John Manchester, son of one of the most famous biographers in American history, reveals what growing up is like in the shadow of a man whose success changed the nation.
In early 1964 Jackie Kennedy asked my father, William Manchester, to write an official account of her husband’s assassination. In the next two years he conducted over 1000 interviews, then wrote 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. The result was The Death of a President.
When he was done, Jackie had a change of heart and decided she didn’t want the book published. She enlisted her brother-in-law Bobby and his aides, some of the most powerful men in Washington, to suppress its publication. My father was an unknown writer at the time, a mild-mannered, even shy person. They underestimated him, ignoring the fact that he had survived combat as a Marine on Okinawa. And that he was a man who once he decided to do something, did it, no matter the obstacles.
For nine months in 1966 he battled the Kennedys. The fight was front page news and all over the three TV networks. He won the battle. The book was published and was a bestseller. And he was internationally famous.
I was fifteen when it happened. When I came home from boarding school that Thanksgiving our house was surrounded by TV trucks. My mother asked me to answer the door, and as reporters peppered me with questions, I smiled, feeling the glow of the international spotlight. Flush with hormones, in the spring of my life, I felt this must be a good thing for me. I didn’t understand that the light I stood in was only a reflection from its target, my father. Ever after my mother, sisters and I would be in its shadow. All of us—including him—would suffer far more than we would benefit from his fame.
Starting in my 20s people often asked me, “What’s it like being the son of a famous man?” I answered, “I never think about it.” I was telling the truth. It was too big for me to grasp. I couldn’t think, but I could feel. Once that initial glow wore off, being the son of a famous man scared me badly.
I wouldn’t understand why until I was much older.
No one gets to be famous by sitting on their butt or being a wallflower. Long before 1966 my father was an indefatigable worker. He was fiercely ambitious. And he had the killer instinct.
From the time he was young he taught me, by example, that to be a man you must beat all of the other men. You must always win. You must beat all of them, including your son. He was five inches taller than me. He bragged of becoming an Eagle Scout, saying how difficult it was. I failed to achieve Tenderfoot. I played him in ping pong countless times, and he never let me once win.
I took his lesson to heart. It left me with the insolvable riddle of my life –I must beat all the other men. But I can never beat my father.
Before my father became famous, I suppose I imagined I had some chance. Afterwards I knew it was hopeless. He once said to me, “To make it you need talent, drive, and luck.” I used this statement as a measuring stick as I pursued a career in music. At the beginning of each day I asked myself if I had the talent, then worked as hard as I could to prove that I had the drive. But I knew I’d never have the kind of luck my father did in taking on the Kennedys. Later I’d know I didn’t have his killer instinct, either.
Before his fame, the fact that I would always lose against my father was my secret. Now the whole world knew. Whenever people found out who my father was, they would say, “Oh,” and this dreamy look would come into their eyes as their attention drifted from me to my father. “What a great writer! I love his books.” No one ever said it, and I’ll never know who thought it, or who didn’t. But what I heard was: You’re not as interesting as your father. You’re not the man he is. And why shouldn’t I think that? He’d made it clear. From my perspective the world would forever measure me as a man against my father, and I would always come up short.
In 1967 I found my own kind of luck. The counterculture circus came to town, making its glorious noise, and I joined right up. I exchanged my acoustic guitar for an electric, and became one of the noisemakers. I enjoyed the sex and drugs part, too – at least some of the time. But I was in it for the long haul, for deeper reasons.
When I sang the counterculture anthem, “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love one another right now” I meant every word.
I imagined a world where co-operation trumped competition. Where relationships were about love, not power. Where every human being deserved dignity, no matter how lowly in the eyes of society. Where the goal in working was to “do you own thing” –find your passion and pursue it to the ends of the earth.
I’d stumbled on the solution to my riddle. There was no solution by my father’s rules, which said that the measure of a man is to be found in the prizes of the world. But by changing the rules, I could succeed. After I joined the counterculture I found friends who valued me for who I was, not what I’d done. I eventually found a partner who did the same, who taught me that most valuable lesson –that relationships are either about love or power. When I had two sons, after an initial struggle with my father’s demons, I resolved that their success—however they defined that—was all that mattered to me.
After I graduated college my father told me, “The record of the sons of famous men is not encouraging.” I pictured myself living on the street in a cardboard box, drinking cheap wine or strung out on heroin. Or insane. Dying an early, ugly death. I was determined not to go that way.
He said, “I’m wealthy, but I’m not going to support you. If I do, you’ll be weak and never make anything of yourself.”
My passion was music. I chased it following my own rule: that what was pleasing to my ear would always take precedence over the demands of the market. In the decade that I struggled to establish my musical career, as I shivered in apartments without central heat, or no heat at al, drove around in rattletrap cars and wore my clothes until they fell into tatters, I sometimes railed to myself against his attitude of not supporting me. Later I was grateful that he hadn’t. I had made my own way. And by my rules. I succeeded in supporting my family, writing music that pleased my inner ear.
By the standards of the world, on the other hand, I was a failure. I wasn’t seen on TV. I didn’t win prizes. As a creator of instrumental background music for radio, TV and later the internet, I was utterly anonymous.
I liked it that way.
I hadn’t always been anonymous. Up until the late-70s my performing career looked promising. In 1978 I played guitar for Livingston Taylor, opening for Linda Rondstadt and Fleetwood Mac, at the very top of the rock and roll game. But I suffered crippling stagefright. At the end of those tours, having proved I could do it, I quit performing for good.
I’ve never really understood what drove me from the stage, but I know it has to do with my father. I was either afraid to really run in the big time race, afraid that I’d lose. Or I was afraid I might win. I was starting to know the toll my father’s celebrity was taking on him and our family.
As Christian a nation as America is, I sometimes think the more persuasive faith is the one millions of Americans follow as they worship their idols from the pew of their living room couch: the Cult of Celebrity. Their hope is in ascending to that heaven in Hollywood, to become Gods and Goddesses themselves. Or at least to get on TV. And then they’ll be happy.
It’s a cruel religion. It says that the world is divided into Somebodys and Nobodies. Winners and losers. And the vast majority of the faithful are bound to lose.
I’ve tried my best to stay away from that church. Except I was born into the faith.
I was at a party a few years ago and met a fellow who asked what I did. I explained how I made a living writing background music, and he said, “Oh, thanks. I always wondered what happened to losers in the music business.” He was rude, but succeeded in illuminating my ever present fear: You’re not your father! I felt myself shrink, this little thing gleaming briefly in the great glow of the big thing. An afterthought.
In all the years that I hid away in my recording studio, my father’s riddle lay buried in me, intact. I didn’t know it, but some part of me was still playing the game by his rules. As I reached forty and approached the age when my father became famous, I started finally thinking about that thing I’d never thought about. The effect of my father’s fame on me. I became convinced that I must catch up with him. I uprooted my family and moved close to New York to make a last desperate attempt to catch up with him.
It looked promising. I made an album that I was proud of. But then things went wrong, and it was never released. Actually, now I know that things were bound to go wrong. I never had the most essential key to success that my father did—the killer instinct. I’ve been a literal pacifist since the mid-sixties. I can never fight wholeheartedly, because as that kid who could never beat his dad, I always feel for the underdog. So when I’m in the ring, I pull my punches.
In my father’s last weeks, when I knew he was about to die, I considered broached the topic we’d never discussed: the effect of his fame on me. I couldn’t do it. He was suffering too much.
Then within days of his dying I gave up composing to write. Though he’d never said it in so many words, he’d made it clear to me that in that game, I not only couldn’t beat him, but shouldn’t even think of playing.
Yet here I was at age 53, not only writing, but determined to make a career of it. Was this some desperate act of self-destruction? For what was the worst version of the unfavorable comparison I always feared with my father? You can’t write like him. And here I was, inviting it.
Except. Except I know daily the joy of doing it. It’s the same I felt writing music. It’s the same he felt, doing the thing he most loved in this life. Do your own thing. Follow your bliss.
My first seven years writing, I wrote about my father, our troubled relationship, the tumultuous late 60s when, to his chagrin, I followed a path apparently so different than his.
So different, yet so much the same. I’ve come full circle. In trying to solve that impossible riddle I found the path of faithfully following my muse. And it finally led me to become a writer, like my father.
You can read more about John Manchester, and his upcoming memoir, Chasing the Giant, at JohnManchester.com.
—Photo is courtesy of the author