. . . Laurence Leamer
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
LARRY LEAMER IS FROM the first generation of Peace Corps Volunteers and the first generation of Peace Corps writers and one of the more successful writers from our ranks.
A professors son, he went to Antioch College in Ohio, and stood on Pennsylvania Avenue on the frigid January morning in 1961 when John Kennedy rode to the White House after being sworn in as President. That marked the beginning for him of a long connection with the Kennedy family.
He has now, with the publication of Sons of Camelot, written three books about the family, and is one of the leading authorities on the Kennedys past, present, and future. We caught up with Larry recently to talk about his new book, his history with the Kennedys, and the Peace Corps.
Where are you from, Larry?
I was born in Chicago where my father was a professor at the University of Chicago. I attended a tough south side elementary school, until fifth grade when we moved to upstate New York where I entered a two-room school.
What was your Peace Corps country?
I was in Nepal from sixty-four to sixty-six.
When did you start writing?
In graduate school. I was a student studying international development at the University of Oregon. The first piece I ever wrote was for Old Oregon, the alumni magazine, about what it was like being a returned Volunteer and an anti-war activist. I then took a course in magazine writing and talked my way on to George Wallaces campaign plane in the fall of 1969 when he made his first trip north. I wrote an article and submitted it cold to The New Republic and The Nation. They both accepted it, and The New Republic published it, and I was on my way.
Have you written much about Nepal?
I wrote about the country in Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Legendary Mountaineer Willi Unsoeld.
I also lived in Peru for two years and wrote a novel about drug trafficking.
Tell us something about the writing of the Unsoeld book.
It was tough in many ways. I was absolutely broke going through a divorce with $500 to my name. I started out idealistically working with Jolene, Willis widow. I spent months researching and learning about Willi, climbing the Grand Teton, the mountain on which he guided, living on credit cards. After many months when I wrote a book proposal, something like ten publishers were interested. At that moment Jolene said that she couldnt deal with me writing the book and I would have to forsake the project. I went out to visit the family and she started hyperventilating at one point. I went ahead.
Actually she ended up in Congress, where she made some notable contributions.
Willi Unsoeld was Country Director in Nepal and was a legendary Peace Corps figure. A number of people have written about him. Coates Redmon writes at length about Willi in her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. What was your experience with Unsoeld?
I make the point in my book that he was an immense figure, a compelling charismatic figure, but he was not that good as a Peace Corps director. He just wanted to get up in those mountains. The man who replaced him, George Zeidenstein, had a hell of a pair of shoes to fill but he did it and you know what he made Peace Corps/Nepal more serious and valuable.
About your novel, Assignment. You were living in Peru when you wrote it, right? Was that after the Peace Corps?
Yes. My then wife was working for USAID in Lima helping to develop the educational system and later for Project Hope in northern Peru. I got to know one of the biggest coke dealers and the DEA officer trying to bust him. I used that experience as the basis of the novel.
After the novel, did you just decide that non-fiction was what you would rather do?
The reviews were mixed for Assignment and it didnt sell that well, though it did in its British edition. In retrospect, I should have written a non-fiction book. It would have been a killer, though this was the late seventies and I was a little ahead of the curve on the subject.
Do you think it is harder to make things up or to research a subject?
For either one the essence is in the details. Im compulsive about getting those tiny, telling details right. Its like writing itself. I want my books to appear effortless, so you dont even realize all the work that has gone into making it read as well as it does. You dont jump up and down shouting what great reading. Youre engrossed in the drama on the page.
You have published nine books of non-fiction, everything from the music of Nashville to several books on the Kennedys. How do you go about finding a subject and researching that subject. Take you book on Ingrid Bergman, for example what was the research and writing like on that book.
Its absolutely crazy, but I like to jump around. When I did my book The Kennedy Women that was the number two New York Times bestseller, I could have gotten a fortune to do a biography of Jackie Onassis. I didnt want to do it, and instead traveled to Nashville where I knew absolutely nobody to write a book about country music. I had become a fan when I was working in a coal mine in West Virginia.
Ingrid Bergman was fascinating. I met Fellini, interviewed Ingmar Bergman, traveled to Sweden, Italy, many places, a complex, dramatic life.
Did you join the Peace Corps because of Kennedy? Were you one of the Kennedy Kids?
I was one of the Kennedy kids, but I had my youthful priorities right and I wanted to have lots of sex. I swear.
I was a history major and my closest friend and I went to the college library and studiously researched the Peace Corps countries, learning where we might have the best sex life. I read an old book about Nepal that said it was the custom to offer the visitor the most attractive woman in the village. I know this all sounds terribly sexist and repulsive, but remember its 1964, and I know Im probably going to feminist hell. Anyway, I figured Id spend my two years traveling from village to village.
Id like to catch the bastard who wrote that book. It was two years of celibacy. At the end of two years at our final conference, I said that I thought that when we arrived some of us had been extremely idealistic, others like myself had come in part because we wanted to have great adventures. But now the idealists had been sobered and the adventurers understand the value of helping others, and we left Nepal as realistic idealists all of us did.
Are you still in touch with your Peace Corps group?
Were having Good God our fortieth reunion of Nepal Four this summer in Wyoming. I cant believe it. 1964. Its the best group of people Ive even been involved with in my life. Nothing comes close. They were the most varied in background, educations, interests and they were and are simply amazing. Almost all of them have done socially useful things. Im merely a writer. Lloyd is blind and he brought an illuminating concern for that disability to Nepal. Suzanne works for the Gates Foundation aiding health projects in Asia. George is gone now but he was one amazing third grade teacher. Kitty serves our country in the Foreign Service in China.
You have written three Kennedy books? What has been the reception to them from the extended Kennedy family?
Well lets see. I had dinner with one of them two nights ago, and weve become friends. On the other hand theres one family member who hates me and tries in every way she can to make my life difficult.
Of all the Kennedys men and women who is the most fascinate one?
Eunice Kennedy Shriver is one of the great women of the twentieth century, but you know her husband is one of the great men. One day Willi Unseold, the Peace Corps Nepal director, came to my village. The year before he had climbed Everest and lost his toes. He asked my students why they thought he had climbed Everest. The smartest boy in class jumped up and said Sir, you climbed Everest because you want to be famous. Ah, but Im not famous, Willi said. Sir Edmund Hillary is famous and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is famous, but Im not famous. The little boy jumped up again. Ah but sir, you are famous to us. Ill always remember that. Sarge never became president and hes not exactly a household word, but hell always be famous to us.
Tell us a little about the other books you have written.
Lets see. I think of each book as an adventure, a life in itself allowing me in a voyeuristic way to live a number of lives. The Paper Revolutionaries: The Rise of the Underground Press was my first book. It was about the underground press. I had just come from one desperately unhappy year as an associate editor at Newsweek writing about foreign affairs. When I got a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund to write not a book but nothing more than a quasi academic pamphlet, I went to work for Liberation News Service, the politically radical voice of the movement. After that I traveled around the country staying at times with the underground press editors, getting to know them. I handed in a substantive enough report that it became a book.
Playing for Keeps: In Washington was my second book about how power affects people in Washington. I didnt have much of a name but I was able to interview everybody in the book from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld. That was fascinating stuff and taught me a valuable lesson people want to talk.
Make-Believe: The Story of Nancy and Ronald Reagan was the first book about the Reagans to explore the cultural Hollywood roots of Reagan. I dont know how I did that book in six months, but it still holds up and some people say its their favorite book about the Reagans.
I got interested in country music when I was working in a coal mine in West Virginia, and I headed down to Nashville knowing nobody. In Three Chords and the Truth: Hope and Heartbreak and Changing Fortunes in Nashville I got almost everybody big and small to talk to me. I spent a month traveling around Europe with Emmy Lou Harris and her awesome band on her bus. I did something on that one Ive never done before or since. I let the principals read their parts of the book. No one had any major changes at all, in fact I dont think there was a single change. But when the book came out, Nashville exploded. You couldnt even read the book in public. It was that controversial. I learned a valuable lesson: the truth has few friends.
Do you have an idea for your next book?
Im writing a biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger right now. After that I have no idea.
Where do you live now?
I live in Florida and Washington, DC though for the past months Ive been out in California writing the Schwarzenegger biography.
One final question. What do you think is the legacy of the Peace Corps? Is it only in the experiences of Americans living overseas? Does it have any lasting value?
Just look at my group alone and see how the world is a better place because of them. I was at our last reunion at Lake Tahoe in July of 1999. Some of these people dont have that much money, and actually we rarely even saw each other in Nepal, but almost everybody was there. I brought my daughter and her fiancé because I wanted them to know and understand these people.
My daughter after graduating from Swarthmore spent a year in Costa Rica teaching with World Teach, a Peace Corps-like organization. And shed met Antonio there, a Spanish engineer.
While at the reunion, I got a call one morning from NBC saying that John Kennedy Jrs plane was down. I didnt realize it but I was live on national television talking about John. MSNBC hired me as a commentator and I left in the middle of the reunion. I wanted to talk about the good things that John and his family had done. I didnt pretend I knew him. And I was the only talking head not to be criticized.
Anyway, afterwards I wrote a letter to Sarge. I knew how badly the family was taking it. And I talked about our reunion and I said how Suzanne had worked in Asia in the health field and gone to work at Gates when it was only a couple of people, and how she was changing lives, and people would live longer, and healthier lives because of her. And I said that she knew how to do her job so well because of the Peace Corps. And I said that in any hierarchy of goodness, the highest level is when we dont even know the good that we are doing. And I said Sarge, you dont even know about Suzanne, or about what shes doing, but if not for you she wouldnt be there. Thats true of the Peace Corps too. Okay, we dont have a president yet, but we will, and our imprint and concerns are everywhere in America and the world.
But I have to tell you that Sarge replied immediately to my letter. He brushed past my attempt at eloquence and wanted to know how he could get hold of some of those Gates billions to further Special Olympics. Now thats the Peace Corps spirit.