About Burton Hersh

Photo by Virginia Schendler

Photo by Virginia Schendler

Since graduating from Harvard College with high honors, Burton Hersh has adroitly sidestepped regular employment and persevered throughout a long and frequently tumultuous career as an independent writer. Following a six-year stint as a Fulbright Scholar and military translator in Germany, he returned to New York in the sixties to more than a decade as a successful magazine article writer. These easy-going editorial years — in a better literary America — were punctuated by the 1968 publication of Hersh’s first novel, The Ski People (McGraw Hill).

Hersh’s persistent interest in contemporary American history led to the 1973 appearance of The Education of Edward Kennedy (Morrow), which quickly established itself as the standard work on the embattled liberal senator. The Shadow President (Steerforth Press) appeared in 1997, a universally acclaimed follow-up volume about Kennedy’s later career. Also offered by Morrow, The Mellon Family, came out in 1978, was a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and, like The Education, wound up among the top fifty books in sales in the year it came out.

Cranked up to produce door-stopping best sellers, most of Hersh’s nineteen eighties went into the exhaustive interview and research requirements which were to generate The Old Boys (Scribner, 1992). Bitterly resented by many, CIA retirees especially, The Old Boys stirred up tremendous controversy as well as a privately orchestrated effort to discredit its principle conclusion — that the non-military intelligence community in America evolved directly out of the informal syndicate patched together by a self-interested assortment of Wall Street bankers and lawyers dominated by William Donovan and the Dulles brothers. These associations dated back to the First World War, became institutionalized in the World-War-ll Office of Strategic Services, and reached the culmination of power during the nineteen fifties, under Allen Dulles’ directorship of the unbridled CIA. Sloppy tradecraft and a deluded pattern of analysis would bring the Agency — and Dulles — down in 1961.

The Old Boys amounts to the group biography of a generation of privileged Americans who came into their own between the world wars and took it as their mission to resist — ultimately to ‘roll back’ — the encroachments of global communism. While invariably justifying every tactic they chose on grounds of national priorities, again and again — in France and Italy, in Iran and Guatemala and Cuba — the leaders of American intelligence remained dogged about protecting the interests of their long-time Wall-Street clients. Accordingly, any attempt to track the intelligence process during the early Cold War amounted to an exercise in following the money. A rendition of the special-interest origins of US policy at the time reveals the unadvertised history of the twentieth century.

Little by little, as the nineties deepened, intelligence historians inside the CIA itself — while continuing to bemoan Hersh’s characterizations of the founding fathers as painfully funny but biting to the verge of merciless — admitted in in-house publications that the details as well as the conclusions which surfaced in The Old Boys were in the end beyond challenge. The Old Boys topped the list of general treatments of its internal history recommended by the Agency in 1997 in press releases to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the organization.

Hersh’s 2002 thriller The Nature of the Beast (Tree Farm Books) picks up his unrelenting examination of the ethos of the CIA. The focus now shifts from the historical to the psychological. Thematically, much of the weight of the book is carried by a series of exchanges between a recently retired senior Agency officer, Owen Rheinsdorf, and his long-standing mentor, Munson Dyckler. Dyckler is a cagey, well-connected member of the generation that came out of the wartime chaos of OSS and devoted itself to tightening the early ClA’s grip inside the cold-war apparatus. No longer on active duty, Dyckler and a few associates have taken to reaching into and cleaning up situations which fall outside the ClA’s normal mandate. A key operative, the sexually disturbed assassin Pruitt Rumsey, gets harder for Dyckler and his friends to manage week by week, so Dyckler brings in Rheinsdorf to keep their unpredictable young agent from blowing the entire game.

Attempting to track Rumsey, Rheinsdorf can’t avoid confronting the incriminating and frequently brutal details of his own decades as an operations specialist. Strategic flashbacks to key incidents throughout Rheinsdorf’s career gradually build novelistic intensity alongside the thriller requirements of the hard-driving plot. Successive venues — Lisbon, the U.S. occupation infrastructure along the Rhine, the gravestones of Moscow, the byplay among the corridors of Washington, the mangrove everglades of Florida — emerge vividly from the author’s personal experience. He understands these worlds; many years of direct involvement with the intelligence community — most recently as a long-standing board member of the New England chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers — have tuned his instincts to the notoriously ambivalent covert mindset.

So ambivalence remains a theme, and never as sharply and alarmingly defined as when it tracks the predatory sociopath who functions as the villain here, Pruitt Rumsey. Rumsey’s psychological flatness, his professional efficiency, his murderous predilection for the sexual favors of young children — even as a fictional presence Rumsey has consistently horrified readers throughout the literary community from film script editors to savvy literary agents. Unbelievable, the judgment returned. Over the top.

But over the top is ultimately where literature lives, and the truth is, there is probably no character in contemporary letters as meticulously researched as Pruitt Rumsey. Over more than a year Hersh talked with prison experts, clinicians with wide experience in dealing with the sexually disturbed, specialists from the FBI and the military. He read the manuals, appropriate medical journals, and depositions from the afflicted. He spent more time than he would care to admit trading confidences with convicted child molesters. In time, beneath the steady pressure of imagination, Pruitt Rumsey’s background took shape and before too long Rumsey himself crawled out.

Life itself, thinkers insist, is invariably stranger than fiction. Let’s hope The Nature of the Beast disproves that. Still, throughout the work reality and imagination intertwine: a lot of what must seem most unbelievable — the Danny Casolaro saga, the genetically selective bomb — came directly from the subcellar of the intelligence community’s vaults. Let the reader judge. To dream is to understand.

After years of compelling new research, in 2007 Burton Hersh produced the long-awaited breakthrough book that sheds historic light on the complex relationship between Robert F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover and the grand master of them both: Joe Kennedy. Told in intimate anecdotal detail, Bobby and J. Edgar is set against the ongoing context of Joe Kennedy’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of key players in Congress, organized crime, the Catholic Church, and his own overburdened family. The work then moves on to trace RFK and J. Edgar’s early years in politics through their parallel ascent to power and controversial deaths.

After a long career tracking the tumultuous career of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Hersh had emerged with deep scholarly understanding along with abiding personal contacts with many of the surviving figures in the Kennedy power structure. The Old Boys put Hersh in touch with key personalities all around the intelligence community. Old FBI hands especially like to joke about the sparks that flew when Bobby and J. Edgar collided.

As he began to work his way through thousands of heretofore classified Bureau files as well as masses of previously unreleased letters and documents in the Kennedy Library, the author began to realize there was an unsuspected level – without question, the key level – at which Joseph Kennedy operated for most of his life. All but the most deluded historians have long since admitted that the ascending financier may indeed have dabbled in a lot more than bootlegging; recently released FBI records and newly available sources now make it more than plain that Joe depended on gangland contacts throughout his tumultuous career. Out of these intense covert associations came private initiatives for which the country is still paying, from McCarthyism to the Bay of Pigs to the Vietnamese war. They would also contribute, directly and indirectly, to the assassinations of two of his sons.

Once Bob became attorney general, certain of the compounding contradictions began to play out into public policy. Before long the wily FBI director had both the Kennedy brothers under control, Bobby because of his implication in the death of Marilyn Monroe and JFK as a consequence of his affairs with syndicate moll Judith Campbell Exner and East German courtesan Ellen Rometsch.

Out of this tangle came an aborted invasion of Cuba, a misbegotten war in Vietnam, and the assassination of both JFK and RFK. In Bobby and J. Edgar, drawing on scholarly sources and mob sources and a wealth of unique, specialized interviews, Burton Hersh has surfaced the officially suppressed but operative facts behind the Kennedy assassination and the extent of the appalling government coverup. It provides a genuine glimpse at the true history of our time.

In this groundbreaking biography, Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, historian and journalist Burton Hersh combines a lifetime of research and reporting with a lively mixture of never-before-told anecdotes to create a broad yet unfailingly intimate portrait of the politician who would be universally acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s greatest American legislators.

Hersh had been acquainted with Kennedy since his college days, and the result here is a unique series of revelations that serve to reinterpret the senator’s public and private personas. Conditioned by deep-seated fears that he was an afterthought within his own powerful family, Kennedy developed a genius for conciliation and strategizing that made him a dramatically more effective Congressional operator than either of his older brothers.

Here finally is the definitive version of the incident at Chappaquiddick, the details of which Kennedy himself filled in for Hersh shortly after it occurred.   The woman he telephoned that fateful night recently elucidated that vital exchange for the author. This book also delivers the first full report of the life-threatening vendetta between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, exposing the behind-the-scenes manipulations to which Kennedy resorted to drive Nixon from office during the Watergate scandal. Kennedy’s role is highlighted in ending the fighting in Viet Nam and averting a faceoff with the Soviets and an invasion of Nicaragua. The book details his battles with alcohol and drugs and aimless womanizing along with the series of plane crashes and family crises and personal scandals that tested the dedicated senator virtually until the day he died.

The Hedge Fund (2014) tracks in novelistic terms the upshots of several generations of cross-cultural intermarriage. The first is between a Middle-Western Jewish savant named Lawrence Sylvan Landau and a beautiful, horsy WASP esthete from Greater Philadelphia, Louisa – Weezee — Winant. A shrewd and hard-bellied economist, Sylvan rescues Weezee’s end of the family fortune and moves with his wife and children to St. Petersburg, Florida when Weezee develops a health problem that dictates a milder climate.

They raise two daughters and a son, Michael, a lawyer who functions as the narrator of this story. In time the elder of the daughters, a punchy female jock, marries a brutal but increasingly shrewd first-generation-Cuban ex-SEAL, Enrique – Ricky – Cruz. Ricky’s father, Ramon, is a wily survivor from the first generation of Cubans to flee Castro for Miami. A businessman with ominous connections – from the Bush family to the apparachniks on the Cuba mainland to the established Florida underworld –, Ramon inveigles Sylvan into transferring a substantial percentage of the real estate that constitutes the basis of the Landau fortune into a hedge fund which promises stupefying profits once Castro loosens his grip.

Published Books
Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint Press, 2010)
Bobby and J. Edgar — (Basic Books, 2007)
The Nature of the Beast (Tree Farm Books, 2002)
The Shadow President: Ted Kennedy in Opposition (Steerforth Press, 1997)
The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA (Scribners, 1992) (Tree Farm Books, 2001)
The Mellon Family: A Fortune in History (Morrow, 1978) Book Of The Month Club, Fortune Book Club
The Education of Edward Kennedy (Morrow, 1972) Book Find Club; paperback Dell, 1980
The Ski People (McGraw-Hill, 1968)

Awards/Literary Conference Involvement
Writers’ Voice Grant — Lila Wallace/Lanham Foundation (2000)
Faculty of the Sea — M.S. Westerdam (1998)
Who’s Who in the World (1998), I.B.C., etc.
Writers At Work — Park City, Utah (1995)
Consultant — Sundance Playwriters’ Workshop (1995)
Story on Martha Foley Distinguished Short Story List (1964)
Fellow — Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference (1964)

As Undergraduate at Harvard
Phi Beta Kappa
History and Literature Prize
First Bowdoin Prize
Fulbright Grant — Germany

Periodical Work
Many contributions to, among others: Show, Horizon, Holiday, Venture, Ski, Town and Country, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, The Transatlantic Review, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The New York Times, Punch, The Washington Post and The Washingtonian.

Committee on Foreign Relations
Board of Directors — New Hampshire ACLU
The Academy of Senior Professionals – Eckerd College (1993)
Board of Directors — WORDBRIDGE
Board of Directors — New England Chapter, The Association of Former Intelligence Officers (1993)
InternationaI Society for Comparative Literature and Theater
American Society of Journalists and Authors
Writers’ Guild

Publicity and Media Work
Three National Book Tours — Commentator on Lehrer Report, History Channel, A&E, hundreds of other radio and television appearances

Comments are closed.