Tree Farm Books

About the author and his books
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.

Published Books
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.

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