Ghost Writers in the Sky.

President John F. Kennedy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Biography before he became President of the United States and, according to some, didn’t even write the book.  The book, although many today may not have even heard of, let alone read, is “Profiles in Courage.”  A collection of short biographies on the careers of eight U.S. Senators who had personal courage enough to fight for their convictions even at the cost of their personal and professional lives.  John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft.  Men, with the exception of Adams, Webster, Houston, and Taft (President father), most of us have never heard of, but when you read their stories you can see why they were chosen.

The idea for the book came to Kennedy while he was recuperating from back surgery in 1954/55.  A time when he was on leave of absence from the Senate for almost a year.  John Kennedy was a sickly child, and many did not know that he suffered from Addison’s disease,  a condition in which the adrenal glands produce insufficient hormones.  This required increasing amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone during his life.  He was hospitalized after the back surgery, which many predicted he would not survive,  for nine months because he contracted a urinary infection and a reaction to the transfusions during surgery because of Addison’s.  But the world saw Jack Kennedy as a healthy vibrant man.  In truth he was far from it.  He faced death and was read the last rites of the church three times in his life up to this point.  This back surgery in 1954 was not recommended because of Addison’s effect on the immune system, but Kennedy said he would rather die than suffer the pain.  He almost did.

So while he was recuperating, he took up the task of writing the book which had first shaped in his mind during his early days in the Senate when he witnessed what he thought was personal courage of conviction in some of his fellow senators, and was impressed by a passage from a book by Herbert Agar, “The Price of Union”.  The passage was about John Quincy Adams, a previous senator from Massachusetts.

John Kennedy was a voracious reader, by the way, and read at the rate of 2500 words per minute.  He was a natural speed reader and could digest 6 newspapers over breakfast.  He bounced the idea off Ted Sorenson, his trusted advisor and speech writer, and asked him to see if he could find some other examples.  Ted did, and instead of an article it became an idea for a full-fledged book.  

In 1957 the idea that John Kennedy didn’t actually write the book came to a head during an interview with Drew Pearson, a journalist who was appearing as a guest on “The Mike Wallace Interview.”  To a live television audience he said, “John F. Kennedy is the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book that was ghostwritten for him.”  Wallace, shocked, asked him if he had proof.  He said that he did and that Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter, had actually written the book.

The Kennedy family responded to the telecast with the threat of a $50 million lawsuit against CBS.  They demanded a full retraction and they got it, even though Wallace was incensed.  He felt they had reported the truth and shouldn’t have backed down to the Kennedy’s.  It was, after all, a Pulitzer Prize.  The only President in the history of the United States to win one.

Pulitzer Prizes come with a money award, in case you weren’t aware, not just the fame, although the fame is worth far more.  The monetary stipend is $10,000 today, but prior to 2002 it was only $7,500 and a certificate.  Winning the prize catapulted Senator Kennedy to national prominence and to the leadership of his party.

There are six categories of the Pulitzer Prize in letters and drama, all to recognize American authors and playwrights.  The categories are:  Fiction, Drama, History, Biography or Autobiography, and Poetry.  This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Biography was awarded to  “Washington: A Life,” by Ron Chernow (The Penguin Press).  Have you read it yet?

Ted Sorenson, Special Counsel to the President

The final, pardon the pun, word on who actually wrote “Profiles in Courage” goes to Ted Sorenson’s 2008 autobiography titled “Counselor:  A Life at the Edge of History”.  It didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize.  He admits to submitting most of the first draft chapters and Kennedy would edit them and polish them.  He did almost all the research, often working 12 hours a day on the book during that time.  He did say that the first and last chapters of the book were wholly Kennedy’s as he tried to set the tone and conclude the premise of the book.  Sorenson died in October 2010.  He was 82.

But what I find most interesting about the debate that raged over who wrote the bestseller, is why Jack Kennedy gave Ted Sorenson a sum that exceeded half the book’s royalties from its first five years of sales?  And why did this lead Sorenson to downplay his recognition for the work? 

So, maybe you knew all this, and maybe you didn’t, and maybe you don’t care.  But what I get out of this, besides being a bit of a Kennedy history buff, is that if all we did was “authorize” a book and edit it, whether it won the Pulitzer Prize or not, my name alone should not be on the cover.  I think Ted Sorenson wrote more of it than John Kennedy did, but his name only appears inside the cover in a foreward by the “author”.

The other thing we writers might learn from this, is maybe all we need is a stellar idea, a Ted Sorenson type, come from a rich Massachusetts family, maybe a Catholic, be a bedridden U.S. Senator with time on our hands, and maybe we too can write a Pulitzer Prize winning book.  But if we tried to do this in college to write a term paper in Political Science, and we were found out, we would get an F.

(The title of this post is wordplay of the song, “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” written in 1948 and song by over 50 artists, including Johnny Cash and Spike Jones.) 


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