ABC News revealed Thursday that it had flirted with a “dynamite” story about a supposed affair between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, only to find that the documentary evidence behind the story was fake.
But on the theory that when you get a lemon you should make lemonade, ABC’s “20/20" broadcast a segment Thursday evening on the story behind the fake documents.
Although the program teased the viewer about the possibility that the former president paid Monroe to keep quiet about their supposed affair, ABC anchor Peter Jennings went on to say that experts had found the story was not true.
A key document--supposedly a contract between Kennedy and Monroe to pay her mother $600,000--was found to be a “blatant” forgery written on a model of typewriter that first appeared eight years after Kennedy’s death.
“We’re disappointed that these documents proved to be false. It would have been quite a story if true,” said ABC News President David Westin. But the network then turned the story around, he explained, into a “detective story about what appears to have been a major forgery case.”
The network got the Kennedy papers when Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh proposed a documentary on Kennedy that would appear about the same time as his book “The Dark Side of Camelot,” set for publication later this year.
Hersh had been given the papers, which were said to be from the files of Lawrence X. Cusack, a prominent New York City lawyer. Cusack died in 1985 but his son, Lawrence X. Cusack II, told Hersh and ABC reporters that his father had worked secretly for the Kennedy family.
Hersh had been checking on the authenticity of the papers but such forensic evidence about document authenticity can be expensive and take time. When ABC paid more than $2 million to a colleague of Hersh’s, Mark Obenhaus, to produce the show, the network also began putting money into further verification of the documents.
Some of Hersh’s critics have charged that the reporter who broke such stories as the My Lai Massacre in 1968 was too willing to believe that these documents were real.
Robert Sam Anson, who has written what insiders say is a critical piece on Hersh for Vanity Fair magazine’s November issue, said of the documents: “One of Sy’s great strengths is once he finds he’s been going down the wrong path, he turns around on a dime, and that’s commendable.
“However,” Anson added, “it would have been a lot more commendable if he’d had this change of heart two years earlier.”
Such talk irritates Jennings, he said shortly before the program was broadcast.
“The notion that ABC sort of saved Sy on this thing is, I think, not fair,” he said. He added that ABC’s contract with Hersh and Obenhaus required the network to continue investigating the validity of the documents.
“What happened was that in the course of doing a book, this came, it looked like terrific stuff,” Hersh said Thursday. “I got excited by it. I checked it out, found out it wasn’t good and went on. That’s what I do for a living. I sometimes believe in the tooth fairy too, but I don’t write about it.”
Within ABC now, there is some private grumbling that Hersh and the fake documents have made network executives scramble to explain how a dynamite story exploded in their faces. Thursday night’s program, in fact, lays most of the blame on Cusack, the lawyer’s son who was paid $25,000 as a consultant on the planned ABC documentary.
The 20/20 segment said investors had paid almost $4 million for documents supposed to belong to Cusack’s father.
Cusack could not be reached Thursday. At the end of the ABC program that refutes many of the statements Cusack had told the network, Cusack told Jennings: “We’re working on new developments. I have no comments. OK? If you, if you want to air your show, you’ll hear from me after the show.”
ABC’s investigators determined that, although handwriting experts called the documents “the best they had ever seen,” one bearing a ZIP code was dated 1961, a year before ZIP codes were used.
Jennings said the network still plans to broadcast the documentary.
“It is our hope and our plan to air a documentary sometime this year on John Kennedy, based in part but not entirely on what Sy Hersh and his colleagues have done but also on work being done by people from ABC,” said Westin. “But like all such programs, we don’t make a decision until we see it.”