Monday, March 17, 2014

A Very Sad Week: My Good Friend Joe McGinniss Died.

This past week was so sad. I learned that my good friend Joe McGinniss had passed away on Monday, March 10. It was not unexpected - he had been battling an aggressive form of prostate cancer and died from complications from it. Even though we knew it was inevitable, it was still very, very sad.

Joe was one of the last of the truly honest journalists. He wrote from the heart but he also wrote the truth. And those truths made him a target of many critics. His very first book was The Selling of the President 1968, published when he was 26 years old and it was an instant best seller. It was a revealing look into the behind-the-scenes tactics used in Richard Nixon’s campaign which won him the presidency. In full disclosure, I hadn’t read the book until I met Joe many years later. The Selling of the President foretold what was to become the future pattern of all later political campaigns. It is still an appropriate look at the PR packaging of candidates.

I met Joe and his wife Nancy in 1976 when I was working on my first Alaska book, Alaska: Wilderness Frontier. Along with two national park service planners Joe and I made a 13 day backpacking across the remote and beautiful Brooks Range in northern Alaska. The area
Joe in the upper Itkillik River Valley
would become Gates of the Arctic National Park a few years afterward. We also spent time in
Approaching Oolah Pass
the soon-to-become Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as well. Joe was just finishing a two-year
Joe In McCarthy, Wrangell Mountains
stint in Alaska working on his book, Going to Extremes, published in 1980. This book is one of the finest ever written about the culture and politics of Alaska. There are parts of it that are laugh-out-loud funny and parts that are serious and insightful about the raw beauty of places like the Brooks Range.

Joe’s most famous and most controversial book was Fatal Vision, about Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children. The book, published six years after MacDonald was found guilty by a jury, was a huge success and received critical acclaim for its handling of the very complex body of evidence. Fatal Vision became an NBC miniseries which also received acclaim.

I was privy to some of what went into the book. In the summer of 1977 I invited Joe and Nancy to join me at a ranch in Wyoming where I was running one of my week-long photography workshops. Joe brought with him one of MacDonald’s lawyers. Jeff MacDonald was also supposed to attend, as a participant in my workshop (he wanted to learn more about photography), but he had just been convicted by the jury and was in prison. Somewhere I still have the check MacDonald sent for the workshop fee.

There were some private conversations that week about the case. Originally Joe had been convinced that MacDonald was wrongly accused. At the ranch he was having doubts. A year or so later I was in New York and Joe and Nancy invited me to visit and stay at their home in Flemington, New Jersey. There were a couple of evenings over a bottle of Bombay gin with Joe discussing much of the evidence in the case. He was clearly agonizing over the fact that the man he originally thought was innocent was guilty as hell. There were photos and statements that Joe read to see if I agreed with his conclusions. It was so complex that I could not see how he could possibly make all this clear in his writing. But he did. And there was no doubt that MacDonald was guilty.

I suppose it was inevitable that some journalists, perhaps hoping to ride on the tide of the book’s success, came to the defense of MacDonald. Some claimed that Joe had conned the doctor, keeping him convinced that he (Joe) believed in his innocence in order to get more information from him. But Joe later wrote that he himself had been conned by this very charismatic man into believing him innocent. Fatal Vision still remains the best and most complete evidence that Jeffrey MacDonald was guilty of the murders. The book was published in early 1983.

Near the end of 1983 I received a phone call from Joe. Excitedly he described a new book he had just received an advance to do. Entitled Forbidden City, it would be about the life and times of Los Alamos during the years of the Manhattan Project. Joe knew that I had spent nine years as a nuclear physicist studying reactor safety for the Atomic Energy Commission at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. Would I help him as a consultant on the project? I told him I’d be delighted to do just that. And so in early 1984 we traveled to Los Alamos and later to Berkeley to interview many of the key figures in the Manhattan Project who were still living. I don’t know how many notebooks Joe filled, but it was a chance to see him in action as a thorough journalist. Even though he did not have a technical background, his preliminary research was so good that he knew the right questions to ask. And he analyzed carefully the answers. Joe was always cordial and the breadth of his knowledge convinced the interviewees that he was not some hack journalist trying for a sensational story. His interest in the subject was deep and sincere.

I guess it was sometime in 1985 that Joe learned of a new book coming out within a year. It was entitled The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The author, Richard Rhodes, was a fine, well-respected writer and a good researcher. Joe realized that by the time Forbidden City would come out in a year or two the subject would have been thoroughly covered by Rhodes. The project was dropped. I was disappointed, of course. But in 1986 when it was published, and I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I realized it had been a good decision. Rhodes’ book is still the finest and most complete work on the Manhattan Project.

Joe published two more books on murder cases, Blind Faith (1989) and Cruel Doubt (1991). In the early 1990s I was traveling extensively into the boondocks of the world - to Borneo, Siberia, South America, and Africa - documenting threatened wildlife and places. We did not communicate much in that period. Then, in 1995 Joe told me a publisher had given a huge advance to have him do a book on the O.J. Simpson trial. He got the only permanent journalists’ seat at the trial and day after day sat through it all. At the end, when O.J. was acquitted, he paid the $1 million dollar advance back to the publisher because he was so disgusted at the outcome of the trial. He could not write the book, he said, because the man was obviously guilty and what more could he say? I wonder how many other writers would have done the same.

I think it was sometime in the mid 1990s when I got another excited call from Joe. He had been looking around for a new project and Nancy suggested me! As Joe explained on the phone, I was the only person to have blown up a nuclear reactor deliberately, as a test, and gone on to save wilderness and wildlife as a photographer and writer. I was flattered, of course. But I was fearful. Joe could be brutally honest in his writings and who of us does not have something in our background that could be embarrassing if revealed? His second book, Heroes, was brutally honest about himself. It covered, in sometimes painful-to-read detail, the breakup of his first marriage after meeting Nancy. And there were other things about his private life that I could not have written about myself. And so I suggested to him that his doing a book about me might strain our good friendship. And besides, I argued, I’m not that interesting a subject.

After that I lost track of Joe. I was still traveling a lot. I learned later, via some long and detailed emails, that he went through a very bad bout of depression. But he also produced another book, The Miracle of Castel de Sangro, about an Italian soccer team from a small town that went from the very bottom of rankings to the top of the highest rankings and beat some of those superior teams. The book was mishandled in this country by his publisher and agent. But one European reviewer called it one of the finest books written on the sport. It gained popularity in many European countries.

I learned of Joe’s cancer last year when he emailed me. At first there seemed to be hope when he met an amazing doctor at the Mayo Clinic who had had success in treating a number of cases. But Joe wasn’t so lucky. The cancer won out.

 We will miss you my friend. There are not many good, honest writers/journalists left. You were one of the best.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely, honest tribute to your friend. May you be comforted by your fond memories of friendship. Rest in peace, Joe. Pam S