IT WAS AN INVESTIGATIVE reporter's dream come true: a trove of documents apparently marked up with John F. Kennedy's distinctive scrawl, showing that Marilyn Monroe had blackmailed the late president. According to a series of signed agreements between March 1960 and January 1962, the Kennedys paid the actress more than $1 million for her silence--not just about a long-rumored sexual affair between Kennedy and Monroe, but about JFK's purported relationship with mobster Sam Giancana and, in the document's phrase, other ""underworld figures.'' The papers even hint, says a source who has read them, that Kennedy asked J. Edgar Hoover to arrange Monroe's murder (the actress committed suicide in 1962). For months the documents, obtained by legendary reporter Seymour (Sy) Hersh, have been a subject of gossip in media circles. The papers helped Hersh snare a $2 million TV package. If true, they would not only further tarnish the Kennedy myth but, as Hersh has claimed, ""change some elements of the history of my time.''
If true. Last week ABC News, which had bought the rights to Hersh's upcoming Little, Brown book, ""The Dark Side of Camelot,'' admitted that the documents were fakes. ABC's ""20/20'' played the story as an expose; Peter Jennings confronted the man who had given Hersh the documents--Lawrence (Lex) Cusack Jr.--with an accusation of forgery. Visibly shaken, a trickle of sweat rolling down his face, Cusack denied the charge--and did so again to NEWSWEEK. But the documents were clearly forged by someone.
""Big deal,'' Hersh told NEWSWEEK. Plenty of good reporters chase promising leads that fail to pan out; Hersh says he has cut the phony story from his book and from a TV documentary scheduled to appear in November. Maybe so, but Hersh made an awful lot of money before he began entertaining serious doubts, and how he parlayed the documents into a multimillion-dollar media package reveals a great deal about the continuing fascination with the Kennedy legend and the unrelenting pressure for the big score in the worlds of both publishing and TV. The tale of Hersh's failed scoop has enough intrigue to fill a made-for-TV movie--and will be the source of big-name recriminations for years to come.
Sy Hersh, 60, is, aside from The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, the most famous name in investigative journalism. Beginning with his Pulitzer Prize-winning revelations about the massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops at My Lai in 1970, Hersh has broken a number of big stories about spying and international intrigue, including the full account of how the Soviets shot down KAL 007 in 1983. Like many investigative reporters, he has an interest in conspiracy theories, but he is extremely persistent--so much so that his sources sometimes complain he browbeats them. In August 1993 Hersh signed a million-dollar contract with Little, Brown to do a book on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The focus of the book shifted, however, when he found Lex Cusack, a New York paralegal who had a cache of truly explosive papers--and, as Hersh would later discover, a severe credibility problem.
The son of a lawyer who represented the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Cusack told Hersh that he had found a store of 300 documents in his father's files. According to Cusack Jr., his dad did some work for Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the clan. The elder Cusack's most interesting duty: cover up JFK's trysts with Marilyn Monroe, as well as family ties to the mob. In March 1960 the actress agreed to keep quiet about Kennedy's relationship with ""any political or underworld personalities.'' Over time, according to the papers, the deal was amended and enlarged. Frequently mentioned is Sam Giancana, the Chicago mob boss who was being used by the CIA in a failed attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro. On Jan. 7, 1962, for instance, Monroe and JFK purportedly signed an agreement requiring Monroe to surrender to a ""designated representative'' (supposedly Robert Kennedy) ""any and all notes and letters'' about any meetings she may have observed between Kennedy and Giancana. Other notes--apparently in Kennedy's handwriting--refer to ""Chicago friends'' and ""meeting with Sam G.'' And in one document, Hoover threatens to blackmail Kennedy after discovering that father Joe had deducted $600,000 of the Monroe payments from his income tax.
Historians have long speculated about ties between Kennedy and the mob. FBI wiretaps indicate that JFK, while president, was having an affair with Judith Campbell Exner, who was a Giancana girlfriend. From his bootlegging days in the 1920s, Joseph Kennedy was said to have kept connections to the Chicago mob, which supposedly helped Jack Kennedy steal both the West Virginia primary in April 1960 and, in the general election, the state of Illinois. But Cusack's documents would have been the first tangible proof that Kennedy and Giancana had actually met. By the same token, though Kennedy clearly flirted with Monroe, who seductively sang ""Happy Birthday, Mr. President'' to 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden in 1962 while wearing a sequined dress--and little else--no one has ever been able to say for sure whether the relationship was consummated. Probably the most responsible account, by Monroe biographer Donald Spoto, indicates that JFK and Marilyn met four times between October 1961 and August 1962; Monroe later told her closest confidant that she and the president had had one sexual encounter in that period. Despite years of rumors, Spoto says there is no evidence that Robert Kennedy and Marilyn ever had a tryst.
Hersh did not offer Cusack any money for the papers. But, as Hersh told NEWSWEEK, he realized that if he authenticated the documents and used them in his book, he would be adding to the price at which Cusack could then sell them to history buffs. Indeed, Cusack has already sold many of the documents for $4 million to private collectors.
Looking for confirmation and new leads, Hersh began showing the papers to former Kennedy aides and friends. In August 1995 he tracked down the one living witness to the documents, Janet DesRosiers Fontaine, a former secretary to (and mistress of) Joe Kennedy. DesRosiers told Hersh the signature was not hers, and that she had never met Monroe. Hersh left ""in a huff,'' DesRosiers told NEWSWEEK. DesRosiers was so upset that she later wrote letters to Hersh and to his publisher warning them that they were dealing with ""falsified'' documents. Hersh chose not to believe her and suggested to others that she was covering up for the Kennedys. He was not, however, totally credulous about Cusack's trove. ""He always described the documents as "too good to be true','' says Sarah Crichton, Hersh's publisher at Little, Brown and a former NEWSWEEK editor. ""He was excited about them, but it seemed so extraordinarily tidy that all these documents would be in one place in perfect order.'' The publishers and TV producers who signed Hersh to multimillion-dollar contracts may also be guilty of wishful thinking. In an age when there are so many new books and so little real news, there is a premium on who can generate the hottest ""buzz''--and sometimes the facts get in the way.
Whatever his reservations, Hersh used the documents to win an additional $250,000 advance from Little, Brown--and to persuade NBC to pay more than $2 million to produce a one-hour documentary. A year ago, however, NBC abruptly canceled the contract, citing ""creative differences'' with Hersh. Network sources told NEWSWEEK that NBC had doubts about the documents. No matter: after taking a $1 million ""kill fee'' from NBC, Hersh sold his story to ABC for about $2 million. But ABC News chairman Roone Arledge was wary. ""Roone said from the beginning, "I can't believe some of those papers','' said a source familiar with ABC's discussions. Hersh had hired some handwriting experts who thought that Kennedy's signature was for real. But ABC insisted on forensic examiners to authenticate documents. Last spring these experts determined that some of the papers had been written on a typewriter that didn't even exist in the early 1960s, among other problems.
By this time Hersh was beginning to have his own grave doubts. One of the documents had a postal ZIP code--even though the ZIP code would not be invented for another year. Hersh had been unable to trace the bank account allegedly set up for the trust fund to pay off Marilyn. And he began questioning Cusack's personal bona fides. It turned out that Cusack had unpaid debts in his past and had embellished his credentials, telling Hersh he was a naval officer (he wasn't) and claiming in his New York Times wedding announcement that he had graduated cum laude from Harvard and was attending New York University law school (ABC discovered he had never enrolled at either institution).
Finally, at the law firm where Cusack had once worked as a paralegal, Hersh turned up some paper that appeared to show practice forgeries of JFK's handwriting. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Cusack denied forging any documents or ever practicing any forgeries. Despite the loss of the Cusack documents, Hersh says his book is still full of juicy and important revelations. He has four former Secret Service agents talking about how they conducted JFK's paramours in and out of the White House. Judith Exner, who is very sick with cancer, will repeat her claims that she acted as a courier between JFK and Giancana. Students of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis will find new details about Kennedy's secret intrigues. At Little, Brown, Crichton says she has not lost faith and still plans to brings out the book in mid-November. At ABC top executives were slightly more circumspect, saying that the documentary will probably be aired, though no final decision has been made.
In mid-October, Vanity Fair plans to publish an article by Robert Sam Anson accusing Hersh of failing to heed numerous red flags in reporting the Marilyn story. ""I'm going to take a terrible hit,'' Hersh told NEWSWEEK. Claiming that Anson had been making abusive phone calls to him late at night, Hersh called the editor in chief of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, to complain. (""I sort of feel like the Sudetenland being accused of aggression,'' Anson told NEWSWEEK.) Meanwhile, ABC executives were squabbling over who was to blame for buying into the project in the first place. It is a measure of the Kennedy legend--and the lure of money still to be made from it--that so many top players in the media and publishing worlds were taken in, at least for a time.