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The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years


Look, I know, I could tell you this straight off, and it would entertain you, too, like the campfire yarn that goes, And then, and then, and then --- right through to the finish, where the hero gets the girl or dies. But if I did it this way, you’d forget it, or at least you’d forget the things I want you to remember. So in order for this to have a chance of sticking with you the way it has with me all these years, I have to go against the way I learned my trade, which was to buttonhole you quick, so to say, and then hold on to you until I was done. In the newspaper business this wasn’t very long, even when I was starting out, which was damn near sixty years ago. And it’s gotten a hell of a lot shorter nowadays, what with the carpet-bombing of twenty-four/seven news. A print reporter now is lucky to get even the top of the reader’s eyeball for two whole minutes. In that respect, I’m glad I’m out of it, though I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t miss the hurly-burly of the newsroom, the clackety-clack of the big old black machines, the cigarette smoke and swearing, the pints of sauce the older guys kept stashed in the bottom drawer of their desks. These are probably clichés to you, but before they became that they were the way we lived, and underneath that tough-guy, front-page pose we privately thought being a reporter was pretty hot stuff. I know I did. Even when we were telling each other this was one hell of a way to make a buck --- busting your ass to write a story that would be used that evening to wipe up the puppy’s poop or wrap the garbage in --- still it was exciting to try to intervene in people’s lives, arrest them, even if it was just for a few minutes, with your story, your version of events. When you come right down to it, that’s what was truly exciting about journalism. It isn’t enough for me now, though. I want more of you than that.

You know how every once in a while you’ll be walking along the street, minding your own business, and suddenly you’ll get a look from a complete stranger, and you’ll take meaning from it, even if you can’t put your finger on just what this is? You walk on, but you can’t get that look out of your head. You keep seeing those strange eyes boring into you, and you keep wondering, Why me? And, What the hell was he trying to tell me? Well, what I want to do here is more like that than the news story I used to write or the campfire yarn.

But right off the bat I have to get something straight between us, which is this: some of this stuff didn’t happen exactly the way I’m going to tell you here. That’s not to say that I’m making it up; I’m no blogger. I have my sources, and they’re an important part of the story. Sometimes I think they’re almost as important as the story itself, as you’ll see in a minute. They took me as close as anybody’s going to get to the truth of this thing. They witnessed some of the events they talk about and took part in many of them, but they didn’t see the whole of it or even know the whole of it. Nobody knows the whole of it. I wish to God there had been some all-seeing eyewitness and that I could have gotten hold of him or her. But there isn’t, and anyway eyewitnesses, who are so highly prized in precinct stations and newsrooms and lawyers’ offices, are actually often a good deal less reliable than you might think.

I was tipped to this years back, when I was just a squirt trying to catch on steady with the Daily News and hanging out at precinct stations on the South Side after the war. There was an old lieutenant at the South Halsted station called Rawhide O’Meara who took kind of a shine to me, maybe only because I was so goddamned green it was funny to him. When I met him old Rawhide could smell the barn, and he was ready for it: his feet hurt, his back hurt, and he was tired of the beat’s relentless bullshit. He couldn’t be bothered learning anyone’s name anymore, so I was Mac, same as everybody else he hadn’t known for at least ten years.

One afternoon I was asking him about a filling station knock-over where there’d been a bystander who positively identified two brothers named Brady as the perps. “See here, Mac,” he said, “that don’t make this any automatic. Not yet, anyways. Sure, we rely on these eyewitnesses when we can get ’em, and we try to use ’em to make the case, don’t ya see. And sometimes they do, if we use ’em right. But there’s a lot more to most cases than meets the eye.” He liked that and haw-hawed, elbowing me hard in the ribs. “There’s a lot more holes in these eyewitness deals than you’d think, and a defense lawyer who knows his stuff’ll find ’em.”

Well, as you see that comment stuck with me, though if I’m going to be completely candid with you here, I should add that I thought old Rawhide had plenty of holes in him, too. He never shut up and claimed to know everything there was to know about police work. Still, as I say, his comment stayed with me, and it came back to me later when I went to a lecture at John Marshall. I don’t make a habit of going to law school lectures at night, but I wanted to hear Phil Keneally and see him in action.

Keneally was notorious. He was an absolutely brilliant criminal defense attorney who not only worked for the Mob but eventually married into it. That night his subject was supposed to be evidence and its uses and misuses. But it turned out to be almost exclusively about eyewitnesses, and he used a case tried by Lincoln in his downstate days. Lincoln appeared for the defense, and if I remember correctly, an eyewitness claimed to have seen his client stab a man to death one night in a field. Well, in his questioning, Keneally said, Lincoln led the witness through the woods, so to say, right up to the edge of the field, where he had him peeping through the trees and witnessing the murder. At which point Lincoln broke off to ask the guy if the moon was pretty bright that night, and the guy says, “Bright enough to see what I saw.” So then Lincoln springs his trap and produces a Farmer’s Almanac, or some such, to show that there wasn’t any moon at all that night --- black as the inside of a cow’s ass --- which sure as hell cast the shadow of doubt on that eyewitness’s testimony. When I heard that I thought back on old Rawhide, whose funeral I went to not long ago. I’ll come back to Phil Keneally, because as you’ll see he’s a big part of this story, but for now I simply want to say that history depends a lot on eyewitness accounts when it can get them. The full truth of most human stories, though, is a lot harder to get at than just having those firsthand reports and involves other considerations.

My eyewitnesses are like everybody else’s. They tell what they saw and what they think they saw. They tell what they heard. They tell what they remember. They almost never tell you what they forgot or later realized they’d completely misunderstood. So to this extent history --- written history, that is --- looks to me kind of like a high-stakes gamble, something more or less carefully assembled, depending on the skill and conscience of the historian, and then kind of shoved out there like you’d push a bet through the hundred-dollar window at the track. So here’s my point: I’m betting that what I’ve put together here is a plausible and even probable reconstruction of a very murky story. But I want you to keep in mind that it is a reconstruction, an attempt to reconstruct events and people from the past, bring them back to life in the present. That’s what I’ve aimed for. Nothing more, nothing less.

A guy like me, trying for that plausible reconstruction, begins the same as the guys who win the prizes. The pros, the Pulitzer types who write the big-time official histories, will ride their firsthand sources as far as they can, then switch to secondhand, and finally go to other written sources, both published and un-. They don’t deal much, if at all, in barebacked speculation, in hunches, in it-must-have-beens, though I think there was a writer a few years back who did just that sort of thing in a bio of Dutch Reagan. He got reamed good for it, too, if I’m remembering the incident correctly. I’m no different from the pros here. I’ll ride my firsthand sources as far as they’ll take me. Then I’ll go to my secondhand ones, and finally to the books, and so forth. But then, here’s where the difference comes in. A guy trained like I was, he’ll probably handle all his sources a little more freelance, so to say. He’ll be a little looser with them. He’ll be kind of juggling them in his hands, feeling for their weight and heft and shape, like schoolkids of my generation used to work with their marbles out in the yard.

I don’t really have the words for what I’m trying to describe for you, as you see. But I’m wondering if an old term my auntie used might possibly come close. Auntie Helen used to say that if you were trying to get inside a fact or around behind one to see it from that angle, you might have to look asquint at it. That meant you kind of looked past it almost, instead of square-on. You saw it, all right. You didn’t ignore it. But you were looking for other things as well. How hard was the fact, really, and did some other party have an interest in making it seem like solid cast iron when it might turn out to be terracotta? Were there other facts surrounding it that cast a different light on it? What did the person look like when he was telling you his fact? This way of looking, it seems to me, inevitably leads you up to and probably across the borders of the Land of Hunch, which is where I might possibly have an advantage over the pros, because for some years I made a kind of living at what’s nowadays called “investigative reporting,” though we didn’t have that term back then. The investigative reporter has to learn the terrain of the Land of Hunch, has to learn it by trial and error, by developing instincts, because there aren’t any maps: an awful lot of it is simply feel, learning when and how to go beyond your sources and then hoping you’re going to end up at the right spot, somewhere your sources alone couldn’t have gotten you.

That’s what I did here. I followed my sources until they gave out, as you’ll see they did. And then I went on, trusting my training. I’m pretty sure that most of the time I tell you when I’m operating on a hunch, a feeling; or, if I don’t come right out and say that, you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself from what I say --- and what I don’t. Anyway, I try to keep things as straight as I can, though you must have already guessed I don’t think there are that many things in this world you can take straight --- unless it’s a belt of Maker’s Mark at the end of the day. When you have that, you know it’s true because it hurts.

But don’t get me wrong here: if this was all hunch or even mostly that, I’d be like those bloggers we have with us now, who get to claim absolutely anything they want, the wilder, the better. I’ll bet you didn’t know that LBJ had Jack Ruby poisoned in prison. Well, now you do, because you just heard me say it. And so forth.

So I have my sources, as I said. First and foremost are the diaries. Without them there wouldn’t be any other sources for me, for the simple reason that if I hadn’t seen them, I would never have known there was a story here, lying in wait behind the headlines of half a century ago, and no idea where it might lead me. Put another way, you can’t play hunches if you have nothing to play with. No marbles, no game. There are --- or were, anyway --- at least twenty-nine of them. There might have been more, many more maybe. But I only had my hands on twenty-two, and I only got a really good look at sixteen. You could call them “volumes” if you wanted, but that in itself would be misleading, and there are sure as hell enough false leads and red herrings to this story without adding another. The diaries aren’t the same size, and they aren’t the same length, either, a couple of them being just a few pages long while others are filled to the margins and have tiny scrawlings all around the edges. And there was one completely different, but I’ll get to that.

Not one of them has a date on the cover or inside on the flyleaf. Some of those I looked through but didn’t get enough time with didn’t seem to have any dates at all, while others had dates scattered here and there. The earliest one I saw has entries from 1948, which would make Judy Immoor, as she was then known, fourteen. It’s a girly-girly book, physically: fat, padded leather covers, fat leaves, big spaces between the ruled lines. But she filled up those pages, all right. It was like right from the start she seemed to know that she had a story to tell and that there would never be anyone who would tell it except herself. And so here again you see what I mean about history, what it’s made up of and what’s left out. Of the uncountable billions of humans who’ve walked this planet, only a tiny fraction of them ever tried to tell their own stories, and an even tinier fraction of their diaries or journals or actual autobiographies survived war, famine, fire, rain, roof rot, rats, starving dogs, and simple neglect. So in that sense, too, history is a gamble based on fragmentary evidence, like a racing form where you don’t get a look at the records of all the entries.

Maybe it’s just as well. I mean, just imagine for a moment what history would sound like if each one of us had tried to tell our stories as seriously as she did. My God! What a Tower of Babel that would be, those millions and millions of voices crying out, “Look at me! Look at me! Don’t believe anybody else! This is the truth about how I lived!” But she kept at it, off and on, with a kind of deep doggedness, from that first fat book all the way to what looked to me like the last. By that point she was very sick and was going as Judith Exner.

She was never what you’d call an accomplished writer, a pro, and I doubt she ever even thought about that, though she did think of herself as a practicing artist and seems to have really worked at painting for several years. But she was accomplished in other areas. She could bowl a good game, play gin, give the guys a run for their money on the golf course and hit off their tees. In the sack, she played in the biggest league on earth, and from what I could tell she held her own there, too.

But I don’t have a full-length view of her talents, her strengths. I’m not even sure I have a full-length view of her character, though I know what I think of her, all right. Partly this is because I never got to spend time with all the surviving diaries. Partly it’s because she wasn’t much for blowing her own horn. And partly it’s because I only met one person who really knew her in any depth, and he was never about to open up to me about her. I doubt he has ever done that with anyone, and I doubt he ever will.

But the other thing here is this: she played her cards pretty close to her chest, if I could put it that way. Nothing unusual here, for sure. You meet many people in life who’re like that, never letting you know much about what they’re thinking, much less what they’re really feeling. But you’d think if someone was going to take the trouble to keep a diary and keep on keeping it, year after year, she’d let it rip in those pages, wouldn’t you? I mean, what else could be the point --- why withhold information from yourself? Sometimes, though, I get the funny feeling that this is just what she was doing, that she wasn’t being completely confidential with herself. There’s a kind of evasiveness there, especially where you’d expect her to be completely candid. That’s not to say she never lets it rip; she does. But not with any consistency and not always just where you’d most want her to.

But then I think of her life, particularly once she gets into the deep waters, and I find myself wondering who she thought she could really trust. Maybe she came to feel that there was nothing of hers that was permanently hers, that it could all be taken away by somebody, every bit of it, even her thoughts, and so she held on to some of them.

This accounts, I think, for that feeling of opaqueness I got so often in reading the entries. It wasn’t simply that she wasn’t a very good writer --- how many of us are? But there I was, reading along and trying to find out what really happened in Hawaii with Sinatra, in Chicago with Sam Giancana at the Ambassador East, up on the second floor of the White House with Jack Kennedy --- and it really isn’t there. Oh, it’s there, all right, but there’s no substance to it, if you follow me. To put it in the terms of my old trade, if you were a feature writer and turned in copy like this, you’d get it back in your face if your editor was on the ball. “For Christ’s sake!” he’d say. “I could get crap like this off the goddamn wire service! Give me some meat on these bones.” You might have gotten the who and the what and the where, all right, but you hadn’t gotten the reader into the human reality of the situation, whatever that was.

She rarely does this, and so a lot of the time I have to try to do it for her. I quote her own words when I can, when they seem to do a justice to the situation, but much more often I have to try to make the things she lived through come alive because she either didn’t want to or couldn’t, or maybe she thought she would come back at some later point and flesh these things out but never got around to it. So I have to try to put some meat on the bones of her life. When I began working with her diaries, I didn’t see a problem with this: “Hey, the chick was no Shakespeare, so I’ll have to tone her up a bit” --- that sort of thing. But later on, as I got further into it, it came to feel a bit more complicated. I was, after all, trying to give a dead person a fuller voice, a more realistic one, and who was I to try to do that? Was I in fact burying the very story I had set out to bring to life? Was I posthumously violating her privacy, which had been violated so dreadfully in her lifetime?

I can’t give you a figure for the total elapsed time I had with the diaries --- not a figure, anyway, that would do you any good. The first time I saw any of them they were the property of Judy’s adopted son, Ed. She had a blood son as well that she gave up for adoption, but I doubt that kid ever knew about the diaries. As for Ed, he kept them in a Kellogg’s carton in this rec room he had in the basement of his house in Evanston, with its top ripped away, just piled in there in no particular order, 1955 resting on 1950 or whatever. They must have come to him after Judy died, and I’m convinced he only looked into them enough to know what they were. That randomly piled box told me that in headlines. But he probably did understand that he had enough dynamite in there to blow a hell of a hole in the liberal political establishment of America and make obsolete a lot of the books written about JFK.

The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years
by by Frederick Turner

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151015090
  • ISBN-13: 9780151015092