Ed Klein, the former editor of The New York Times Magazine (1977-87) and foreign editor of Newsweek, was in Chicago this week to conduct interviews for his latest biography—this one focusing on Barack and Michelle Obama and their friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett and their interactions in the White House.
After being forced to resign from the Times magazine—a change of regimes, he explains—Klein’s life took a very different course. He became the pen behind the Parade magazine gossip column, “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” and he became a writer of unauthorized biographies—seven so far, including several books on the Kennedys, a harshly critical book about Hillary Clinton, and a biography of former CBS news anchor Katie Couric. His first biography, and the one of which he says he’s most proud, All Too Human: The Love Story of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, published in 1996, cost him his friendship with Jackie. His book on Hillary, The Truth about Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She Will Go to Become President, published in 2005 when Hillary was enjoying rave reviews as a New York senator, caused friends to disinvite him to parties and acquaintances to accost him in restaurants, saying, “Did you do that for the money? Is that why you wrote that book?”
Klein, 74, seems not to mind the notoriety. We met for lunch at the Union League Club, and he was happy and wealthy—he and his third wife live on Park Avenue in Manhattan—and champing at the bit to get going on interviews for the latest Obama/Jarrett book. (It’s slated to be published in the spring of 2012, smack in the middle of election season.)
We talked about everything from his family—his son Alec is an investigative journalist and a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School—to Washington and New York newspaper gossip, to the challenges of writing unauthorized biographies. He also discussed the Chicagoans he’d most like to interview about the Obamas—and why he believes few of them will dare to talk to him.
CF: When you approach people and tell them you want to write their biographies do they greet you like you’re Typhoid Mary?
EK: People always don’t want me to write about them because everybody knows the secrets about themselves that nobody else knows, and they don’t want those secrets to come out. As a biographer, one of the things I like to do is pull down the façade and look at the real person behind it.
CF: You’ve written about powerful and super-wealthy people. Did any of them try to stop you?
EK: I was embarked on a book called The Kennedy Curse, and the publisher decided after they signed me up and had given me an advance that they didn’t want to do the book. Turned out that was because Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was publishing with them and had gotten wind of it and said she wouldn’t publish with them if they published my book.
CF: Your books have been published mainly by mainstream New York houses; your publisher for the Obama book is Regnery, formerly of Chicago now of D.C., and known for its books that carry a right-of-center perspective. Were you spurned by the New York houses?
EK: Nobody wanted to publish the Obama book. The relationship between Michelle and Barack is to this day an untouchable subject by investigative reporters in book form. Michelle, especially, is an untouchable figure.
CF: Six out of seven of your books have been excerpted before publication by Vanity Fair. Do you think the juiciest parts of the Obama book will appear in Vanity Fair?
EK: That’s up to [editor] Graydon Carter. I would guess that if I do the kind of reporting that I’m known for, it will. The Ted Kennedy book [Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died, 2009], included a scene in the hospital room when Kennedy first was diagnosed with brain cancer in which [his wife] Vicki and [his nephew] Joe and were at each other’s throats. Somebody who was in the room at the time told me about it. This is the kind of reporting that Vanity Fair loves—the inside story—and that’s what I’m trying to do.
CF: Who are your dream interviewees here in Chicago?
EK: Desiree Rogers, Betty Lu Saltzman, the Whitakers, the Nesbitts, Newt Minow, Rev. Wright.
CF: Have you approached the President, the First Lady, and Valerie Jarrett?
EK: There’s no way those three people are going to talk to me, or anybody else for that matter, about how they relate to each other inside the White House.
CF: This sounds like a trio biography. Why Valerie Jarrett in a book that you yourself describe as “the Obamas in the White House.”
EK: She is the key interface between them and the world. Both Obamas have made it absolutely plain that when she speaks, she’s speaking for both of them. Obama’s on the record repeatedly saying when she talks, she’s talking for me. I’m wondering if there’s an historic figure who ever had that kind of relationship in the White House. When Eleanor and Franklin were in the White House, they had separate close associates. I don’t think one person spoke for both Eleanor and Franklin. They had very separate lives. I think the same is true of Hillary and Bill. In the case of Barack and Michelle, you have one person who is their amanuensis.
CF: How did your friendship with Jackie evolve?
EK: I was the editor of the New York Times Magazine; she was an editor at Doubleday, and she liked to have her books excerpted in the magazine. She was a very pragmatic person. She was also looking for authors, so we’d talk about writers. We were quite chummy.
CF: Then what happened?
EK: I called her to tell her I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair about her. She said, “Ed give me a break.” She didn’t want me to write about her and she felt it wasn’t kosher for me to do so given the fact that she and I had talked about a lot of things. I didn’t use some of the things she told me. We didn’t completely break off our relationship, but it cooled after that.
CF: Working on any more Vanity Fair pieces?
EK: I just did a piece on Prince Andrew, the bad boy of the Royal Family. As a result of that article, he has been removed from his position as Britain’s trade ambassador—no doubt in my mind, the Vanity Fair piece really did him in.
3 months ago