“Kate Middleton: A Kennedy?”Vanity Fair tweeted on April 1, linking to a story that purported to uncover a genealogical link between the princess-to-be and the Kennedy family. The story was based on a “never-before-seen” photograph of a little girl (who looks nothing like Middleton) sailing with Teddy Kennedy.
The April Fool’s story was a nicely executed satire of the magazine’s preoccupation with America’s own royalty, but Vanity Fair has published equally ridiculous stories with a straight face—most recently, a book excerpt from an opportunistic old girlfriend of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s that recounted a harrowing kayaking expedition in Jamaica. (“It was then that the danger we had been in really hit me. John was afraid. I had never seen him like this—not skiing down a run in a whiteout in Jackson Hole or nearly colliding with a gray whale in Baja.”) The story—“Love on the Edge”—implied that John-John’s wild ways with a paddle foreshadowed his tragic death.
In the past seven months, the magazine has published four additional articles related to the Kennedys. November’s “Marilyn and her Monsters” included a diary passage describing JFK and his brother-in-law. The January issue excerpted a passage from Greg Lawrence’s recent book Jackie as Editor. The February issue dedicated more than 6,000 words to Kennedy’s inauguration, uncovering groundbreaking material like: JFK felt fat, he had a “dark tan” attained in Florida, and ate “broiled bacon” for breakfast. The May issue includes an Annie Leibovitz portrait of the Shriver family, with a lengthy caption listing the subjects’ accomplishments. Vanity Fair, as even an occasional reader could tell you, has got a thing for the Kennedys.
But just how far does the obsession go? I had an instinct it ran deep, but rarely has an investigation—inspired by a hunch—proved so satisfying. According to my count, roughly one-third of the issues of Vanity Fair since 2003 have contained at least one article about a Kennedy, written by a Kennedy, or mentioning a Kennedy at least seven times. The last category includes stories like “Camelot’s Second Lady,” about Washington doyenne Susan Mary Alsop—“J.F.K.’s favorite Georgetown hostess”—or the career-destroying “Kennedy curse” imposed upon comedian Mort Sahl for daring to insult the family. There was also the feature about Italian industrialist and playboy Gianni Agnelli—who, the story didn’t fail to mention, Jackie “wanted to marry”—as well as a profile of Kenneth Battelle, Jackie’s hairdresser. Then there were several columns by Dominick Dunne about his feud with Robert Kennedy. (Robert accused Dunne of orchestrating a media frenzy leading to the wrongful conviction of his cousin for the murder of a Greenwich teenager.) The ongoing Dunne-Kennedy spat didn’t prohibit Robert from penning a few stories for VF, including one in May 2007 about his “lifelong love of falconry.” This list leaves out many stories that mention the Kennedys only fleetingly.
For comparison’s sake, look at how the coverage stacks up next to that of other political-celebrity personalities. Since Michelle Obama became first lady, Jackie has merited more attention—20 mentions to Michelle’s 19. Since August 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, searching for “Kennedy” in VF in Nexis yields twice as many results as searching for “Palin.” The “politics” section of VanityFair.com has a header for “The Kennedys”—an entire digital section devoted to political figures who are, save a few, no longer alive. Surely readers looking for political coverage would rather find, oh, say, a tab marked, “Presidential election 2012”?
Of course, it’s only natural that a society glossy like Vanity Fair would chronicle the Kennedy clan, and no magazine is obliged to provide diverse and varied content. For a magazine of highbrow celebrity gossip, Camelot is as good a subject as any. (I’ll admit that I, too, occasionally like reading about the Kennedys.) The new, buzzed about TV miniseries on the Reelz channel, The Kennedys, is a testament to their enduring popularity. As Graydon Carter, the magazine’s editor, explained to me in an e-mail: “[T]heir epic story is not without its narrative arc, as they say in Hollywood. And they are the totemic figures of the last great years of the American Century. That they were all pretty easy on the eyes, certainly doesn’t hurt.”
And then, there’s the family’s straightforward commercial appeal. Kennedy coverage sells. The 1999 Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy cover, following her tragic death, sold 640,816 copies on newsstands, the third best-selling issue in VF history (following Tom, Katie, and Suri Cruise at 713,776, and post-Brad Jennifer Aniston at 738,929). Even without the morbid boost of a fresh tragedy, Kennedy covers fares well. The October 2009 Jackie cover sold 437,000 issues, beating out both Gisele (281,000) and President Obama (370,000) in 2010. Angelina Jolie seems to be the only star with enough power to consistently outsell the family—her most recent cover sold 512,507.
But however much the Kennedys appeal to cash-strapped publishers, there’s at least a stirring of discontent with the perpetual presence of America’s royalty. In VF’s letter pages Natalie Mast, an Australian reader, asked after the October 2009 Jackie cover: “How many more never-before-seen photos can there be? … On behalf of your international audience and those born after the 1960s, I ask you please end this obsession and find new stories to tell.” Another reader put the editors’ perpetual nostalgia more bluntly: “[M]embers of the ’60s crowd are still running the show and do not realize that the world has moved on.”
Given newsstand sales, however, it’s likely that these objectors are outliers. And, with the ever-present swan song for print media sounding loudly in journalistic circles, it’s hard to begrudge a magazine anything that sells. But that’s an excuse I’d hope wouldn’t extend to a magazine as prominent and—if you go back far enough—as renowned as Vanity Fair. A famously cutting writer for this magazine once put it this way: “A quarter of a century after it folded’’—VF existed for two decades in the early twentieth century, then was re-launched in the ’80s—“Cleveland Amory called it ‘America’s most memorable magazine,’ and only a curmudgeon would quarrel with that accolade.” That TNR writer went on to chronicle the magazine’s hapless reinvention in the ’80s, but he held out hope for his ideal—an ideal that isn’t worth abandoning. While most people toil away at their desks, those lucky enough to write for a living are supposed to show readers the best of what they’ve collected. It’s true that the Kennedys make for reliably good stories. But it cannot be true that the tale of the Kennedys is so frequently worth telling to the exclusion of other American narratives, even if they are “pretty easy on the eyes.”
Eliza Gray is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.