what his options were or whether he could have gotten a job again at a newsweekly.
“He must in some ways miss his earlier vocation,” Mr. Atlas continued. “When you’re that high up, where are you going to go? It gets very complicated at the top, because there aren’t that many jobs.”