Leo Damore was in a state of high dudgeon. At this moment, his fury knew no bounds.
Damore's blood had been stirred by reading an excerpt from Joe McGinniss' latest book, The Last Brother, in the September issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
Damore did not bother to pull punches, as authors do when they talk about each other's work.
He accused McGinniss of "lifting" everything in the excerpt from an earlier book on Ted Kennedy by Damore. The other, nastier word often used in this connection is "plagiarism."
"It's ironic," Damore said, "that McGinniss, this shabby, drunken Irishman, thinks he is entitled to make off with my work. He is like a failed priest. You know, of course, that he went to Holy Cross. I don't know if he is morally capable of having an epiphany, but how can this lowlife, Irish son of a bitch sleep at night?
"And these are supposed to be smart guys at both Vanity Fair and Simon and Schuster, the house which published the book. How did he ever manage to con them?"
Damore then harrumphed forcefully over the telephone from his home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. I am familiar with his speaking style. Damore has apparently not changed since we were undergraduates together at an Ohio college which shall remain unnamed, because we are both ashamed of it.
"I look at the Vanity Fair piece, and I see 40 pages of wholesale theft," Damore said.
"I've always wanted to own a magazine. My lawyers will be calling them up the first thing Monday morning.
"What should I have expected?" Damore adds. "After all, this is the same guy who lost a libel trial to a serial killer."
Damore was referring to McGinniss' unfortunate experience with Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald after the writing of a true-crime book called Fatal Vision, which became a best seller.
Dr. MacDonald, who was convicted of his crimes, actually sued McGinniss for betraying his confidences in the book, and was actually awarded more than $300,000 by a jury.
So McGinniss and Vanity Fair must have anticipated Damore's rage. They displayed some caution in publishing the work that Damore considers his own.
In an unusual preface to the Vanity Fair piece, McGinniss wrote that the facts and quotations of his Chappaquiddick story "have been drawn from published sources that I believe to be reliable. For example, for the excerpt below, Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up, by Leo Damore, was especially helpful."
"Especially helpful,'" Damore shouts into the telephone. "This son of a bitch came to my house on September 29, 1989.
"My book was still on the New York Times best-seller list. I fed him pasta. I served him red wine. I told him I would help him all I could, and wished him luck.
"Then he turns around and steals my book. How could he do that?
"I have now read McGinniss' The Last Brother in its entirety. It just drones on until it reaches Chappaquiddick. Only then does it take off. You know why? Because it's me.
"Suddenly, there is narrative thrust, characterization, movement. I had the whole enchilada going for me, and this asshole Irishman had the nerve to do this to me. He stole everything I had."
Damore said he didn't realize the extent of the "borrowing" McGinniss had done until he read a 165-page excerpt which was sent to booksellers.
With this release, it became apparent that McGinniss had borrowed heavily from the authors of three previous books about the Kennedys: William Manchester (The Death of a President), Doris Kearns Goodwin (The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys) and Damore.
Manchester found out about the pilferage first, and called Damore. The two met for lunch.
Manchester, who was coerced by the Kennedy family into donating his share of the proceeds from his book to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, was outraged to learn that McGinniss' advance on The Last Brother was $1 million. Manchester recalled that he had donated more than $1 million to the library and had never even received a thank-you note.
Damore recalls Manchester, now 71, downing six martinis and muttering over and over again: "We'll get this fucker."
Damore is equally upset, because of the nightmarish experience he underwent in even getting his own manuscript published.
Damore's experience is a publishing-world classic of its own. It demonstrates not only his writing and researching ability, but also his courage in the face of seemingly impossible odds: in this case, the power of the Kennedy family and its powerful friends to crush anyone who stands against them.
Damore was an iconoclastic, fiercely independent young reporter for the Cape Cod News on July 18, 1969, when a drunken Senator Ted Kennedy ran off the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, drowning his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.
The death of the 28-year-old woman and the subsequent cover-up was the biggest story of Damore's journalistic career. He pounced on it.
The fact that Senator Kennedy acted in a calculating and cowardly manner that night, leaving the young woman to drown and then attempting to alibi his way out of responsibility, became a part of the dark side of American political history.
It is one of the shadowy pockets of the Kennedy legend that Damore labored for years to uncover. It was June 1988--19 years later--when his best-selling book Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquiddick Cover-Up was finally published.
Damore researched the story relentlessly. He interviewed everyone connected to the Chappaquiddick incident over and over again.
It wasn't until 1983 that Damore hit pay dirt in his investigation. It was then that he had a series of seven key meetings with Joe Gargan, Ted Kennedy's cousin and general factotum.
Gargan, who had been raised by the Kennedy family, was co-host of the party held the night of the incident in a rented cottage on the island. The guest list included six unmarried, female campaign workers for the late Senator Robert Kennedy. They were matched up with six married men, including the senator.
It was Gargan who finally revealed to Damore how Ted Kennedy had brought him to the scene of the sunken car minutes after the incident. While Kennedy lay on his back on the dock moaning in self-pity, Gargan dove repeatedly into the dark waters, attempting to free Miss Kopechne from the car.
But Gargan did not succeed in getting the doors open.
It was at this point that Kennedy suggested to Gargan that Gargan return to the party, still in progress, and come back to the scene to "discover" the body later.
Kennedy's plan was for Gargan to tell everyone that Kopechne was driving the car herself when it went out of control and plunged into the water.
Ted Kennedy might have been indicted for manslaughter. That he wasn't is mute testimony to the power of his family name in Massachusetts, as well as recognition of the family's highly connected lawyers and public relations fixers.
At that point, Damore had a $250,000 contract for the book with Random House. This was December 1983, and the advance had been paid in increments of $50,000. Damore had already collected $150,000.
Damore handed in the first 256 pages of his book, and went to New York for a meeting with the Random House president, Robert L. Bernstein, and Bernstein's acquisitions editor, Jason Epstein.
"Jason was ecstatic," Damore recalls.
"Leo,' he told me, 'with this book, we're going to outsell the Old Testament.'"
It was at this point, according to Damore, that Steve Smith, one of the Kennedy brothers-in-law, got hold of Damore's manuscript.
"Steve Smith is the Cardinal Richelieu of the Kennedy clan. Incredibly, Smith convinced Random House to kill the book."
When Random House rejected the book, Damore found it impossible to find any other publisher in New York willing to take it on.
"The knives were out against me in New York," he said.
"At that time, November 1984, Spy magazine did a cover story about what happened to me. They ran a full-page chart showing how various Kennedy allies were closely involved with every publishing house that turned down the book exposing Teddy's role in Chappaquiddick."
Random House sued, demanding the return of the $150,000 already advanced to Damore. The case went to trial, and on November 4, 1987, Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Burton Sherman ruled that Damore must pay the money back.
"I had to take a job, and spent a year editing the book down to its final form," says Damore.
Damore succeeded in selling the book to Regnery-Gateway in Washington, D.C., a firm that hadn't had a best seller in 50 years.
"I'll always remember the day the verdict came in and being ordered to pay the $150,000 back, because my manuscript was unpublishable.
"What's your reaction?' the media people asked.
"I'm surprised and I'm disappointed,' I said.
"But I'm here to tell you that this unpublishable book is being published in the bookstores in April 1988.'
"A reporter from Reuters then told me that after hearing all the testimony, he was anxious to buy it. The court stenographer came by and told me the same thing.
"This is great,' I thought. 'I've lost $150,000, but I had already presold two copies of my book.'"
When the book came out, Damore showed people how tough he really was.
"It was just me and the media and the book," Damore said. "I did 400 interviews promoting it. I went everywhere.
"Larry King gave me a whole hour. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for 17 weeks. When it went into paperback, it was No. 1 for eight weeks, and remained on the list for 14 weeks.
"How was it received? I got more than 6,000 letters from readers all over the country. How could McGinniss ever think he was going to match what I had done? You simply can't write the story of Chappaquiddick without Senatorial Privilege."
And Damore has not forgotten the body slams he took from the "friends" of the Kennedy family who permeate the powerful newspapers in the Northeast.
"The Boston Globe has always been in Kennedy's pocket," Damore said. "They did a vicious piece. They really did a number on me. They sent this reporter to see me. He was from Groton and Yale, and rotten to the core. He was a whore with a silver spoon in his mouth. His name was Alex Beam, and he says I'm paranoid.
"Out comes my book, and he writes me a private apology. He sends me a copy of this inadequate little novel that he wrote and dedicated to his mother. He signs it, 'To Leo, who is persistent.'
"I wrote back to him: 'You savaged me in print because you're a whore, and now you apologize in private. I hope you get terminal cancer.'
"Suddenly, I was hot and everyone was calling me.
"But the New York Times didn't review my book until four months after it had been published.
"When this McGinniss thing broke, a reporter from the Times named Robin Toner called and asked what I thought of McGinniss' methodology.
"I didn't want to bash the guy. I held him in respect as a fellow writer. I figure we're all fellow sufferers here on Earth. Besides, I'm not John Updike. I'm just a worker, like everyone else.
"Of course, I hadn't read the book at this time.
"Just about this time, McGinniss calls a good friend of mine, and he wants a copy of a book called A Bright Shining Moment that Manchester did.
"Apparently, there are examples in that book of Manchester borrowing portions from Hugh Sidey of Time magazine without giving him credit for it.
"Then McGinniss calls me about it.
"You'd really be a good friend,' he says, 'if you'd Fed Ex me a copy of Manchester's book.' So I do it for him.
"Not long after this, I find out what McGinniss has done to me, and I begin exploding all over the place.
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"McGinniss hears what I've said about him.
"He calls me up. 'Leo,' he says, 'what have you done to me?'
"More to the point,' I say, 'what have you done to me? You took six and one-half years of blood, sweat and tears, of 18-hour days. . . . How could you do that to me?'
"You know what he said? You know what McGinniss said to me at this point?
"Leo,' he says, 'you gave me permission.'
"Can you imagine? He just doesn't get it. I don't know where his morality is."
Damore halts briefly. Can he be out of breath?
"All I could say to him was, 'You'll get yours. I have this New York lawyer who is one of the best. We are going to take this to a jury that will certainly recognize all this as high theft.'