After reading As We Remember Her, by Carl Anthony, I thought that I would like to interview him. The book-written about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy-is one of the most perceptive books about her. Now, you can read what he has to say:
Hello Carl, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
When growing up, did you have an ambition to me a writer?
Yes. I don’t recall having any ambition to ever do anything else. I was about five or so when I dictated a small book to my father, who transcribed it. I drew the pictures with crayons. It was a rewrite of The Wizard of Oz in which the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion convince Dorothy to stay there with them and not go home.
Do you have any books in the works currently?
Too many. But its winnowed down to three right now. One is First Lady-related, focusing on just one period and topic of her life, but I’m still researching its viability, so not quite ready to go into detail about it. Another is an overall history covering the full breadth of the presidency focused on a matter which Presidents have believed to be one of personal choice but which always ends up becoming political. Again, I’m still researching and thinking it through, so not yet prepared to publicly discuss it. The one which means the most to me personally, however, and which I hope can prove to be of direct support to millions of other people is very important to me but not a subject with which I’ve necessarily been associated. It is in second draft and called, Very Old Dog: How I Helped Yeager Live Happily Ever After. It is the story of my very old dog Yeager’s last eight months of life when I decided to commit entirely to caring for him so he could live as long as he wished – without ever being in any pain or having a terminal illness, and the unexpected results of the experience. I’m also working on several feature film screenplays.
Do you have any other experience in publishing-e.g as an Editor, Copywriter, Journalist?
What an excellent question. Yes – I worked as a freelance journalist, writing for many newspapers and magazines. I was also a contributing editor of George Magazine, which was really my greatest “home” ever, in terms of a platform where my natural interests and sensibilities about the value of placing politics and political history into a context of popular culture were welcome and grasped. I have never worked as a professional copywriter or editor, but by having written so much I have very much learned the hidden hand of an expert editor and the great value and necessity of one. Otherwise, so many great ideas and good writing will be utterly drowned, all the hard work lost. So, I have informally acted as an editor for many other friends whether they’ve sought help with their letters, books, or articles. My personal experience is that the more one writes, the more one is eager to edit.
Who are your current writing influences?
This is very difficult for me to say, since I am constantly reading everything relevant to my work in terms of books, both recent and very old, as well as newspaper and magazine articles on practically every topic of currency (be it tech, foreign policy, science, film, I read too much about too much). It is difficult to pinpoint any one influence. In general, I would say I’m always gripped by the works of Gore Vidal, William Makepeace Thackeray, Mae West and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Please describe your average working day.
That is impossible – only because each day is different. I do believe I would be far more efficient if I had a regular schedule, but I must say that the nature of whatever it is I am writing ultimately dictates my work schedule. There is some regularity to much of my work; typically I am working some three hours a day in my capacity as Historian of the National First Ladies Library (Click here to view), responsible for conducting research into new documentation and scholarship on all of the First Ladies to eventually be used in the NFLL website’s online biographies of each individual one, as well as occasional articles for the NFLL website blog. If I am not writing a new book, I am usually working on a proposal for a new book. I am also doing screenwriting, although I fear my time has become limited and my efforts in this endeavor too often frustrated. Lastly, I also maintain my own website (Click here to view), which generally focuses on Presidents and First Ladies, but also a broader reach of the intersection of American political history and popular culture. Like the screenwriting, this is my favorite work – but alas, it is also the second field of research and writing that has suffered the most due to lack of time.
How did As We Remember Her come to fore?
I was troubled at the time of the death of Jacqueline Onassis that all she seemed to be remembered for were what the media insisted her primary value to the public was – a fashion model That is not to dismiss the importance of this role, for it was important to her, and it represented and was rooted in a far deeper thought process and self-awareness of how she was to be publicly perceived. But after awhile, all one was reading was praise for her “glamour,” “beauty,” “youth,” “charm,” “style.” After awhile I found it “dull,” “demeaning,” “diminishing,” “sexist,” and “predictable.”
She was, perhaps more internally and covertly, also “subversive,” “wise,” “intelligent,” “unconventional,” “visionary,” “brave,” “literate,” “worldly,” and “highly political.” I knew this not just from my research but also my personal interactions with her, largely through her writings to me. I wrote an article, “The Substance Behind the Style,” addressing all this in Town & Country magazine. A HarperCollins publishing house editor contacted me to see if I’d be interested in doing a book. It took quite some time to determine the right method of doing this. Knowing that it would be many years before her personal papers would possibly be opened to researchers, yet also knowing that there were many, many people alive then who also shared my view of her as a substantive and highly important historical figure, I decided on this “oral history” biography. She was herself a firm believer in oral history, being one of the first to do so about her husband just months after his death – the famous “Jackie Tapes” released in the fall of 2011. At the time I also began the interviews and the research, I also began my work as a regular writer for George Magazine, with her son as my boss. We began to talk about the direction I was taking with the book and he strongly endorsed my instinct about focusing on his mother’s rather hidden but consequential political sensibilities. He provided a variety of helpful information, from recommending individuals to several key pieces of her original and previously unpublished writing. He had an startling ability to see her with a duality, both personally as his beloved mother and publicly as an historical figure.
How long did the book take to write?
Too long. I think it began in March of 1995 and I turned in my first draft – which was insanely too, too long, in April of 1996. In hindsight, it was wrong of the publisher to expect a quality work in such a short period of time and wrong of me to believe I could do so. It went through four rewrites and drafts, the final one being handed in by December of 1996. Typical of my process, I over-researched the book, but ultimately even though about 75 percent of the interviews and research and writing were cut, all of it informed my growing expertise on her life and, I hope, enriched the quality of the materials.
How did the production of that book compare to your two volumes , written about the First Ladies?
I had a great editor for the two-volume First Ladies, an extraordinary blessing for a first-time author. She did not want to cut too much of the material, since it was very much based on previously unpublished material and, I hope, presented the role of First Ladies for the first time in a political context. And so, she determined that we would make it a two, rather than the originally-planned one-volume work. There is no substitute for an engaged and interested and eager editor.
In a general sense, what prompted your interest in American History (if that’s not to presumptuous) ?
On the surface, I would have to credit my father in particular. An architect with an interest in historic preservation, when he planned our family vacations, he always included historical homes in the itinerary and even a child can get the best sense of how similar people who lived before us are to us by going into their houses – seeing their bedrooms, offices, kitchens, dining rooms and gardens. I also have to credit his parents, my grandparents who spoke openly about their own earlier life experiences, in particular my grandfather’s service in World War I and my grandmother’s young life during the Roaring Twenties. They made history personal. In a larger sense, however, I never fail to find fascinating even the smallest stories about the most obscure individuals in a very specific place in a very specific time to uncannily reflect our truly unpredictable diversity – which is cobbled together essentially by individualism. And equally fascinating to me is how highly individualistic cultural customs from every part of the world eventually came to blend into one American one – of those who were native, immigrated or were brought here against their will. Then the great variety of the vast nation itself – the different types of terrain, the formation of the land masses, the weather patterns – and how it has been used and cultivated by these different peoples, literally and figuratively planting seeds which produced a rich bounty of produce, or cultivating forests, and how that then helped to further shape regional character – cotton and rice and indigo in the south, oranges in California, pineapples in Hawaii, black walnuts (from England!) in parts of Appalachia. Around these developments local economies began to develop and various types of people began migrating there for work. So it’s the wildly colorful, often conflicting, sometimes very dark concept of the “American story” that never ceases to fascinate me. And one finds that so much of this is dramatically crystallized in the stories of the Presidents and their families. Beyond this, I also have tried to focus on the humanity, the human story behind the wars and depressions and conflicts and policy that too many, sadly and incorrectly, believe is all there is to history. For me, the key to that word is the phrase within it – “story.”
How do you traditionally carry out interviews, in aiding your work?
Face-to-face, with a tape recorder.
Who has been your favorite President and First Lady your have interviewed, and why?
I’m assuming you mean the favorite interviews, in terms of the quality of our exchange? If so, then I would say George W. Bush – because he listened very closely to my questions and answered precisely, but also enriched his responses with other related information, and he knew history well. And Hillary Clinton – for the same reasons as above, but also because she openly mused, and pondered the questions, even if she ultimately determined that she wasn’t entirely sure of what her final opinion might be on a matter. Also because she was always extremely generous with her time and also asked questions. With her it has always been less of an interview and more of a conversation. I would also have to add that she truly loved history – world history, American history, presidential history. I have to give Betty Ford honorary mention here because she was always warm and always very personal and funny in her responses.
If Kennedy hadn’t been shot, what do you think America would be like today?
Mmm. Wow. What an intense question. Actually, there is one issue on which Kennedy would have had a direct role would have determined so much of the direction of the United States, and the world. And that issue is: how would he have responded to what does seem to have been, in retrospect, the inevitability of the communist Vietcong of North Vietnam unrelentingly fighting on to conquer South Vietnam. Would he have sent more troops, as LBJ did, or would he have withdrawn the American presence in southeast Asia (as Jacqueline Onassis contended to me he would have)? The Vietnam War was at the root of so much political and social change in the U.S. Race riots were fueled by the frustration of those without any sense of having a chance at socioeconomic improvement being drafted into the war’s likely death or permanent injury. Student protests and rage against the government sending them or their friends or loved ones into war fed into the societal permissiveness which led to the mainstreaming of recreational drug use and rejection of traditional family structure. Cynicism about the government replaced the trust and hope with which the people had once held it. I think the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have passed, perhaps it would have taken longer or met more resistant in the South had it not been pushed through by LBJ using some of the national sentiment for JFK after the assassination to do so. I think the national struggle for equality of women would have still happened – it was already on launched while he was alive. We would still have been dependent on oil and JFK, like Eisenhower and LBJ, before and after him, had no notions (nor did anyone) of energy supplies being limited and the consequences of the US dependency on Middle Eastern oil, which is at the root of so much of the turmoil in that region. But Vietnam….that is the one issue of consequence and questions which JFK’s death may have changed and thus altered the course of history.
Will you ever write about English History?
Any expertise I have with English History is that which fed into the creation of the initial American culture, the custom and people of the colonies. The same with Scotch, Irish, Italian, Russian, German, African, Chinese history: meaning, it is always necessary for me to strive for a thorough grasp of all world cultures which blended and continue to blend into the creation of the utterly unique and evolving American culture. So much of American history was formed as a result of English history. So, in that way – yes, but it is English History in the context of American history.
For people who wish to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice?
Follow your natural instincts for any particular subject, issue or individual of achievement no matter how much it seems others may not be as interested as you are. Engage your own sensibilities, your own perspective to understanding and interpreting the subject. Become the absolute expert: read and research everything. Don’t be afraid to first filter all of your individual viewpoint into framing and presenting your view – and then seek to check this by then questioning the validity of your view – don’t consider your view infallible, even if it is utterly unique. If you have genuine passion for the subject, if you’re utterly convinced of its importance, and this is true and honest and pure in your mind and heart, others will catch that same passion from you – you will engage them thoroughly. Love words – find new and precise ways to express the abstract ideas and thoughts and feelings you have. Consider each word, not just for its ability to pinpoint and make real what is first just a concept in your mind, but for its cadence within the larger context of the string of words which form the sentence, and see if it might even capture the tempo and mood of the very idea itself, while also conveying information. Apply the same rigor to each paragraph, and then each chapter. Stay calm and keep your mind on the final version of the vision you have, and know you are normal in feeling frustrated that the execution takes so long.
And finally, one random question, just so you’re not bored, being asked the same questions:
Do you prefer Cats or Dogs?
Mmm, I honestly like both equally but find that I’m more naturally a companion to Dogs since they seem to so earnestly determine to engage me as fully committed pals for active adventures. My current best friend is Hudson the Weimaraner, but I’m also close to Paddy and Hooch the Baby Bulldogs and Whitmore the Whippet.