From his comprehensive biographies of glossy celebrities like Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson, New York Times bestselling author J. Randy Taraborrelli has become the literary world’s consummate Hollywood chronicler.
Check out more books on the Kennedys?
In the very first interview Taraborrelli has given on his latest work, After Camelot: A Personal History of the Kennedy Family 1968 to the Present, a continuation of the Kennedy family profile after 2000’s Jackie, Ethel, Joan, the author spoke to us about an affinity for the icons he profiles, his exacting writing process, why he won’t be writing a posthumous Whitney Houston biography and the details about a carefully shrouded project he’s just embarked upon.
You met Jackie Kennedy Onassis in a New York City elevator in 1985. Was that the start of your interest in the Kennedys?
I was always interested in the Kennedys from the age of 7, sitting at a desk with a portrait of President Kennedy on the wall behind me. The Kennedys were such an important part of my family’s interest in politics. I spent so many hours talking to my mother about the Kennedy women. My dad was always a great fan of Sargent Shriver. They have always been a personal interest and favorite of mine.
What kind of person do you think John F. Kennedy Jr. would be if he were alive today?
I definitely believe he would have a role in politics today. It’s possible that he would’ve run for senator in New York. He was just beginning to find himself when he died. Because he was the first son of Camelot, there was always a lot of pressure for him to do something significant with his life. But he seemed awkward at family functions. Everyone else was always doing something important whether it was politics or something else.
There was just a lot of political jockeying and human rights activities going on and John wasn’t involved in any of it. He was just working to distinguish himself and it was really difficult for him. George magazine became his contribution. It was a stepping-stone toward a career in politics. It was as if he was fleshing out his thoughts and feelings about people and politics and was using the magazine as a vehicle for that expression.
How different are the Kennedy women you profiled from the Kennedy men? What distinguishes them?
I thought it would be easier to paint the women. They stood by their husbands, but in terms of doing something significant in the political world like the men, they really didn’t.
When I wrote After Camelot, the unbelievable Eunice Kennedy Shriver was as much a Kennedy man as any Kennedy man! She was such an incredible wife and supported her husband in everything. She went full guns into exposing the masses to human retardation. She was such an amazing woman, it really made me take a different look at Kennedy women in general because of Eunice. She was a strong Kennedy person.
Why do you think that America continues to be so enamored with the Kennedys, whom you called the “royal family” of America?
I think that I can speak for America because of my own interests and my own feelings. There’s no wall between us and them. I’ve met many Kennedys over the years and despite their fame or their notoriety or their huge personas, at the end of the day, they remain a family and are subject to all of the same kinds of human weaknesses and foibles and victories and triumphs as any family.
I’ve always admired them for their ability to come together in times of crisis. Most of us in our families have had problems with drug addictions, infidelity, tragic deaths, things like that, and their experiences are very near to our own. Their stories are our own stories.
It was your mother Rose’s idea that you write about the women of Camelot (Jackie, Ethel, Joan). What would she say about this continuation of the family saga?
It would make her happy that what I’ve tried to do with my career is something different. I don’t like to write about somebody I don’t have a great personal affection for. I’ve built my career writing about people I really love. I have found it is very easy to be objective about someone you care about. My mom and I used to talk about my career in the early days. I never wanted to be a kind of Kitty Kelley kind of biographer.
I have developed a bond with my readers that they know they’re going to be happy with the journey when they read my books. This is something that my mom and I talked about a lot—to help the reader come to a better understanding of a person that you really love.
Knowing that the Kennedys traditionally avert media coverage, how difficult was it to conduct the research necessary for this family biography?
If you’ve been around long enough, you will be able to cover all the bases. I was meeting and interviewing the Kennedys decades before I thought to write about them. All of my books have tied together the Kennedy saga. These books are constantly in development. I’ve stockpiled so many experiences and interviews, that when it’s time to write the book, I can go back and see which apply.
The Kennedy Library was a fantastic resource. They don’t block you. They don’t ask you a lot of questions about your research. The LBJ library [Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum] was great as well. I think that history is not about preventing writers from writing books, it’s to assist writers in writing books.
How do the Kennedys stack up against some of the other celebrities you’ve profiled like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson?
Those other people were entertainers. Jackie, Ethel and Joan, for instance, were not. I found that people are people. Public figures have the same kind of pressures and the same kind of problems as anyone else, and they deal with them in the same ways, whether successfully or not.
They’ve done what they could with the cards they’ve been dealt. That’s true of all of my subjects. And I get to choose my own subjects, so it’s a luxury.
Can you treat us to a sneak peek into your next project, your 17th book? Whitney Houston perhaps?
I conducted my first interview with Whitney in 1985, and those were the fun years, but now, I think to write about the last 10 years of her life would be so depressing, so no, I can’t do that. I mean, the key would be how to make those 10 years compelling enough that readers would want to read more.
With my new project, while I can’t tell you what it is, I can tell you that it’s about another powerful family, it spans a good 50 years about that family, and they’re not in show business. And I’m amazed so far. It’s really coming along great.